Train Trip: Days 19-24: 40 Days of Haven Reflection:

As I confessed earlier in this blog, I learned in 2012 that Lent was 48 days if you include Sundays. My goal was to make 40 days without my house, so I had a few days to “take off” and lead a mission trip that I was scheduled to lead. (About half way through my lenten journey I led a mission trip for my youth group where we took a train to St. Louis.) During this stretch of my 2012 blog, I reflect on that trip. I also had my friend Rev. Dr. Bryan Fillette write a few days about his time living on the streets with me a week before when we both lived at Haven for Hope. Bryan and I went to Duke Divinity School together but he ended up going to medical school after seminary and became a medical doctor. He now practices in Louisiana.

I really appreciate his reflections about how he felt like he lost his identity while seeking to go the shelter (I had a similar feeling when I began) and how he felt very separated from loved ones. Its very much worth a re-read! Please enjoy these reflections from 2012.

Identity: Posted on 

Hello. I’m Bryan, a friend of Gavin’s and since Gavin is on his retreat he asked me to post some thoughts for a few days. I went two weeks ago to San Antonio and spent two cold nights with him at the outdoor shelter. I parked my car at his house and, dressed in old jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, I began walking several blocks to the bus stop to go meet him at the shelter.

Walking away from my car, I felt stripped of my identity as a car-owning, house-renting, working individual. I tried to imagine what this identity shift would be like if it really occurred, how I might be perceived differently by those driving by and others I might encounter, and imagine possibly what it might feel like to be homeless.

First, I felt shut out. Numerous restaurants and storefronts along the way had “OPEN” signs in the window. Having money is a rite of passage into these buildings and knowing how unwelcome the homeless are in places of business , the storefront may as well have read “CLOSED.”

Getting onto the bus, I needed to ask where the shelter’s stop was, but surprisingly I found myself a little embarrassed to ask. I figured the young middle-class-appearing bus driver might see me as homeless, judge me for that, and make assumptions about who I am and how I got to that point in my life. It was quite striking how easily people’s perception of you can change and what assumptions people could make about your background and identity just thinking you are homeless.

I saw Methodist hospital just a few blocks away, and was comforted by its appearance initially. The church-affiliated hospital stood out as a place of welcome and comfort as I reflected on all that the cross on the building represented about God’s love and care for the disenfranchised and those at the margins of our communities. It was a warm and inviting aura given off by the building’s facade. Later that night I saw another church-affiliated hospital and a couple of churches. Each building spoke a word of welcome and acceptance indifferent to my status in life. But I also knew that while hospitals do a fair amount of charity care, non-funded patients are often less welcome in private hospitals, and I felt like my presence there was not welcome. Two days before that I was an employee working in Methodist hospital in Houston, and now it might be looked down upon if I entered the hospital for a bathroom break or some brief warmth in the cold night. Seeing the churches, I knew that despite the warm welcome the church façade was exuding, too often those who are homeless are not welcomed with open arms and feel unwelcome in our churches. While these cold stone façades communicated surprising warmth, I was sad that the warm bodies within the buildings often don’t communicate the same welcome. How easily one’s status and identity can change by virtue of not having a place to call home.

Separated: Posted on 

Lying on my mat that first evening, I thought of my family and friends.  Doing my best to imagine what it would be like if I were actually homeless, I was struck by how separated I was from my loved ones.  They carry on with their lives, working, living indoors, connected to their family and friends.  Immediate barriers of social convention now in place (unshowered, no home to show for yourself, the shame of being homeless).  And not only do you likely not see your family and friends, but also many are likely left with regrets or painful memories of how they came to be separated from their families.  Divorce, domestic abuse, drugs, alcohol, rejection, being disowned, being given up on.  Many homeless individuals speak of having children or siblings they are no longer in contact with or do not get along with.  Yes, it’s uncomfortable sleeping outside, but worse I would think is the feeling of being outside of the connections that were once central to your life, left with regrets of mishandling situations and the pain of rejection.  The continued message from someone once called a friend, now implicitly saying by their absence, “I don’t want you around me.”

Our mutual friend Stacy is a hospital chaplain who also volunteers with an organization called the Ignatian Spirituality Project www.ignatianspiritualityproject.org.  They take small groups of homeless individuals on weekend retreats offering a supportive and spiritually enriching community of friends.   I feel this gesture of hospitality and presence, setting aside intentional time with those often set apart from our society is beautiful.  I was telling Stacy about my reflections above and she noted that in the sharing time on their retreats, the women speak of the many difficulties of being homeless, but the real pain is almost always about broken relationships and separation from loved ones.  This is where the heart of their pain is, the time in their stories when the tears come to the surface.   Take my bed, my money, a warm room to stay in, my shower, my job, but my family?  Those dearest to me?   Don’t take them.

