Can you remember the first time you saw real poverty?
I grew up in a small town in the mountains of northeast Tennessee—a place where real poverty definitely exists, but a place where it was uncommon to find homeless people out on the streets. As a matter of fact, you don’t really find anybody out wandering our streets back home.
That’s why my first experience seeing homeless men on the street in downtown Atlanta really messed with me.
My family and the family of our church’s youth pastor went to Atlanta for the Atlanta Passion Play. If you’re unfamiliar with the event, for 35 years it was the premier Passion play in the country—the exact opposite of the play put on at my grandmother’s church growing up (cue the deacon backstage helping Jesus awkwardly ascend into heaven with the rope and pulley).
As most tourists do, one cold, dark night we bundled up and decided to stroll around downtown. When we found ourselves outside a McDonalds, we made a pit stop for a quick snack and restrooms. We were waiting in line to order our McNuggets when a soft-spoken homeless man walked in and asked our youth pastor for a cheeseburger. Without hesitation, a cheeseburger was added to his family’s order and was given to the homeless man, who then left McDonalds…sort of.
Atlanta was an exotic place to this 8-year-old country boy, and the homeless guy made it way more curious. As I watched him take the burger and leave, I didn’t know how to feel. I knew it was right to help meet this man’s need, but was a cheeseburger enough? Where was he going to go when he left? Why did no one think to get him a drink? What was he going to have for breakfast?
He tiptoed out the door of McDonalds, but he didn’t leave. From our table, I was too small to see over the heads of patrons by the window, but from the conversations of the adults I was with, the homeless man gave his burger to a second homeless guy who was hanging out outside—a noble thing to do, in my opinion.
As we left McDonalds, the man approached my future youth pastor with the same line: “Can I have a cheeseburger?”
His response surprised me. He declined and shook his head, and we walked off back towards our hotel.
Today, I realize there could have been a million reasons the adults declined the man a second cheeseburger. The skeptic in me wonders if the man sold the first one, or if the adults could tell that he was on drugs or intoxicated (something was odd about the homeless man’s speech). But, to an eight-year-old, it was as simple as an unwillingness to drop another $2 or $3 on a cheeseburger. It bothered me.
That experience continues to shape and change the way I handle hospitality with homeless people on the street. Every once in a while, I’ll find out my generosity is taken advantage of. Other times, I do nothing and regret it. But sometimes an individual truly has need, and it’s a joy to meet that need and spend some time with that individual before learning if there’s a way to treat the person’s problem and not just the symptoms.
What do your personal interactions with the homeless teach your students? Are your actions towards the homeless rooted in a holistic view of Scripture, which over and over again sympathizes with the needy and rejected?
One of my favorite pastors to listen to is Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. In many of his sermons, Keller is quick to point out that Jesus himself always identified with the poor and marginalized. Think about it—he was born in a borrowed space, fled for his life from Bethlehem to Egypt with resources given to him by the Magi, and died with only one possession to his name (his robe), and even that was taken from him. Throughout his life, Jesus was economically dependent on others for survival. He was the foreigner, he was homeless, and those to whom he was closest rejected him.
James 2:15-17 says this:
Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
For the three years of his ministry, Jesus wandered from place to place with the apostles. He had physical needs. And I believe it’s perfectly plausible to suspect there may have been times when he had physical needs that went unmet by people who didn’t want to get involved. As bad as that would be, Jesus himself reminds us in Matthew 25:40:
“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Addressing a homeless person’s physical needs can be messy and time-consuming, but the whole of scripture leaves no wiggle room on our duty here. So, what’s your plan?
What example do you set for your students as you try to model Christ in your personal interactions with the poor?
When they see you give, when they see you go out of your way for the poor, and when they see you pass by that homeless guy, what are you teaching them?
A simple dialogue about your actions (or lack thereof) can go a long way. Looking back, I wish my student pastor and my dad had talked to me about that night in Atlanta. It left me with far more questions than answers.
How you interact with the homeless matters.
I’m certainly not claiming to have all the answers here. My wife and I question almost weekly about the right way to handle these situations, and we know we’ve not arrived yet. After all, in our world today, it’s a little disconcerting to think about applying Jesus’ words when he said to invite the poor wanderer in. The point is, it’s definitely worth asking if you are being faithful and generous with the resources you’ve been given. Jesus called for radical generosity, and many of us push back against the “radical” part. The question is, are you working towards that end? Lean on the Holy Sprit in these interactions, and never forget you are setting an example for your students. They are definitely watching.
About The Author: Andrew Gouge
Andrew Gouge is a former 7th grade teacher and currently serves Overbrook Church in Greenville, SC as the Pastor of Students and Children. He and his wife Lindsey enjoy hiking, running, hanging out with teenagers, because they never grew up.