I had an opportunity yesterday that most people don’t have (or sometimes don’t want). I want to share it with you in case any of you want to join in on it with me. I got to sit in a trailer in Austin near UT with four missionaries from Sweden, Germany, and the USA, and with a bunch of homeless folks. From the outside, the trailer looked small and cramped but inside it was huge. A booth on one end like ones from Dairy Queen or Wataburger, a sink and food preparation area in the middle, and a bench seat on the other end. I got to sit and visit for hours with Kurt, Becky, and Guitar Marc in the booth while they ate Spicy Ramen Soup and had ice cream – while a dozen or so others came and went.
These few hours opened my eyes. I learned so much. It was like a fire hose attached to my eye sockets on full blast (but without the pain of course). While maybe only a small slice, I learned about their lives. I learned some of their vocabulary too. I want to forget everything I wrote in my last blog entry about panhandling, because I wrote it without ever having sat down with someone who is doing it.
They call it “Flying”. At first, I thought that was a term for taking drugs, but it is what they call it when they are on the street holding up a sign and asking for money – because they are ‘flying’ the sign. Not all of them go flying, but some do. These seem like very resourceful people in many ways.
They know where to go in town to find the best left over cigarette butts where others leave them partially unsmoked from being on hurried smoke breaks. They call this ’sniping’. They also know where to go to find clothes that people drop off at charities after hours. One day, one of them was hoping he could find a new t-shirt and he stumbled on an old semi-beat-up mp3 player/recorder. Him and a friend took it to a local music store and recorded some original music with the store’s guitars. I got to hear one of their recordings and it was awesome. The production quality was horrible, but who cares. The lyrics, the two guitars (lead and rhythm), and the fact that it was two homeless guys in a music store singing about their life stories made it priceless.
He just found out that one of his “flying” friends has a brain tumor and only has 6 months to live. So they spend time each week under a bridge in Austin with the little recorder recording his life stories so he will have something left behind to share with the world. He also plans to write some songs about his friend’s stories.
He used to work in customer support for a high tech company helping end-users with hardware problems. He said this is what enabled him to figure out how to use the mp3 recorder he found – although his eyesight is getting bad.
Looking back, there are lots of things I want to ask – like what caused the transition from high tech to homelessness. But I hope I get to continue to hang out with him and get to know each other better.
The ministry volunteers were saying that they mainly get “traveling homeless” or “gutter punks”. Right now, with it still being the end of summer, most of them aren’t here yet. But come some cooler weather in September, they will start seeing from 20 to 30 a day. It was refreshing to see their ministry style too. They aren’t the in-your-face-repent-or-go-to-hell type of guys. They are all about meeting people where they are at and building relationships. As the relationships develop, the people know that these missionaries are Christ followers – they can see Christ through them and at work in them – and then the non-believers or seekers start to want to know more.
I also learned a little bit about crime. One of the homeless guys who stopped by was telling me how unfortunate it is that some of the traveling homeless might resort to crime to get money – even go as far as mugging UT students in dark allies as they walk home alone at night. So here I was – almost in tears as I heard the amazing stories of one of these guys caring for his friend in his last 6 months of life – while at the same time – almost in fear or rage to hear about the almost certain upcoming muggings of students. But now it makes sense.
Why should I expect any different? These are people. And all people are broken and have baggage. They come from all walks of life. They have all sorts of various sets of values and morals and hopes and struggles. They are a cross-section of society. I could now care less about whether or not they are lazy. I and many others I know are too. It doesn’t bother me to know that they beg for their money. Many of us do too don’t we – isn’t the sucking up we do to our bosses or clients sometimes the same if not worse than begging? Sometimes we say that they are annoying. But aren’t there countless annoying people out there who have jobs and homes too? It doesn’t bother me to know that many of them might spend their money on drugs. Many of us spend our money on things we either don’t need or shouldn’t have and we certainly don’t want anyone telling us how to spend our money.
The artist called Lazyboy wrote and released a song about this called Underwear Goes Inside The Pants. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but I think he hits some truth.
We’re in one of the richest countries in the world
and the minimum wage is lower now than it was thirty-five years ago.
There are homeless people everywhere…
This homeless guy asked me for money the other day.
I was about to give it to him and then I thought
he’s just going to use it on drugs or alcohol.
And then I thought: “That’s what I’m going to use it on!”
“Why am I judging this poor bastard?”
People love to judge homeless guys.
