Deciding to Serve the Homeless

by Christopher MacDonald

First of all let me say that I really did not decide to serve the Homeless on the level I do here in Oakland. I never envisioned myself under the Nimitz freeway dealing occasionally with people pumped up on drugs or alcohol or the insane decibel levels of noise.

It was decided for me and I am pretty sure not a one of you reading will be asked to do what was to do. Relax.

I am writing this with YOU in mind - regular folk who hold down jobs, have a mortgage (or rent that looks like one) and have to consider the real needs of spouses, kids and pets.

I'm your window. I'll keep it brief.

We have different callings in the Body and one is the calling of "Deacon" or "Deaconess." (The attached art is a "Kanji"" of mine that was requested by a church doing a study on the meaning of being a "Deacon.")

Chris would tell you the same thing I will. It simply means being the "the hands and feet of Christ" in the world. Servants in all matters practical. In Acts the deacons looked after feeding the poor and widows. Stephen was a deacon...and it cost him.

Fear is a big issue when it comes to the Homeless. I have less than most because if you have met me i am HUGE, street-smart and somewhat fearless.There are reasons for this, but one major one is that I have been divested of all assets.It is very hard to threaten a man with no possessions, no debt and no reputation to protect.

You are NOT in this situation.

In that regard it is easy for me to be brave. I think of your situation and I wanna be smart - for you.

1) Be sure you are called to serve, then discern to what capacity..

It is better to be slightly under-committed than to over-commit and fail. Thus is because respect and remaining true to your word are as important as any physical help you bring. BANK on that.

The reason I have street credit is I have always done exactly what i said I would do (except ONCE and I ate humble pie for that and made it right).

2) Don't be afraid - They Don't Bite.

Most Homeless have taken the big beat down. If they do give you any crap - walk. Immediately.

Just tell them you will be available later if they can be nicer. Usually they will come after you within the block.

When they ask for change and you don't have it don't look away or be dismissive. Look them in the eyes and kindly say "I can't help you today, but I wish I could." You have no idea how much this will matter.



3) Know What You Are Giving

Maslow never lived on the streets of West Oakland. Sorry.

As I have written elsewhere RESPECT is a huge issue for the Homeless. It is what the Enemy has crushed in them; what Society extracts daily and what only the Church can truly have eyes to see to give back.If I have done anything the last year in Oakland it is that I have shown respect and honored the image of God in men and women who this world sees as value-less. I repudiate that as a lie every single day.

It is not always easy. Some Homeless men and women stink.You have to be ready. Decide ahead of time what you are willing to do and what you are not willing to do.

Once, when I was a pastor I brought a man back to my house to stay over. I setup a place for hm to sleep in the garage. I did not feel comfortable with him sleeping in the house with my young son and my wife. He tried to make me feel guilty. I didn't care. I told him he could go elsewhere if he wanted.

I was clear. Be clear.

I suggest a stance of "Interested Disinterest."

4) Never let politics get involved.

I have watched the last 40 years the Churches resources get siphoned off for political influence instead of simple loving action. In ." my view "Jesus plus anything is subtraction." 

I happened to have been a most in the Bay Area...but not enough energy was going to direct action. I saw that the Church was missing a huge opportunity to be truly counter-culture. To simply provide food, shelter, medical help and for the Love of God to be seen fresh-faced in a selfish and love-less world gone mad on power, violence and image.

It was said of the early Believers "behold how they love one another." As things continue to get worse in our culture the salt and light that the Church exhibits will be how we - against all reasons and wisdom off this world - continue to love. Nothing shows this more than that we love those who have nothing to offer us in return (ostensibly)

I think you can still be a Republican, Democrat or Independent (etc) - fine. But really - our allegiance is as Kingdom folk first. And when we are called to account the question will be "when did we clothe you, feed you, visit you in prison Lord?" I mean...really..this is gonna be the question....right?"

When I arrived I just wanted to find a healthy church for myself. I found one: You. I did not expect to end up in the Tent City. I had been a high paid executive.As an example, I had advancing interviews with Jawbone (yes, that Jawbone...and they courted me)  to be the head of their marketing department worldwide back February. That fell flat once I felt the call to the Homeless.

Lucky me.

But when I landed and the camp was immediately sick I sent off an email to this new pastor. It was like ordering in a air-drop of supplies. Cold meds, water, supplies...all in 12 hours time.

That was Oak Life's first response.

Since then ...tents, sleeping bags, food...good counsel. I have not been alone in my work. . 

As I leave you (because it looks like I am off to Seminary - as all young men of 58 should do) you will be on your own when it comes to the Homeless in Oakland as far as having an "inside man." We could have done more. I should have done more.

But we didwhat we would and it's up to you now. The few of you who God will give a burden and a fire to.

I talked it over with co-worker from the beginning ( and his advice is solid. your best way to get your feet wet is to volunteer in Richmond at the mission there. It has a ton of people and will give you an idea.

A real effort in Oakland has yet to be seen. Sorry. You can name "ministries" but I have seen them and I ain't buying. Just me. We need to go deeper, get more serious and be - frankly - more theological.

But then - that's the sort of thing a young guy going off to seminary would say - right?