-Bryan

Common ground: Posted on 

Oftentimes we have questions of how to interact with “the homeless” who we see on the street corner.  We are unsure what we can do for them, or if we are safe.  They seem so different at face value.  Yet something in us also seeks a more genuine interaction with them, saddened by the barriers that crop up between us and hinder the loving response we desire deep within to offer.

At the church I go to in Houston, St. Paul’s United Methodist, each Sunday about 70 individuals come to get sack lunches from the Emergency Aid Coalition.  On weekdays about 300-400 come by on a given day for lunch.  They pass through our parking lot and receive a lunch passed through a window on the back of the building in our parking lot.  The gift of food is wonderful but the lack of interaction we had with those who came by saddened me.

Out of a sense of the importance of extending hospitality to others, particularly those who are often isolated or forgotten in our society, we started to make simple gestures to move beyond the barriers that prevent us from being together.  About two years ago, we began setting out tables and chairs and bringing coffee outside to those who come by for lunches.  We simply go out there and visit, just taking the time to be present.  At first unsure what to talk about, aware of the differences between us on the surface, we simply seek to be there and to get to know one another beyond what’s on the surface.  We talk about where we’re from, the weather, politics, sports, local events, treasured memories, difficulties over the week.  When we tend to assume that we are so different from those who are homeless and would have nothing to talk about, we instead find a common ground.  We discover a beauty we often miss when barriers of practicality and fear get in the way of getting to know one another.

Our conversations are nothing dramatic, but the time can be eye-opening as we begin to know “the homeless” as individuals, by their names, by their stories, their sense of humor, their emotions, and our shared humanity and vulnerabilities. Time after time, one can be pleasantly and beautifully surprised that while we often may think that what is important is what WE have to offer, we come to see that we are the ones who stand to receive something, who are in need of something.  I remember what Sam Wells, the former dean of the Duke Chapel once said, “To say to someone ‘I want to be with you’ is to say ‘When I’m with you I feel in touch with myself, in touch with what it means to be a human being among others, in touch with creation, in touch with God.’”  We discover a common ground, and it doesn’t take much for strangers to become your friends.

-Bryan

James: Posted on 

…Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.  Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.  But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.  Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.  Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world….

…Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position.  But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business….

…Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?  Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?  If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.  ..

….What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?  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.  But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?  Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.  And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.  You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.  In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?  As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead….

…Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.  Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.  Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.  Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.   Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains.  You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.  Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!..


Here are a few reflections about the mission trip with Trinity Baptist Youth Group:

Mats: Posted on 

I am about to start my youth retreat with my students. We are going to St. Louis on a Discipleship Retreat via an Amtrak train. The trip is called,”Soul Train.” We will be going over the book of James. (Remember that Lent is 46 days…I am using 5 days for this retreat…see post “46”)

James was Jesus’ little brother….that had to be a strange experience to have Jesus as your brother. Talk about pressure. Nonetheless, James learned to trust his older brother in due time, and later became a leader of the early church.

James was all about an active faith. A faith that was not stale and static. A faith that experienced God’s love and expressed it through dynamic acts of mercy.

While on this trip, my posts will be shorter as I reflect on the simple aspects of my journey. (I will also have my friend, Bryan Fillette, reflect on his experience being homeless with me for 2 days). He is an MD and a Reverend….so it should be interesting.

Mats.

At the Outdoor Shelter, everyone who stays there can receive a mat from the shelter at 9pm sharp. Don’t be late! They can run out on certain nights…and sleeping well is important.

Trust me. You want a mat! If you miss out, you will be sleeping on the hard cement with little padding other than a blanket or sheet.

When I first arrived at the outdoor shelter, I assumed the mats would be like yoga mats. Thin, durable, and not too comfortable. However, the mats for the homeless are not that bad. They are about 4 inches thick, made of foam, and covered in a black vinyl covering that keeps it sanitary. They are not too far off from mats you see at summer camps. (The plastic ones that fit on bunk beds.)

At the shelter, these mats are lifesavers. You really can sleep a lot better when you have one for the night. I have never been so grateful for 4 inches of foam before this journey…but in the shelter, you begin to appreciate the little things.

The only down side is that the staff pick up the mats at 6:30 in the morning, regardless of whether you have work or not. “Sleeping In” is rare at the shelter. They say they want the mats back to begin the process of cleaning them…but I believe the real reason is to get us up…motivating us to work and not sleep the day away. (You can keep the mats 24/7, if you have a medical exemption.) Maybe I need to get sick more…

The mats remind me of John 5…

Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda[a] and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.

