Below are several stories dealing with the poor and the homeless written some time ago by a former Ladle director Allen Randall. When referring to actual poor/homeless persons, he changed their names to protect their privacy. For more recent stories visit the Ladle Blog.
One day, back in the late 70’s, Alice simply showed up one Sunday and from that day on began attending First Presbyterian Church regularly. She kept mostly to herself and would leave right after the benediction. Before long, Alice began frequenting the reception area outside the church office on weekdays and chatting with the secretary, delivery people and anyone else who happened by. Over time, Alice's weekday visits became more frequent and were lasting longer. Eventually, she was spending most of every day on the couch in the reception area and, like some modern-day Bartleby, no one seemed willing or capable of dislodging her. At some point the church administrator let her know she would no longer be allowed to spend her days in the church. It seems Alice took great offence at this new policy and so, like a jilted parishioner, found a new church to go to—a Lutheran church.
Alice wrote to Reverend Pulliam—and his wife—to let them both know she would no longer be attending services at First Presbyterian Church—and why. Pastor Pulliam and Ruth each replied with letters sent to her P.O. box encouraging her to understand why it was just not possible for her to spend her days at the church and expressing their—and God's—love and concern for her. She wrote back, dropping the letters off at the church office. This began a correspondence which has continued—off and on—until this very day. The Pulliams would give her stationery and other writing supplies.
Often Alice's letters are accompanied by gift packages which she has carefully assembled from small items she buys at the thrift store. Invariably these gift packs come elaborately nested in scrap paper, greeting card portions, napkins and plastic bags. On many of the paper surfaces, Alice writes out scripture verses, quotations or lines from poems. The verses and quotations she chooses often relate to some nearby holiday or other event. Somewhere on her wrapped gifts, Alice always puts her full name followed by, “homeless senior.” In the ten years I have been director of Ladle Fellowship, I have received perhaps eight or more of her special gifts. At first I had no idea who she was. Eventually I came to learn of her continuing relationship with Pastor Pulliam and Ruth.
You are now ready to hear about the hundred-dollar bill. In recent months a man from our church, Scotty, began to meet with Alice at the Starbucks downtown for morning coffee once a week. Over coffee and snacks Alice has been slowly opening up to Scotty. She is very intelligent and insightful—even philosophical about life. Last week, a very well-dressed businessman took note of Alice—had he perhaps spoken to her in the past or seen her on the street?—walked right up to her and handed her a hundred-dollar bill. Alice, surprised, said, “What is this for?” and the businessman replied, “It is for whatever you might happen to need right now.” Alice thanked him as he said, “God bless you” and walked away. Alice tucked the bill in her sleeve and continued her conversation with Scotty. As Alice returned Scotty's hug, the bill fell from her sleeve to the sidewalk. Just then a street person in his 30’s bends down quickly, pockets it and walks swiftly up the street. Once Alice discovered what had happened and told Scotty, he took off after the man. Scotty—a 250-plus pound ex-Marine who is the spitting image of the Santa—caught up to him a few blocks later and, between huffs and puffs, “exhorted” him about stealing from poor elderly women. The guy mumbled some kind of lame justification and then reluctantly fished the bill out of his pocket and laid it in Scotty's upturned palm. Scotty returned it to Alice, reminded her to be careful, said a second goodbye and set off to work.
The next time they met, Alice handed Scotty an envelope containing the hundred-dollar bill saying, “here, give this to the church, I don't really need it.” Scotty was dumbfounded. “What do you mean, you don't need it? Look, get yourself a motel room for a night or two or buy something you need—Alice, this money is for you to use.” “No, Scotty, I don't really need anything. And, besides, there are probably people who need it more than I do. No, I want you to give it to the church for the Ladle program—I'll be fine.” Reluctantly, Scotty agreed to do as she said. He knew she was a strong—and strong-willed—person and had made up her mind. She hadn't even used any of it since he had given it back to her. Knowing Scotty as I do, I am certain he teared up at this point.
