Saints of the Streets

“Lost people matter to God, and so they must matter to us.”
– Keith Wright

Have you ever prayed with a stranger? On the streets of New York City and surrounding Metro area, a committed group of humble servants are doing it every single week. Through mobile outreach, these urban missionaries work tirelessly in the field, putting themselves squarely among  those in need; the destitute, the unlucky, the vulnerable.

I first volunteered with NYC Relief on their “Don’t Walk By” outreach, and the experience has stayed with me in ways I can’t describe in mere words. This past December, I volunteered with them again, this time on the Relief Bus. It was, I believe, the coldest day of our winter; a Friday morning with temperatures in the 20s that felt like the teens. But freezing temperatures can’t, and never will, hinder the work of this incredible organization of people. If anything, the bone-chilling air that day seemed to redouble our efforts in distributing fresh hot soup, bread, fruit, hot chocolate, and friendly conversation at 125th street in East Harlem.

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In addition to food and beverages, Relief Bus volunteers provide clothing and hygiene kits upon request, while staffers and team leaders sit down one-on-one to arrange referrals and guidance for job training, shelter, addiction treatment, and medical care. The Relief Bus mission is – and I can’t stress this enough – a profoundly hospitable, welcoming, and personal one, as volunteers do much more than simply hand cups of soup to hungry people. It is, first and foremost, about engagement and interaction. We learn their names and they learn ours. We set up folding chairs and tables on the sidewalks so folks can sit and socialize, and the volunteers alternate between serving from the bus kitchen and joining folks in their meal; chatting, conversing, laughing, listening, telling stories, sharing memories, asking questions, or just sitting across from them with bread and soup in quiet companionship, if that is preferred.

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For me, the most transformative part of Relief service has been the prayer. Nobody who volunteers has to participate in this aspect, as individuals of all faiths, or no faith, serve with the Relief Bus and are not expected to do anything with which they are uncomfortable. But for those of us who do pray with Relief Bus visitors, the act of supplicating to God on their behalf enriches the spirit in untold ways. When a person enters the bus to collect a hygiene kit or item of clothing, we volunteers are there to greet them and ask if they would like to receive prayer. Some say “no, that’s fine. I’m good, thank you”. The majority say yes. What do poverty-stricken folks request for prayer? You’d be astonished at the breadth and depth and thoughtfulness of their appeals: “to get my children back” … “to find affordable housing” … “for the healing of our country and for everyone to love each other” … “treatment for my addiction” … “relief from my arthritis” … “for my grandmother in Puerto Rico who has Alzheimer’s” … “to be reunited with my family who have given up on me” … “for those suffering people in Syria and those poor children being bombed” … “for the end of bigotry” … “for my brother doing 25 to life in Attica” … “for all homeless people everywhere” … “to know my son again, he lives in Texas and we haven’t spoken in five years” … “to get a job because I’m able and willing to work” … “for the strength to break my bad habits” … “I’d like Psalm 23 please, if that’s ok?” .. and, in a few beautiful instances, requests of “can I pray for you? Can I pray for all of you on the Relief Bus who come here every week to serve us?” Of course you can pray for us. Of course. And they do.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.”
Psalm 23

The NYC Relief mission is not the stuff of wild-eyed ‘fire and brimstone’ preachers who terrorize people with judgment and condemnation. It is none of the heresies and idolatry being passed off as Christianity these days. This is love and mercy, kindness and compassion. This is the Gospel. This is the understanding that God is about restoration, renewal, hope, and comfort. This is letting people who feel forgotten know that they are not forgotten.

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A class of first graders in Elizabeth, New Jersey gathered hygiene kits, packaged them in individually designed bags they created, and donated them to the Relief Bus. Wonderful colors! You can see a photo of these smiling angels on this Instagram page.

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On my last two experiences volunteering with the Relief Bus, I had the great privilege to serve side-by-side with extraordinary volunteers of a church group from Indiana. They are in town as part of their Christian mission and their grace, warmth, good cheer, and work ethic were an absolute inspiration to me. Magnificent people. Their personal stories, like so many stories that define us Christians, were ones of a calling, of salvation, of redemption, stories that bring forth the kind of humility that enables true servants to feel deep empathy and relate to brokenness, fear, and imperfection in our fellow man and woman. Because sanctimony has no place in service. So to the volunteers who came all the way from Grace Church in Noblesville, it was a tremendous honor. Thank you. And I hope to see you all again!

One of my favorite photos from the NYC Relief Instagram page is this one, as it perfectly captures the volunteering experience with this outreach organization. It makes me teary eyed every time I look at it. But I recommend viewing the entire Instagram and its excellent photos and comments, or you can watch this terrific video on YouTube.

Thank you all for reading. I appreciate it 🙂

Advent

Waiting. Anticipation. Mystery. Hope. Redemption. Incarnation .. the themes associated with the season of Advent, which has just begun. The sight of the Advent wreath in my church on Sunday inspired me to take a photo after service to share with all of you. I also wanted to include our stained glass windows, which are truly radiant. To accompany the photo, I’m posting some words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer – theologian, Lutheran pastor, martyr. This is a portion of his famous “Overcoming Fear” sermon which he delivered in January of 1933 when Hitler was just coming to power, and an ominous climate of fear was very much in the air. Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis on April 9th, 1945.

Fear is breathing down our necks … Those who would try to keep up their pride, as if all this had nothing to do with them, as if they didn’t understand what it’s all about, would hardly be human. No one human could fail to understand what the people of the world have to be afraid of today.

But look here, right in the middle of this fearful world is a place that is meant for all time, which has a peculiar task that the world doesn’t under­stand. It keeps calling over and over but always anew, in the same tone, the same thing: Fear is overcome; don’t be afraid. In the world you are frightened. But be comforted; I have conquered the world! Christ is in the boat! And this place, where this kind of talk is heard and should be heard, is the pulpit of the church. From this pulpit the living Christ himself wants to speak, so that wherever he reaches somebody, that person will feel the fear sinking away, will feel Christ overcoming his or her fear.

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Soothing the Wounded Soul

Since the previous post generated thoughtful feedback about coping with news of our troubled world, the time seems right to share a video that I’ve kept bookmarked for a while. Trinity Grace Church brings us two figurative artists, Joshua LaRock and Michael Klein, who discuss their chosen roles in the art community, the responsibility they feel to celebrate beauty, grace, and humanity, and push back against some of the unfortunate effects brought on by postmodernism. Though the men espouse a Christian worldview, I think the video can be easily appreciated by anyone who is spiritual, artistic, or simply disillusioned with current societal trends and demoralizing cultural attitudes and longs for richer expressions of the soul among the arts. I was profoundly moved by the sentiments communicated so eloquently by these artists, set to scenes of them painting from a lovely life model. I think many of my readers, regardless of orientation, will take away something of value from this video. Cultural renewal is possible. We can choose to reaffirm life’s glory, mend brokenness, and resurrect positive ideals. Hope you enjoy 🙂