The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.”

But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ ” So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?”

The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.

Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well

It was simple. All the man had to do was take up his mat…Jesus did the rest. I like that. At my church, we make it a lot more difficult to follow Jesus. Just look at all the committees we have. It’s not a simple process at all.

But following Jesus can be that simple. It is sometimes as simple as picking up your mat and trusting in Him even if the future is unknown. It’s simple…but it takes a lot of faith.

Many of my homeless friends have unknown futures. Hopefully, they can learn to pick up their mats and trust in God.

Maybe that’s why the staff gets us up at 6:30am…at takes up our mats.

Trains: Posted on 

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For the past 3 weeks trains have been my enemy. It was an unexpected aspect of my journey but I now despise trains, the horn sound, and the screeching of the carts when they pass by. (The sound is similar to a ironing board opening…but just louder and longer.)

Needless to say, trains make awful noise.

The outdoor shelter I sleep at most nights is located between 2 merging train tracks. (I literally sleep about 50 feet away from the tracks.) There is one track on the left side of the shelter and one on the right. You could not get any closer unless you slept on the tracks!

The trains come every 30-60 minutes all night long. In all directions. So it can get quite noisy. Have I mentioned that?

When traveling near the shelter the trains have to blow their horns often and for a long period of time because many of the homeless citizens hang out on the tracks and cause great danger. Since the shelter opened there has been more than one instance where someone was hit and killed by the train. The last being on Christmas Day. It’s quite a problem regardless of the noise pollution.

I wake up (along with most homeless residents) every time a train passes by the shelter. The horn sound is so loud you just fly off your mat when the train goes by and the conductor lays on the horn. It feels like the Rapture comes every 30 mins at the shelter. But I keep being left behind.

Ironically, for our church youth group’s Spring Break trip, we decided to take the Amtrak train from San Antonio to St. Louis. (The same train that passes by the shelter every night at 9:30pm.)

It’s funny. In just one day I went from hating that train to passenger on the train!

One thing remained. The noise. The horn went off all night. And the screeching wouldn’t stop. But it was good to be inside the train and be with my students. We were in this together! (Along with Taddy, Debbie, and Laurie)

I guess I am connected to Trains this Lenten season.

If you can’t beat them. Join them.

Pulse: Posted on 

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My youth group is called Pulse Students. I love that name but I can’t take any credit for it. The previous Minister to Youth, Nils Smith, named it when he began serving his call at Trinity Baptist. Nils is one of the most talented youth leaders I know. He is now doing tremendous work at Community Bible Church leading their online ministry and helping facilitate the largest college ministry in the city. Which is ironic…but that’s another story.

A few years back, Nils knew exactly what he was doing when he named our group “Pulse Students.” When he arrived this program needed a heartbeat. It needed a pulse that would beat not only for God but for other people around the city and the world.

For years (after Trinity lost a major leader), Trinity began to neglect the real needs and issues of our youth and young families. Years later this pattern led to confusion, anger, hurt, slander, and lack of trust within our church walls. It was a mess. So people started to point fingers and began to solve problems on their own…but they kept failing. In the end:

We desperately needed God. Not Ourselves.

Not a better pastor. Not a better staff. Not a better vision statement. Not a better trustee. Not a better committee, and Not a better financial plan. No. These kids and parents desperately needed to regain their pulse for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They needed a pulse for:
Their friends.
Their enemies.
Their neighbors.

Rebuilding the youth program has been a challenge here at TBC. After many years of effort, it is still under construction. Nevertheless, I love it when my kids live out the gospel and get it right.  I know they get it right when they put God First, Others Second, and theirselves Third.

Leading a youth retreat (during the exact half way point of my Lenten journey) has been truly enlightening. For the past 4 days, I have been on what we call our “Soul Train” Discipleship Weekend. Despite the obvious change in environment…I have experienced similar events on this trip that resemble my current homeless simulation. It has been strangely familiar.

First, we went on a train trip from San Antonio to St. Louis. Trains have been a theme during this journey. (See my post called “Trains.” And…FYI St. Louis might be my new favorite city. The City Museum is absolutely amazing!) Second, there has been similar communal living on this trip like in the shelter. Albeit, it has been indoors…but living with teenagers in tight quarters can be just as challenging and smelly. Third, I have not gotten a lot of sleep on this trip or during my journey, but I usually don’t sleep much during youth events that I lead…so that “no sleep sting” is still in my body. Fourth, students are just as crazy and messed up as many of the homeless. They struggle with grasping true reality, common drive, similar addictions, and the ability to lose all control of their emotions. The list could go on….

