Sunday, January 20, 2008
Under the Overpass...
"Under the Overpass" is a simple book that changed the way I think in many ways. It is an account of two young college guys who decide to be "homeless" for a year in five major U.S. cities. During their year "under the overpass" they document the responses received by those with whom they cross paths. This simple book changed the way I see, and respond to, the homeless and destitute around us. Since reading that book, I have stopped ignoring homeless people. I challenge you, too, to stop pretending the scruffy guy outside of Safeway doesn't exist. He does. In fact, he is created in God's image. That could mess with your theology a little.
In the mid-90's, I met 19 year-old Zero. Zero's real name was Jimmy. I met him while serving breakfast to the homeless in Avery Park, a well-known local park. It was a Friday morning, and I was visiting with Zero, asking about his family and his life...how he ended up in Corvallis, Oregon. He told me he didn't get along well with his father, experimented with drugs, and had now found himself on his own, with no resources.
I asked him where he lived and he said his home was under the overpass just north of the park. Being curious and somewhat adventurous, I asked him if he would show me where he spent his nights. He was more than happy to share this part of his life with another human being, so we took off walking towards downtown Corvallis, across the railroad yard, and up the brush-covered side of the Highway 20/34 overpass.
Zero moved aside a grimy piece of plywood, and there was a dark tunnel entrance in the dirt about four feet across. He went in head-first and immediately disappeared. I promptly decided I had made a serious mistake. I wasn't going into the hole. I heard him shout my name from inside the hole and decided that I could be a coward and risk ending this new friendship, or I could enter the unknown. I entered the Twilight Zone.
As I slid through total darkness in this dirty tunnel under the highway, I seriously considered my sanity. What was I doing in a dirty hole under the highway? I was a respectable school teacher with a wife and children! I even attended church on Sundays! After what seemed like an eternity, I noticed some light, and eventually entered a small cave, directly under the median line of the highway! There was carpet covering the dirt floor, shelves carved into the dirty walls holding lighted candles, and various personal items scattered about the small room.
Entering that little home under the overpass gave entrance into the tumultuous life of Zero. From then on, he would occassionally stop by our home, have a meal and play with our son, Jonathan. We would meet at the park for breakfast, and visit downtown near the river. Eventually, Zero found his way to our church and, most importantly he made peace with his Creator.
Zero eventually returned to his New York home and restored relationship with his family. I lost touch with him for some time, only to find out a couple of years ago that his old demons had eagerly returned and had finally snuffed out his life. My friend was far too young to die.
Being involved with Zero changed me in some small ways. I took a few steps towards those on the margins of society during my time with him. Then, as is often the case, the pressures of family, job, and outside interests pulled me away from those who live ignored lives under the overpass. The aforementioned book brought me back to memories of Zero and my desire to extend a hand to those in need.
As I stopped ignoring the homeless and needy, something began to change within me. I no longer wanted to just buy a bag of food for the guy outside of Safeway. I wanted to visit and talk, hear their stories, and give some respect to the ones with whom Jesus would likely be spending his time. I wanted to bring others with me so they could experience the unique pleasure that comes from serving another without hope of recompense.
That brings us to Friday night, January 18, 2008...New experience #2 for January. A group of 42 students and adults left for Portland at 4:30 pm Friday afternoon to partner with BridgeTown Ministries in showing the love of God to the homeless of Portland under the Burnside Bridge. After a brief meeting in a storefront across from the Portland Rescue Mission, we walked a couple of blocks through Portland's old town to the Burnside Bridge.
There, we set up barber chairs, foot washing stations, clothing give-away stations, and tables for distributing and eating meals. And, they came. They came expectantly, hoping for some kind conversation, warm soup, maybe a haircut or a new pair of clean socks.
I saw things I had never seen before...I had never seen one of my 8th grade students kneeling on the ground, visiting and washing the feet of a rough-looking homeless man. I had never seen several of our cute, clean, blond senior girls carefully and cheerfully grooming the greasy hair of some of Portland's street residents. I had never seen previously shy high students confidently approaching some scary looking street people simply to be a friend to them. It was remarkable in many ways. Every single participant shared how much they enjoyed the evening.
Over the last few weeks, I have been considering why it is such a deep pleasure to wash the dirty little hands of children on the second Tuesday of the month when we volunteer at Southside Youth Outreach. Why is it that a sense of deep satisfaction washes over me when I buy a meal for a down-and-outer? Why would I rather be freezing under the bridge on a Friday evening when I could be at a first-run movie, or warmly tucked in my chair at home? Why are there so many people in our churches who are unfulfilled and dissatisfied?
I won't say I have all the answers; but, I do think that I am beginning to understand a little about why serving others is so rewarding. First off, I do believe that the Bible is true. I will also say that some of our cultural interpretations of the truth contained in the Book are likely not really what God meant. The Book says that we are made in God's image. Either that is true or it is false. I believe it is true. There is a difference between me and a slimy, though interesting banana slug.
If we look at the core of the Gospel; that Jesus came to earth to redeem sinful man, we see the incarnation of God dwelling among sinful man. We see Emmanual, that is, "God with us." We see the greatest story ever told echoing throughout eternity, pounding into the hearts of men. God cares. He loves us. He sees our sin and He loves us. In spite of my weakness He loves me. He loves me. He loves me. We cannot escape it.
At the center of God's nature is His desire and plan to meet my need for redemption; a need that I cannot meet on my own. The coming of Jesus Christ and the cruel death He died on the cross demonstrates that God wants to meet my need. He laid aside His own comfort in order to meet my need. In forgetting His own comfort, and reaching down to man, He provided to us a picture of who He is.
When we put aside our own comfort and do what we can to meet the needs of another, we are reflecting the very nature of God. Created in His image, we are actually functioning in the purpose for which we were created. That is reason we are so satisfied when serving others.
Under the overpass is one of my favorite places.