Like if you give him the money he’s just going to waste it.
He’s going to waste the money.
Well, he lives in a box, what do you want him to do?
Save it up and buy a wall unit?
Take a little run to the store for a throw rug and a CD rack?
I walked behind this guy the other day.
A homeless guy asked him for money.
He looks right at the homeless guy and goes:
“Why don’t you go get a job, you bum?”
People always say that to homeless guys,
“Get a job”, like it is always that easy.
This homeless guy was wearing his underwear outside his pants.
I’m guessing his resume ain’t all up to date.
I’m predicting some problems during the interview process.
I’m pretty sure even McDonald’s has a “Underwear Go Inside The Pants” policy.
Not that they enforce it really strictly, but technically,
I’m sure it is on the books.
I’m not at all saying I think it is great that they are homeless or on the street corners or having to beg for money. But I’m also realizing that it can’t be up to me to decide what is the best way of life for someone. Who am I to say that people shouldn’t stand on corners and ask for money? Who am I to say how they should spend that money? Just because it might annoy me or make me awkward while I’m walking down the street or stopped at a light in my car, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen. I don’t recall anything in the Bible that says, “thou shalt not beg for money or bother others”. But I do recall that it says to love my neighbor.
Each of us has to decide who our neighbors are and what it means to love them. To me, my neighbors are people who I come in contact with which pretty much includes most of Austin. It includes anyone sitting in the same room as me, anyone I pass on the street, anyone I drive by on my way to somewhere else. I take neighbor to mean the people around me. Some go farther and believe that it means all of humanity – which even drives them to go serve people in other countries. I can’t disagree with that, but for me, I still feel like it means the people physically around me. I’m not sure yet what all it means to love them.
My gut feeling tells me that to love them means to put their needs before my own. But I’m not even sure what that exactly means sometimes. It can’t mean to give them all of my money. It can’t mean to sell all of my furniture and lay down blankets for as many as possible to sleep under my air conditioning. Or can it? The only way I know to figure that out is to take one step at time – and continue to pray and listen to God along the way. I believe that the first most important steps any of us can take to love anyone is to get to know them – to build relationships – to listen – to understand. Without that step, anything else we come up with might likely miss the mark and do more harm than good.
I wondered how does God come into this? I believe that the only way for any of us to connect with and pursue our deepest desires and be truly fulfilled and satisfied is if we follow Christ. It seems pretty well proven that if we try to do it on our own, that we eventually screw it all up. One of my first thoughts when I met all of these folks, was how do we get them to follow Christ. Then I recalled something I heard Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, say once. He said that getting people to follow Christ was like setting them up on a blind date. We introduce them to God and the rest is up to Him. That’s cool, because if it was up to me, I’d screw it up for sure. After the initial blind date, God will continue to use us and work through us to reveal Himself more and more to others. Taking this analogy further – people have to be willing to go on the blind date. I believe this happens when they see what all God is doing in our lives and see our relationship at work with Him – all sometimes without us having to say a word about it.
In addition to getting to know them and understand them (and allowing them to get to know me), I’m working on two other things now and I’d love for any of you who might be interested to contact me and get involved. One is that there seems to be an opportunity for an awesome homeless record label of sorts. A lot of these folks seem to be musicians and they have amazing stories to tell and sing about. I suppose it might be more than a label and could include written and spoken word as well as music. So I’m on a quest now to find a studio, other musicians, and maybe a music attorney to get involved and come up with ideas. I’m thinking about helping them release their material both as CDs they can sell and also have available as downloads (with a portion maybe from the downloads going back to the ministry). Maybe it can be an annual compilation CD that raises money for socks and blankets for the winter – or Ramen soup – or whatever. Maybe it even includes art and photography and putting videos on YouTube (as long as it is all for the right reasons). I don’t see any of them becoming the next American Idol (nor would I ever wish such harm on anyone), but I do see some possibility of working as a collective group to create value to the community (and even international community).
Another aspect of this is that I really feel that college age students in Austin could join together and serve a ministry like this. Many come from high school church youth groups and get to college without the community they were once used to. By serving together, they can create community for themselves, learn more than any class can teach about humanity, and help others – basically love their neighbors. Other students may come from a background of not knowing anything about Christ or anything about their purpose in life – and the best way to figure all of that out is to invest in others.
So hit me back with any ideas or requests to get involved. Or, whether you agree with any of this or disagree with all of it, please leave comments below.