Let’s label this ministry as: “Hi homeless friend! Would you like some breakfast?”
On Saturday, I (Gary) go to the local grocer and buy a kilo of local farmer’s cheese and a couple of loaves of bread and big bottles of iced tea. Then I make up sandwiches for 20 or 25 people, gather paper cups, 2-3 New Testaments in a simplified version, maybe some clothes.
On the street around 7am, I leave the car in a parking lot and head out with a jammed-full backpack. I take safety precautions, but since I go out early, most of them are still docile after their Saturday night. The street people migrate from one spot to another, so they aren’t necessarily where I last left them. It takes a second for the brain to register, That pile of rags is a man; that cardboard box is someone’s house.
(NOTE: I used to take a few pictures with people, but now do not; I wonder whether I would be dehumanizing people more than necessary if I took “here- am-being-generous!” selfies)
Wherever I see a cluster of people I stop and ask, Would you like some breakfast? I used to ask, “Are you hungry?”, but I switched my phrasing in order to preserve some of their dignity. Everyone gets a sandwich, maybe a second for lunch if there are extras.
Then it’s: Let’s see what I have today: we have some nice clean socks, or maybe underwear, or a shirt. (But never money). They respond very happily, and seem to have a group code for who is needier and thus who gets what. Then: May I sit with you for a few minutes? These people too often get the message that they are not fully human, and I want to spend some time just talking. Won’t you tell me about yourself? We chat, between the men anyway, in the Costa Rican fashion: I shake hands, and occasionally touch them on the forearm or the shoulder. As a wise person recently said, our dealings with the poor must be done “looking them in the eyes and touching their hands” because “tossing money and not looking in [their] eyes is not a Christian” way of behaving.
In Costa Rica there is none of the prickliness about religion that one finds in the USA; I always say, “My name is Gary, and so you know why I’m here today, I’m a servant of Jesus Christ” and I point heavenward. Smiles, nods, “Amens” and “Gracias a Dios” are their responses. They are pleased to get a New Testament. Some will even pray for me or quote me Bible verses!
It is easy to question the value of visiting my homeless acquaintances. It’s only a few times a month! What about the other days? What will they do for dinner? What about the hundreds of San José street dwellers you didn’t help? How does this mitigate the long-term problems of drug abuse and mental illness? Am I being an enabler?
The temptation is to kill an idea with a list of objections, or as it’s also known, “death by a thousand paper cuts.” My goal is to avoid overthinking it and to rest on: I do not need to fix the world this week; but here are a couple of dozen people who will eat better and have warmer clothes and have an outsider look at them as if they really were human and to have it all clearly connected to the name of Jesus.
My part-time ministries include being a consultant for Bible translation; writing a new book; talking with street people. My work philosophy is: to do full justice to my main ministry (teaching and writing and blogging about the New Testament) for most of the time; to do other ministries part-time. Feeding a few street people not only helps me to be more well-rounded as a Christian, but also as a Bible teacher.
(Note: There is a video titled “Homeless People of San Jose Costa Rica” on YouTube that might be of interest to you; warning – the video is graphic and not suitable for the kids!)