Early last year, I began going to the McDonald's by my home every Wednesday when they opened at 5:30AM. I would go simply out of convenience, for a place to sit before my weekly 6:30AM meeting. My routine would be to get a large tea, read my Bible and practice my scripture memorization until I had to leave.
I began to notice there always seemed to be a number of homeless people who congregated there. The longer I sat, the more their numbers would grow. I noted their different techniques of asking for money or food, and always cigarettes. After the first two Wednesdays, I found my heart drawn to these new people in my life. I made it my personal goal to learn each one of their stories. My findings are as follows: not one of them was from Peoria, the city in which they are in. All but one was from at least two hours away. They all had been diagnosed with some form of mental disorder. They all had great hurt as a result of family they didn't talk to anymore. They all had addictions that took the majority of what funds they attained. Every woman had a check that came once a month for over $1000 that would be gone within one week.
At first, after hearing their stories and getting to know them, I sincerely tried to help them. I didn't give them money because I didn't want to contribute to their addictions, but I would try to get them job training, give them rides, resources that would help them, buy them food, and even started a Bible study with them. After months of trying to help them out of their situation I began to notice some things. Every one of my new friends seemed to have no aspiration of getting out of their situation. They were... comfortable? Yes, they were comfortable in their daily routine because it was familiar to them. Also, every little issue seemed to be a grand emergency and quickly elevated to crisis mode as I received phone calls at 12:30AM because one of them walked to East Peoria and was now too tired or cold to walk back. Or calling me six times in a day while I work all my jobs and take care of my family to pick up a broken refrigerator six miles away in my truck and take it to the recycling center so they can cash it in. They did not seem to care about my family, sleep, schedule, or anything really. They would see their immediate situation and want me to drop everything to help them with one of their many daily crises.
The last straw was when my wife and I brought home our new son. Less than 24 hours home from the hospital I received a phone call. After a brief congratulations, in the next breath, this friend asked me to bring them some tea packets to the gas station because it was cold out and they wanted a hot drink. My wife and I had just got home from having a C-section 5 days prior and she was in great pain. I was a bit irritated, but still wanted to show the love of Christ. Since my father-in-law was at my house, and once I made sure my wife was comfortable, I was going to bring my friend the tea and some toiletries. Next thing I knew she was at my front door! How did she find out where I lived? I let her in against my instincts and she looked at all the stuff in our home like she had hit the jackpot. She then sat in a chair in our living room and made herself at home and began talking about her new crisis that someone stole her book bag that had her cigarette maker in it and a few other items. At the same time, my recovering wife could hear everything from the bedroom. Being mindful of her, I went back to check on her and she was not amused to say it nicely. In our living room was a homeless woman with a crack cocaine addiction, my father-in-law, and our kids. We teach our kids to love all who are made in God's image so they treated my friend like anyone else- completely naive and playful. Meanwhile, I am, rightly, most afraid of my wife and go back to the living room to offer to take our visitor back to the gas station. Upon arriving there, I let her know what she did was inappropriate and that my wife was not happy. She responded by saying, “That’s why I don’t care for other women.” At this I barely held my tongue and that is when I realized that God is truly changing me.
I have many stories like this one that show the self-centered nature of this demographic that comes from being in constant survival mode. Let me be clear and say all homeless people are not like this. I have volunteered and met families at a shelter in Peoria and they were simply people down on their luck and striving to improve their situation. There are different genres of homeless. The ones I meet on the street are what I refer to as lifers. This group knows every free food opportunity, clothing pantry, and resource they can benefit from every day of the week. Some have been on the streets in various towns for over a decade. Many of these people can quote Scripture and even tell you a sermon in one moment and consider prostitution the next. I began to get discouraged as I shared the Gospel, drove around Peoria looking for them, and prayed over them and saw no change or even a flicker of hope. I realized that what I thought was a flicker was just them seeing me as another resource to use to keep them comfortable in their mess. I began to pull away from them and use tough love. I began to call them out on what they were doing and point out their entitlement issues. At this, I saw that they began to avoid me and I was okay with it. Honestly, I was fed up and became annoyed with them. I mean, how does one find comfort from the concrete? How can someone place drugs and alcohol over health and family? How can a person get $1200 each month and six days later be found exchanging sexual favors for $10 worth of goods. They were the most selfish people I have ever met and I fully understood why they were in a town away from everyone that may have loved them, striving each day to feel numb.
