Last Sunday morning Chris shared his reflections on “The Poverty Plunge” retreat the College and Career students experienced in Memphis the previous weekend. I wanted to share Chris’ reflections below for those who might have missed them.
“When I was 19, I was faced with the terror of my step dad holding a steak knife to my mother’s throat. He was bigger, stronger and crazier than I could ever imagine being. And though the situation resolved itself with an evening of incarceration and no fatalities, I was in disbelief that my mother would ultimately chose to spend the next six years with this man. Though she was content to stay with him, I found myself emotionally unable to live under the same roof with him. I had exhausted my small network of friends at the time, and was running out of options.
With little guidance and education, I scraped by with my minimum wage job while living in a motel. What bills I had piled up and only had one option. I took a bus back to my hometown of San Francisco where my childhood friend became a Christian, and let me spend the next six months of my life in a living room. Some people have choices, and I had made mine. I would have rather slept on the street than spend another night in a home of emotional and physical abuse. After becoming fairly civilized and college educated, I have long since forgotten the desperation I felt in those days. Unfortunately, thousands of people in Memphis have not.
Last weekend, a small contingent of Skyline’s college and career group members gave up our lives of luxury to live as homeless immigrants in downtown Memphis. We were afforded the opportunity of spending two nights in the Downtown Church of Christ homeless shelter, provided we only retain four personal items which included shoes equaling two items and any bedding we may have brought. The facility included a good will store of sorts wherein we could acquire the appropriate attire with which we were expected to blend in.
Several of us had not eaten dinner before we showed up at eight pm, and apparently, we missed the evening meal at the shelter. We were invited however, to visit several stations spread out across the building where we found various scriptures upon which we were to meditate. I am well aware of the passages of scripture that pertain to the poor. Don’t pick up you the crops you missed at harvest, leave some for the sojourner. And you use your fast days to oppress those who work for you. You should fast in order to make provision for those who have none. For those of you have two coats, give to the person who doesn’t have one. Whenever you deny drink to the thirsty, you have done it to me and let the well dressed and wealthy to have the good seats, etc. It’s one thing to come across such a passage in your occasional Bible reading, to be bombarded by those passages, one after another is a humbling and down right condemning experience. I felt guilty and ashamed. I’m a ‘poor’ college student, but in my closet hangs enough clothes to equip a small army of people who didn’t have the friend they could turn to like I did.
Next, we found that our sleeping quarters were on an un-inviting concrete floor. The doors were translucent glass, and we were occasionally startled by police sirens and city buses and the conversations of passersby.
We were waken early Saturday morning not to the usual eggs, toast, coffee or cereal, but to the aroma of off-brand pork grinds, Cheetos, grape or diet orange soda. Apparently it is not uncommon to see the children of the neighborhood eating such delightful treats on the way to school. Then we were given an exhaustive list of our activities for the day. We had to among other things, hike to the bus depot and find out about bus schedules, prices, etc. We had to beg for change to use a pay phone, collect seventy five aluminum cans, interview both a homeless and elderly person, actually find a way to eat lunch, and write a letter to our homeland about the great land of opportunity in which we found ourselves.
Joe was a real trooper launching himself into various dumpsters around the city finding the bulk of our cans. The girls did the interview, and I secured the majority of our lunch money by digging in an ice cold wishing fountain in front of the luxurious Marriott hotel. Between the eighty cents I plucked, the fifty cents Joe found in a newspaper machine and the seventy five cents Bethany pan handled, we had enough for a four pack of peanut butter crackers. These clog your throat without a beverage, not to mention the six miles or so that we walked. I found refreshment by stealing ice cubes from a cooler of beer at the market where we found our lunch. Our excursion went well except for the time Jeff asked a homeless man where we could redeem our cans and the man responded with how if we went there, we might get a dollar, and how fifteen years ago, the man would have killed us guys. And as Jeff tippy-toed away from the man, he gave a vivid depiction of how he would abduct our female companions for his evil and unbiblical plans.
After walking several miles in the uncomfortable wrong-sized shoes that we were in, we returned to the shelter where they put us to work as immigrants for the next hour or so separating, folding and hanging donated clothes. Our employer promised us three dollars per person, and when we were done, we were informed that sales did not go well and we were only paid two dollars because being undocumented, there was nothing we could do about it.
So adding it up to twelve dollars we were ready to walk to the store. As it turns out, the declining economy of the community forced the all the good priced markets away and all that was left was a corner market by the name of ‘Super Discount’ which allegedly had premium prices on tobacco and alcohol according to the signs up front. With our financial forces combined, we were able to purchase two packages of spaghetti, two cans of chili, and a 2 liter of name brand coca cola. As we staggered away from the grocery emporium, a crowd of locals gathered outside of the store in awe of us well groomed caucasion-ites from a foreign land and even affectionately referred to our female companions as ‘snow bunnies.’
After eating our two course gourmet meal, we were treated to a video featuring the Simple Way in north Philadelphia who advocate for the homeless and fought to use an abandoned church to house the homeless when the archdiocese tried to kick them out.
The following morning, we were treated to an ethnic style of worship that was joyful and jubilant, whatever struggles were taking place in the lives of the people assembled, those things were left at the door for a period of intense praise and thanksgiving to Jesus. We then got to share in the joy of a real pot luck with turkey, chicken and an abundance of trimmings.
The weekend was painfully educational. I can usually see commercials of Sally Struthers eating food in front of poor starving children in Africa, and for some reason, it doesn’t really hit home for me. But, how many commercials do we see that remind us of the eight hundred and growing homeless in Jackson? Why do I have to go through a weekend of depravity and danger in so that I finally realize that this problem is real and that Christians are called into a kingdom that is supposed to set the table for the broken and forgotten? Why is it so easy for me and my friends to laugh when homeless people are exploited on websites like ‘Bum fights’ dot com? Why do I hate the mornings when I must choose between thirty shirts that I’ll wear for one day and then get home, and haphazardly throw to the heaping laundry pile?
I don’t have the answers to those questions, but I’m glad they were brought to my attention. And I was even gladder when Monday night I was able to spend an evening with five homeless men from Jackson. They were kind, intelligent and decent human beings. They have stories, lives, and things like hunger, loneliness and freezing temperatures that are harsh and brutish realities in their world. I realize that despite my student loans and various bills, I am rich. I’ve just never realized it until now.
Because of last weekend, the words of Jesus haunt me: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than a rich person to go to heaven.’ We were instructed to report the sights, smells, sounds, touch and taste of things we experienced. After experiencing a small taste of the world of the poor, and realizing on a daily basis, I do nothing to help, the words of Jesus have never rung so true. Before this weekend, I knew Jesus loves everybody, but after being in their world, I see WHY Jesus is so sympathetic to them. Jesus WAS one of them. I learned that I’m rich, and I struggle to find a meaningful way to help others. Indeed, harder than a camel going through a needle…I realize now why Jesus said this.”