Looking for Purpose

B.B. is a new face at the Ladle. I first noticed him with suspicion, since I frequently saw him hanging around a woman whom I know to be particularly susceptible to manipulation and abuse. Soon, however, he approached me on behalf of that woman and shared his concerns about her safety on the streets. He wondered if there was anything we could do for her, or if he could somehow help. Many abusers claim to have noble, “protective” motives, but he was clearly not playing that game. He was genuinely worried about her. Since then he has helped remind this woman to take her diabetes medication every day, a feat which I’ve been struggling to accomplish for months.

Eventually he shared his own story with us.

He lived his whole life in Illinois. He had a desk job and saved for retirement. He had a wife and a daughter who is going to grad school soon. Then…somehow he got entangled in a financial scam which wiped out his $150K of saved retirement money and stressed his marriage to the point of divorce. Burdened with defeat, depression, and a feeling of meaninglessness, he gave up. This year he became homeless for the first time in his life at age 53, and moved to San Diego for the weather. He doesn’t drink or do drugs and has no mental health issues. He could easily blend in at my workplace, church, or family gathering. He’s just a man who hit the point of despair, with no safety net to catch him, and he hasn’t yet re-emerged.

Today, B.B. came by the church to tell me about another vulnerable woman on the streets whose safety is worrying him. He is trying to keep an eye on her as well as the other woman with diabetes. I wonder if he’s looking for a sense of purpose in all this.

Like all of us, B.B. needs his defeated imagination reawakened by the gospel of Christ, the miracle of resurrection, the reality of eternal life. He needs to know his value in God’s sight. He needs to reckon with his brokenness and confess it. He needs to be reassured by the mercy of God.

The man needs Jesus. And some friends!

The Role of the Church

Even though the Christian Church has fallen out of fashion in many modern circles, we see every week (and sometimes every day) that people in crisis still turn to the Church for solace, banking on the kindness of God’s people. Especially because our church building is so iconic and so “churchy,” people frequently knock on our doors seeking everything from a bathroom, to a borrowed phone, to a word of encouragement or a shoulder to cry on. It’s striking to think that people still know that we as Christians are commanded by God to help the poor and show mercy to the hurting. In desperate moments, they depend on us to fulfill that commandment – and so, they show up at church.

Jesus’s greatest gift to the world is the gift of himself. Likewise, the greatest gift his people can give is the gift of themselves as Jesus makes himself known through them. When it comes to the plight of homelessness, the funding and services provided by government agencies are highly needed. And yet, the role of the Church – of people giving of themselves to others with the love of Christ – is invaluable and irreplaceable. Anyone can throw money at homelessness. It’s the Church that throws people.

For Christians, this means we ought to remember our sacred obligation to personally engage with the homeless and get to know them as fellow human beings, rather than outsourcing them as a “problem” for the government to deal with. It’s not the job of social services to love people. That’s our job as imitators of Christ.

For policy makers and service providers, this means that the Church’s role in the homeless community should not be overlooked. Many of the people we serve don’t trust anyone; and yet they trust us, as the only people who see them as people and love them with God’s love. This gives us a level of access into people’s lives that professional agencies need, and yet often miss.

I saw this happen today. One of our Ladle guests is enrolled in a local program for mentally ill homeless seniors. This morning, I was texting with his nurse about tracking him down and changing his medication. By building collaboration between the social service agency and our church, we are both able to serve and care for him so much better than either of us could do alone.