But God. Those words can bring the greatest of hope or conviction depending on which side of the coin you are on. In my case, it has been an ongoing conviction. Each morning I ask God to transform my mind to be like Him and to make His will mine. After each of my harsh or aggravating encounters with my homeless friends, God shows me...well me. The end of my prayer time has me contacting my friends, looking for them, telling them Jesus loves them, and offering to help in a way that isn’t simply enabling.
Do you see it? We were all homeless. This is the story of everyone. All of us like sheep have gone astray, we have all turned to our own way (Isaiah 53:6 paraphrased). But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Over and over we are told of Jesus’ compassion for the people. In all His perfection, He came into our dirty, hopeless situation and showed compassion. He was followed by thousands of people with selfish motivations and He showed compassion. He walked with many prostitutes and devious sinners and spoke life to them. He was the only person on the face of the earth that fully knew what mankind was made for. Can you imagine His perspective as He interacted with everyone that was created through Him to dwell forever in an incorruptible home He prepared for us? Imagine what must have gone through His mind as He sat in the homes of wealthy religious leaders that looked down on Him while He had spoken the very dirt and stone used to make the impressive buildings into existence. For all the compassion and love He gave He received the most injustice the world has ever seen. He was mutilated, disrespected, and killed. In the midst of it all, Love asked God’s forgiveness for His oppressors. What right do I have, one whose soul was once homeless, to look down upon those who my redeemer gave everything for?
God revealed to me what rejection can do to people. Every one of my homeless friends had significant others, kids, and some had grandkids that they had a severed relationship with. They had made one too many mistakes in their lives and bridges were burned. When I come in talking about the love of Christ they know talk is cheap. To them love is just a word used to get things and causes great hurt. To be Christlike is to become Love. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8) God is Love (1 John 4:7-8), and Jesus is the fullness of God, and we are called to have the mind of Christ (see Philippians 2:5-8).
Am I saying I should have no boundaries and allow my friends to take advantage of me? No, I am not saying that. I do have boundaries because I must keep my family safe, but love is beginning to motivate me to not feel jilted when they waste my time or act in selfishness. I have died as my master did. It is no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:20) I do recognize sometimes love does say no and doesn’t simply enable a person.
Do I still have moments where the old Ryan comes out? Oh, I have stories! One time one of my friends called for me to come to McDonald's because they urgently needed a ride. So I came and she came out and quickly jumped in my truck. I then noticed a guy come out of McDonald's looking over at us and walking away kinda shameful and confused. I then found out a transaction was made to exchange two breakfast burritos for sexual favors in the bathroom and when he went into the bathroom she waited for me to show up and jumped into my truck. He then came out just in time to see her get into my truck which probably made me look like some kind of value menu pimp. That did not sit well with me, as one might imagine. Or there is the time I gave one a bike and instead of saying thank you or showing any type of gratitude, they saw this as an opportunity to ask me for more stuff, and my pride rose up within me. Christ simply shows me myself in them. Do I give thanks for all of my blessings? Don’t get me started about how I was in high school or college. What kind of Love is this? I mess up, maybe even make God look bad in the eyes of others and He welcomes me back and forgives me. Compare this to the shaming, condemnation, and ostracization we see done in the name of social justice. The world is unforgiving and my homeless friends can testify to that. But God.
King David in the Bible is considered the standard (apart from Jesus, of course) for Israel kings. Did you know, he slept with one of his deployed soldier’s wife, got her pregnant, and then had his soldier killed? Scripture tells us, God saw this as pure evil (2 Samuel 11:27). David’s job as king was to reflect God’s will for Israel and he had lust issues, marriage issues, family issues, leadership issues, committed gross injustices and even murder. Yet God called King David a man after His own heart because he always turned back to God in the midst of his sin and truly repented. God didn’t excuse what He declared evil, but God demonstrates His love in the midst of the sin by bringing us back into his love.
I was comfortable floating through my lot in life from crisis to crisis. Then Love came like a light in darkness. At first, I dared not approach the light because in it I am completely exposed. My motivations and dirt are all on display. The conviction on this side of the “But, God” can make one yearn for a shadow or dark corner of familiarity as my eyes adjust to this bright incomprehensible light. Who can run from this? Where can I go? Then instead of what I know I deserve in my exposed state, I am given compassion and mercy. What is this foreign and yet familiar love that sees all of me and yet looks upon me like a treasure, cleans me, rejoices in me, clothes me, adopts me, and welcomes me home. My Father is Love and I am home IN Him.
Signed: No Longer Homeless