It was a comfortable night to help homeless people yesterday evening. That may seem ironic: enjoying being comfortable helping homeless people. It was with a homeless ministry we think really helps people; the River City Love Squad. It was warm; just under 60 degrees. It was dry; no rain or snow. It was familiar; we’ve been taking our youth group for over 2 years. It was predictable; we see many of the same homeless faces each time and a familiar, local, black pastor talked to them about The Helper, The Spirit, God in them.
Pastor Steve: this is a good man from a socially involved church across the corner. I only mention him being black because I’m talking about comfort. Most of the homeless people are black and I’m not. Pastor Steve is black and I’m not. But I’m comfortable there. Pastor Steve gives me a big, sweaty hug each time before I leave. He’s sweaty because he works up some heat sharing his thoughts with the people. I think he heats up from the passion built up over years of helping poor people. I like him. He talks a little long for my taste, but I like him. I’m comfortable with him. He calls me brother. I like that.
I’m much more comfortable than I used to be. Honestly, homeless ministry is not my thing. My heart doesn’t leap to go. I go because I know it’s the right thing to do; not the easy thing or the comfortable thing but the right thing. And it’s the right thing to do for the youth group teens; for them to see suffering face to face and respond in some way, no matter how small, is right.
I’ve been going down there for enough time now that I know some of the people well. I know some of the other Christians who sacrifice money, time, emotion and safety on a regular basis to help people that aren’t like themselves. That’s inspiring and right. Pastor Steve said last night that religion is just sociology but that God is real. It feels real down on the corner of Breckenridge and Clay, just a block from the projects commonly called the ghetto. I also know some of the homeless and needy people. Though to my discredit, I mostly know them by their faces and not their names.
But not Suzanne. I know her. One night last fall, when I was standing in my orange, one-size-fits-most, prayer vest, she walked up. The ministry leaders wear bright orange, safety vests to let the homeless people know whom they can ask for help or prayer. The leaders ask me to wear a vest and pray with people each time I go. Sometimes I do and sometimes I’d rather not. I’m not sure why but that’s the honest answer. But this certain night I was wearing one when Suzanne walked up. She was clearly very pregnant and poor. She said her baby was in trouble and the doctor said it might not be healthy when it was born. Suzanne asked would I pray. I started. She stopped me. Suzanne asked would I hold her belly while I prayed. That was not comfortable. I held her belly and prayed.
Now for a guy like me who struggles with the power of my prayers, this was a situation with mixed emotions. I always feel like God never quite answers my prayers the way I want and I secretly wonder if my prayers are very powerful. So my first thought during my prayer was, “Dear God, someone else should be praying for this baby if anything is going to be answered.” But I prayed on. Suzanne hugged me, kissed me and said thanks. I remember her smelling like cigarette smoke and bacon. I strangely like the smell of cigarette smoke and I love bacon, so with a small smile I felt comfortable.
Last night, Suzanne walked up to me there on the corner of Breckenridge and Clay in Louisville, Kentucky. I hadn’t seen her in a few months; she hadn’t been there when I was there at the homeless ministry. But she was holding a baby; a fat, smiling baby who smelled faintly of cigarette smoke and bacon. I put my hands on her head and remembered. It was comfortable. Suzanne said, “Hannah May. She’s healthy.”
The teens gathered round to play with her and make her smile. Hannah May pulled their hair and tried to bite their noses. These lower-middle-class, white teens from our rural, comfortable town were playing with a poor, sometimes homeless baby on a corner in the ghetto. Here were my prayers. Prayers for the baby and for the teens answered before my eyes, in flesh, all able to be reached out to and touched. One of my prayers, Hannah May, smiled at me. I’ve never had a prayer smile at me before. I may be changing my mind on the power of my prayers.