And lastly, while on this trip, the mission ministry to the disenfranchised has been very similar. A topic that has been obviously on my mind the past 3 weeks. It was fun to watch them dive into this type of ministry.

During our first day of service, our students served at the Community Care Center in Granite City, IL. The center is a United Way project that serves the citizens in need in the industrial region of far east St. Louis. It’s a soup kitchen, clothing store, and food bank…all in one. For the day of service at the center, our students were broken up into those three teams.

It was fun to watch them work! They were not hesitant or complaining. They dove right in! Hairnets and all!

Some students worked in the food pantry and organized the food donations so the center could easily create care packages of essential items. Some students help organize clothes in the donation center so the clients could find the right type of clothing. Some students helped serve in the dining room to people in need of a hot meal for lunch.

The center serves around 100-200 meals three days a week. Our students served the final meal of the week, so many people showed up to receive assistance. Our kids did great. They welcomed all who came in to eat. They served the food with love and kindness. They did not judge them for needing assistance. They talked with them. They laughed with them. Even cried with them…

Two of our girls ate with a man named Mike, who seemed to be homeless for quite a long time. By talking with him (they are 16 years old!), they learned about his life, his parents, his children, and how he unexpectedly lost his wife a few years back. He was married for 39 years. They had tears in their eyes. They made a connection…not one based on server and taker…but one based in equality and Christian friendship.

The other mission projects during the trip consisted of assisting the elderly through yard work, cleanup around the community, as well as painting Sunday school classrooms at a small local Baptist Church in town. All these acts of mercy were connected to what we were studying in the book of James.

Another student, who is in Junior High School, worked his tail off this weekend and never slowed down! It was a surprise to say the least. When we were raking an elderly woman’s yard, he raked the entire time. When we painted the church, he stayed longer to help finish the details so it would look complete. Was this kid in Junior High? He was acting more like a high schooler than a kid in 7th grade…maybe even older than that.

Even some of our students (who did not attend this trip due to sports, family trips, etc) decided to give up a day of their Spring Break and serve a local ministry called Blueprint Ministries in San Antonio.  Dee Dee Sedgwick, who is the Director of Blueprint and one of the co-leaders of the Alamo Heights Life Group for TBC, helped facilitate the day of service. It was really cool.

It hit me! My students were starting to figure it all out. They were learning to participate in the Gospel and not just hear the Gospel.

They got it!
They lived it!
They did good work.

James (the Author of the book we were studying this trip) would be proud.
I was very proud. Not as their leader. But as a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ.

They found a Pulse.
God is not through with them yet!

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Romans 12:9-13: Posted on 

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.  Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. (The Message)

Home: Posted on 

Last night, after returning from the youth trip on the train back to San Antonio, I arrived back at the Outdoor Shelter at 9:45pm…only  fifthteen minutes before they shut the gates.  I was glad I made it back!  I did not want to have to find a place to crash that late at night again.

When we were pulling into San Antonio, our train went right by the outdoor shelter.  All my students and volunteer leaders got a great view of the shelter, because you can see over the gate while on the train. They saw the people sleeping outside in the area.  All of them were eager to see where I have been sleeping the past 3 weeks.  It was strange to go by on the train and see the shelter as a passenger.  In a way, it felt like a bad museum tram tour…like at Universal City.

After we deboarded the train, a parent, along with some students, gave me a ride back to the shelter on their way back home.  It was interesting to watch their reaction when we pulled up to the area. (It is not in the best part of town.)  “You sleep there?!” they asked.  I don’t know if they were impressed, worried, or thought I was crazy…but it definitely made an impact on them and how they view homelessness.  I guess this journey became real to them and that I was actually living like a homeless person…not just blogging about it.  I even had myself fooled.

Here is the cool thing about my return.  When checking back into the shelter that night, I did not know if anyone would realize I had been gone for 4 days.  How would I fit back in? However, once I entered back into the area about a dozen residents immediately realized I had been gone a few days and said,”Welcome back.” or “Where have you been?”  To be honest, I was not shocked to hear this from the few men who sleep near me at night…but it shocked me that other people, who I was not as familiar with, noticed that I had been gone. They were glad to see me back.  I have to confess.  Feeling welcome at a homeless shelter is a rare feeling…but It felt really nice and comforting to be missed and loved like that.  I was really glad to be back… even excited to be back.

Am I becoming part of the community here?  Am I becoming accepted at a place where people come to when they are not accepted anywhere else?  That’s radical hospitality.

This place is starting to feel comfortable.
Almost like home.

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