As I am spending more and more time on the streets, talking to the people who live there, it is becoming increasingly difficult to succinctly describe my experience to friends and family. When people ask me what street ministry is like, I struggle to answer genuinely because so many of my encounters are imbued with an inexpressible beauty and gravity.
How do I communicate the pain of an elderly man whose sickness is ravaging his body, whose mental illness is terrorizing his mind, and whose feelings of worthlessness make him think that ending his life might be his best option?
What’s more, how does he hang on to that thin strand of hope; the one that tells him, “I know God doesn’t want me to kill myself”? How do I express my joy when I recognize that by sharing his wisdom and strength with me, he is able to see his own worth just a little more? He and I may have given a bit of love to each other, but we each received so much more in return. That is God’s logic. It is not something my words can explain.
Perhaps even more perplexing to describe is the concurrent exceptionality and normalcy of my relationships with these people experiencing homelessness. I have had some of the strangest conversations of my life on the streets. It often seems as though nothing is too personal or taboo to be shared with a complete stranger. I am forced to transition seamlessly between small talk about the weather, jarring memories of recent trauma, and toilet humor all in one conversation! I have to be prepared to receive any and all aspects of the human condition whenever I extend a simple “Hey! How’s it going?”. That’s not necessarily an easy task to accomplish, let alone explain.
Yet there is something so genuine and easy about it all. So often a second encounter with someone on the streets has felt like a reunion of old friends. A person whom I thought I would never see again suddenly appears, and I am truly overcome with joy! The human connection we experience in that shared moment is the most beautifully normal thing in the world.
Perhaps these experiences can feel both incredibly foreign and mysteriously comfortable because they are experiences of the Divine. I know that in each person on the street, I come face to face with an unrepeatable mystery. I hear in them the voice of God speaking to me in a tone that only the poor can communicate. As I come to know them, I am able to see deeper into God’s unfathomably diverse self-expression. I am allowed to gaze upon the sacred in the very people our society deems profane.
As I am drawn closer to this reality I cannot ignore the fact that this very same God also dwells in me. God is reaching out to Himself through my encounter with the other; making us one as He Himself is One. By this divine exchange I am enabled to recognize that the needs of the other are in fact coterminous with the needs of my self. If I turn a blind eye to the homeless, I risk losing touch with Him in Whom I live and move and have my being. If I cannot hear God, perhaps it is because I have failed to hear Him calling out to me in the cry of the poor.
Yet, my experience on the streets never feels quite as mystical as all that. Really, it feels a lot more like just talking to homeless people. But isn’t that the great mystery of Jesus? God descends into the most impoverished places so that He might lift them up into His beautiful and dynamic embrace of love. May we have the courage to follow Him on so worthy a journey.
Drew is a first-year missionary with Christ in the City. There is a live controversy as to whether or not ‘Drew’ is merely a pseudonym for the critically acclaimed actor Leonardo DiCaprio who, under this theory, moonlights as a service-oriented Catholic blogger.