Last Friday night, a few of my friends and I were gathering to prepare for yet another exciting evening at Vanderbilt. No, we weren’t meeting up at someone’s apartment to pregame before going to a bar, but seeing as I’m a college senior, I can see where you got that idea. We were meeting to talk and pray before going to dinner. We wanted to gather and pray because weren’t just going to Wendy’s or Chipotle. Our plan was to head over to West End Avenue, the major road running alongside Vanderbilt’s campus, and instead of walking past the homeless men we always see standing by street lamps and sitting on benches, we would stop and talk to someone, then ask them to join us for dinner. Rather than simply giving someone money, or even food, we wanted to offer the gift of companionship and conversation, and even the opportunity to sit in a warm building for a while.
When the idea was first suggested, I immediately liked it. A lot. Working with the homeless community in Nashville is something I’ve been passionate about for as long as I’ve lived here. First semester freshman year, as I was beginning to experiment with what my future ministry career might look like, I found myself attending meetings of various groups which were trying to find new and innovative solutions to the endemic problems of homelessness in this city. Many of these organizations never quite got off the ground; it’s one thing to open a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter, but determining exactly how to permanently solve these issues is a whole different situation. More recently, I’ve become passionate about Room in the Inn, a service that houses homeless individuals at local churches, and have been part of efforts to get The Contributor, our local street newspaper, more exposure on campus. I have always been taught that showing the love of God far outside one’s comfort zone is one of the most important ways to live out the Christian faith. After all, Jesus taught that “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it for me” (Matt. 25:40), and he certainly must have chosen to begin his ministry with the words “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18a) for a reason. For me, ministry to the homeless is a way I have sought to live out the love of God, and not just through donating money or making soup, but through actually connecting with these fellow children of God.
And that’s what I was so excited about when we gathered Friday night, the idea of feeding someone not just physically but spiritually. When I sit down to eat with guests at Room in the Inn, I’m always fascinated by how much I can learn from the guests, and I hoped to have a similar experience as we set out that night. What actually happened was somewhat different from what we had initially planned. Three of us started walking towards the McDonald’s by Centennial Park. We found a man who referred to himself as Double A sitting on the wall of the park. We talked for a few minutes, then told him we were heading to dinner and asked if he’d like join. He refused, saying that he didn’t want to accept charity and that the workers in the McDonald’s wouldn’t let him in anyway, but we spent more than an hour just talking about his life and his experiences. He told us about his camp and where he usually slept in the park, about his family and the experiences that had led him to where he was today, some of them very painful to listen to. And instead of our commenting on how cold it must be sleeping outside, he playfully scolded us for not having on enough layers to guard against the below-freezing temperatures!
When we left, I was a little disappointed that we hadn’t gotten to take him to dinner, and not because this meant that my stomach was also beginning to grumble. On the face of things, it looked as though what we had set out to do, we had not done. Double A was still hungry, out in the cold. I’ve had plenty of experience with homeless people too proud to accept help, but that doesn’t make it any easier to leave someone without a roof over their head for another evening. But the truth of the matter is, one meal wasn’t going to put a roof over Double A’s head. I think what we realized that night about this new ministry idea, or at least new for us, is that the most important part is investing time in someone’s life. Because even though we didn’t feed Double A’s stomach, we had the opportunity to feed Double A’s heart and mind, planting the seed that God loves him, and that he is worth enough for three college students to stop and spend an hour with him. It was repeatedly evident that this was something Double A needed to hear that night; every time we asked him if he’d like to go in and eat, he insisted that he was just happy that we had stopped to talk to him. And most importantly, we learned just as much from talking to Double A as he did from us. Because when you set out to help someone else, the person who receives the most help is usually yourself.