That was last Thursday. On Sunday morning I saw Alice sitting just outside at the corner of the church building. She had just delivered little gift packages for Scotty and me. Mine contained a colorful little cardboard box in which I found: a card holder in the form of an apple, a new little poured candle in a class holder shaped in the outline of a cat's head, a pocket pack of Nice'n Soft tissues, a 3 x 5” spiral-bound memo book on which Alice had written my name. Inside the wire spiral was inserted a new pencil with a stars-and-stripes pattern to it—probably in anticipation of Flag Day. The memo book was wrapped in red chiffon ribbon bow. Also in my gift pack, wrapped in a clear plastic pouch, was one of those cardboard coffee cup sleeves. This one was from It's A Grind Coffee House (Alice seems to like these cardboard sleeves because she's included one in each of the last several presents she's given me). Also in the plastic pouch: a foil-wrapped tea bag (Numi brand, Velvet Garden White Rose—certified organic, “With every sip, a new dream awakens”); a scrap of Easter-colored wrapping paper which it looks like Alice has cut in the shape of an egg and on it written, “To (Personal) Allen Randall, FPC Ladle Fellowship, From Alice Margaret Simmons, Homeless Senior.” Also included, on a sheet taken from the memo book, was a long hand-written note of condolence upon the recent death of my mother. On a small piece of thin folded cardboard, like a miniature greeting card, I find little stickers: “Faith, “Promise,” “rejoice,” and another, with the dove symbol. On the outside of it Alice has written out—and referenced—Hebrews 3:4, “Every house is builded by some man; but he that built all things is God.” Inside I find, written out in her neat hand, the text of Revelation 22:12-14 which begins, “Behold I come quickly”
I aspire to someday be as generous and caring a person as is my dear friend, Alice Margaret Simmons.
His friends call him Scarecrow. None of them knew—or even cared to know—his real name. This moniker suited him just fine. It fit him well too; he being lanky, his tattered clothes seemed to hang on his frame in a most careless sort of way. In fact, everything about his outward appearance and manner seemed careless. His interior though, was as full of care as any forty year old transient's could be.
Indeed, Scarecrow felt such a daily load of care that he amazed himself at his own ability to carry on. Where did this persistent will to survive come from? How was it so often revived—even when it seemed to have died out a thousand times over? However it was, Scarecrow had discovered he had somehow reached the 358th day of yet another year. Christmas Eve evoked in Scarecrow all the same images—real and fanciful—as it seems to bring to everyone. His sadness this night, though more demanding of his attention, was really no greater than on any other night of the year. In fact it was a better sadness in some unexplainable way. Something about the ache and longing he felt was truthful, telling, and revealing—if only he could know what it meant.
For Scarecrow, this mysterious good sadness somehow had to do with the old “insider/outsider” argument. An argument which had mostly filled his thoughts ever since his first day in kindergarten. Thirty five years later, here he was, standing and watching the knots of families and friends stream into the glowing vestibule of the big old church at 4th and Date. And still, after all these years the argument persisted. The feelings tossed, churned, ebbed and flowed, but never did they seem able to resolve themselves in Scarecrow's mind. He mostly really liked being an Outsider, but all the while he longed for something, something—he wasn't sure what—something that seemed only to be had on the Inside. Even more than Christmas Day itself, this night was all about Outside and Inside.
Standing across the street, Scarecrow watched as a few latecomers scurried into the church. Even though this was San Diego, one could see their breath by the light of the entrance. As the old building itself breathed out, through the big oak doors, the faint sounds of the first hymn, Scarecrow thought “God, are you an insider or an outsider?”
Date Street, Dec 2002
A confession of Allen Randall
He had delivered them from Egypt. Now they were to become a nation and a people under His absolute authority. They were to be—collectively and individually—wholly submitted to their God. From warfare to welfare, every aspect of life was to come under His complete rule. For the individual Israelite, literally every action taken—whether in relation to life in the larger community, or the “personal” life he or she lived at home—was regulated by The Word of God; the Law.
God's instructions to His people presupposed that there would be poor people among them, either “aliens and strangers” or fellow countrymen who had become impoverished. His instructions to the Israelites, I believe, are applicable to us as well. He put it to them in this fashion: "The poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying 'you shall freely open your hand to your poor brother, to your poor and needy in your land'". Just a few verses prior to that passage, we find an even more far-reaching commandment. It tells them "You shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother". Did you notice the repetition of the word "your" as you read these passages? God wanted them to really own what he'd given them to do; so it's "Your poor, your hand, your heart".
They are my poor. The hand that must not be closed is my hand. The heart that is commanded not to be hard is my heart. I confess to having disowned the poor. I have thought they "belonged" to something called "society". I wondered what "they" were going to do about "them". I confess to having closed my hand to the poor. My hand held tightly what I had earned and what was "mine". I told myself I was being a "good steward" by being very careful to harvest out to the very edges of my field. I was careful that nothing went to the unworthy. I confess to having a heart hardened to the poor. "They made their bed, now they can lie in it" was the truest and deepest dialogue of my heart. It irritated me greatly to be told I needed to help these people. "Let them help themselves" is what echoed in the chambers of my stony heart.
