Ten years ago I wrote a commentary entitled “Common Humanity Among Amabout my Lenten Journey for the San Antonio Express News. You can read the published and edited version here. Abe Levy also covered the story from his perspective around the same time. Abe continued to follow the story of Willie (William Schooman) in the years to come. More on that later!
Below is the unedited and raw version of my commentary:
When I decided to live on the streets for the 40 days of Lent I did not know much about homeless life. In fact. I knew nothing at all.
Many of us, including myself, have a fear of homeless people. Despite our common humanity we have developed stereotypical views about the homeless and justify our actions (even in charity) when interacting with them or dealing with common problems.
When I accepted my call to serve at Trinity Baptist Church I was surprised to see how diverse the area had become. One mile East of TBC lays the beautiful city of Alamo Heights. One mile west lays the Edison neighborhood. It does not take much to see the vast diversity and differences between the two areas (just read about the State playoffs…both schools chanted offensive cheers about each high school.)
As a pastor, and more importantly, as a Christian I am called to love God with all my heart and love my neighbor as myself without favoritism. I am good at that in some ways… I am a member of the Downtown Rotary Club and minister to students all over our city. But there is one section of my community that I constantly neglected. The homeless.
I never humanized the homeless. Even when they would hang at the church’s community center or walk down my street I never made an effort to know who they were. I had humanized my church members, even my junior high students, but I never humanized the homeless. They were the ones we served on mission trips…but never befriended on an equal playing field.
One of the great scandals of Christianity is that its followers believe God humbled himself to become a human being. In fact his disciple Matthew writes even the foxes had their dens and the birds had their roosts but Jesus Christ had nowhere to lay his head. That is the same man I follow and call my Lord humanized homelessness.
After much prayer I decided to do something radical…give up my home and become homeless for 40 days. Many people give something up for Lent, such as coke, beer, or television. Participating this way makes us apart of the religious community. It looks good….and possibly even physically helpful. Giving up my home was my Lenten discipline. But replacing it with Scripture, prayer, and deeper relationships with the community is where I would find the true Spiritual reward.
Why my home? Did my home keep me from God? Not necessarily. However, my home did keep me from truly getting to know the homeless citizens in my community on an equal level. So I gave it up to live among.
True Christian ministry is to live among.
Live among the people. Live among the broken hearted. Live among our neighbors. Even our enemies.
My journey was an amazing adventure. Over the 40 days I learned more about humanity than I ever learned in college, seminary, or places of ministry. Living outside creates a new reality of living. Everything is public. The sounds, the smells, the relationships, and the danger. Everything is wide open and seen by others. Your identity totally changes. The first night I became homeless I was ashamed to ask the bus driver where Haven for Hope was on the bus stop. She would know I was homeless. When walking around with my sleeping bag I could feel the sting of awkward looks by passers by who disliked my presence. Overnight…the places I used to eat and hang out in seemed closed and unwelcoming. My identity was altered from confidence to shame.
This would slowly change after building relationships with others who live on the streets. I met people who were just as hospitable as my parishioners, just as crazy as my friends, and just as diverse as the city. My common stereotype of the homeless was becoming broken. We all have to rely on each other to survive. For example, during the thunderstorm a few weeks ago a friend I met let me sleep in his shed during the storm to stay safe. It begged me to ask…Would I allow a homeless person stay in my house to stay safe during a storm? It pains me that I don’t have the answer. I ran into great citizens and churches of San Antonio that would treat the homeless as equals and give in abundance their love and resources. You can read more about my daily experiences on my blog.
San Antonio has many Saints living inside the city. Some work at Haven, some serve at churches, and some serve alone with a vision to live among their neighbors.
When the 40 days were coming to a close. I found myself depressed about leaving my new home and my new friends. In fact, I felt no longer homeless. I felt loved and cared for by people who call the I-10 overpass their home. I was sad to leave. There is something strangely comforting about living together with so many people. You get used to the openness. You get used to the lifestyle.
Living on the streets has its problems. And the problems are severe and disconcerting. There is drug use, abuse, and basic irresponsibleness. But despite the severity, I learned that we all have the same problems. We all struggle with love, addictions, common drive, and illnesses. Our differences lie in how we package our problems, create social barriers, and how we find monetary resources.
On Easter morning…when I was walking back to my home it felt surreal. Even unknown. I was suppose to going back to normal life…but I don’t know what normal means anymore.
That afternoon I spent Easter lunch with a homeless friend Josh’s family. He had a family! I thought the meal might be awkward due to the economic differences’…but I realized that God bridges those gaps when we allow God to. I was beginning to humanize homelessness.
That night as I laid in my bed inside my home and I could not sleep. Other than my dog…it was extremely silent. It was so strange to be back indoors. I was always outdoors in wide open spaces. Now, I am in a box of a room. It seems so small…yet it’s big and comfortable.
I felt alone…even when I am suppose to have it all.
The reality is that tonight 3,500 people did not have a home to come back to after 40 days of Lent. My journey was a simulation….was it wrong? I hope not.By: Gavin Rogers, Unedited Debrief of 40 Days of Haven, 2012
We can’t fix everyone’s problems but we can begin to humanize them.