These are very common, rational and understandable emotions to have. But, they are not allowed us. Or, at any rate, we are not permitted to maintain them and allow them to calcify into a permanent attitude. I believe that the Holy Spirit wants to open us up in ways we may never have imagined. Perhaps even in ways which would shock us, if we knew how much like Jesus God really intends for us to become.
Lord, help me not to disown the poor, but to accept them as my neighbors. Lord, help me to loosen more the grip of my hand upon mere things. And Lord, help me also to soften my heart to all people, especially the aliens, strangers and outcasts I encounter. In Jesus name, and for the sake of His kingdom and glory. Amen.
Have you ever yearned to visit some far away place? Perhaps you have been fortunate enough to make the dream come true. The multi-billion dollar travel industry thrives on both stimulating and meeting this longing to see exotic new lands. When churches send missionaries to the far corners of the globe, they are acting as "travel agents" of a much different sort. Jesus prepared his disciples to go to all the nations of the world in order to make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20). First Jesus' call to us says "come", then it says "go."
The book of Acts records the last words of the risen Jesus to his disciples. Before he ascended into heaven, he spoke to them of the power they were about to receive. It would be a power received "when the Holy Spirit has come upon you." The Holy Spirit would empower them and propel their witness of Christ and the gospel. Their witness was to begin in Jerusalem and would be carried clear unto "the remotest part of the earth."
The book of Acts wonderfully records the dynamic effect of the Spirit's outpouring upon the disciples. Jerusalem was abuzz with the happenings. A few chapters later we read of Saul's conversion. Soon we're following the action on Paul's missionary journeys. In a very short time the gospel had spread outward from Jerusalem and its light was on its way to the remote regions of the planet.
Our willingness to "go" should certainly embrace the possibility of going to some faraway place. But does our vision include "nearaway" places as well? By "nearaway" I mean places that, though not geographically far removed, are nonetheless "foreign" to us. Those living in abject poverty in our very midst may, though physically near to us, seem a world away. Perceptually, the gulf can seem as great as a wide ocean. Does it take the Holy Spirit's power and Jesus' call to "go" in order for us to cross this gulf? It does.
Peter and John, having been baptized with the Holy Spirit, shortly afterwards dramatically cross such a gulf to a "nearaway" place. The third chapter of Acts records the encounter. They were on their way to the Jerusalem temple at the hour of prayer. A crippled beggar was at his usual spot near "the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful." Here is a contrast! A beautiful gate, perhaps with gold plating and artistic designs. One viewing it on the way to worship might begin turning his attention to thoughts of beautiful, heavenly things. But today a shabby (perhaps smelly) beggar competes for the attention of the passers-by. "And when he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he began asking to receive alms."
Imagine that! Just as you are about to enter the sanctuary, some bum hits you up for spare change! It's enough to make one want to use a side door. Most often though, a determined averting of one's eyes will serve the same purpose. But how do Peter and John react to this beggar at the temple door? Instead of shifting their gaze away from the unsightly beggar, we're told that "Peter along with John "fixed his gaze upon him and said 'look at us!'" No doubt this greatly startled the poor beggar, being used as he was to being universally ignored. Even people tossing their coins into his palm didn't look at his face—much less make eye contact with him! And the beggar himself hadn't the boldness to look his patrons in the face either. Had anyone entering the temple ever even spoken a single word to him?
Now the narrative tells us that the beggar, having heard Peter's voice "began to give them his attention, expecting to receive something from them." He was about to receive something from them, although not what he was expecting. Peter, emboldened by the Spirit, spoke directly to the man, saying "I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!" Peter then seizes the man by his right hand, pulls him to his feet, and in the same instant the man's feet and ankles received strength and healing. The beggar then went into the temple with them "walking and leaping and praising God."
We need not be endowed with miracle-working power in order for God to work through us. Nor do we have to "fix our gaze" on every beggar we encounter. Yet we should, like Peter and John, be open to the opportunities for witness in the "nearaway" places of our daily lives. Especially when destitute persons huddle near the place of worship, might not a sincere "good morning" spoken to one of them show that our interest in reaching out to our "Jerusalem" matches our interest in reaching out to "the remotest part of the earth?"
To this suggestion someone might reply: "Yes, but saying 'good morning' to a street person might only encourage him in expecting to receive something from me." Well, that's what did happen in Peter's case. But Peter turned the man's attention to the greater gift: "but what I do have I give to you." It's certain that we can't give what we don't have. However, if we do indeed have the love of God—as well as the truth of the gospel and the compassion of Christ—then perhaps we can reach out and take someone's hand. Perhaps in doing so, God will send His supernatural strength in ways that heal the crippling effects of sin. Who knows, we might even see someone "walking and leaping and praising God!"