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Finding God’s image in the homeless population

When we see the disheveled woman pushing a shopping cart full of “junk” or that crusty guy with the dog-eared “WILL WORK FOR FOOD” sign, we ignore them as if they don’t exist. We dehumanize them.
They do exist — in staggering numbers. More than 90,000 homeless live on Los Angeles streets. And they are human, with the same needs we have: security, love, a sense of belonging and companionship.
Yet my experience with thousands of homeless has taught me that what these individuals want most is for someone to listen. They want real friends.
I choose to see each homeless person as created in God’s image, and though the layers of defeat, addiction, pain, abuse or suffering may hide it well, that image is there, deep within them.
At River City Ministry in North Little Rock, Ark., where I’ve served asan evangelist for the last two years, we reach out to more than 100homeless every day. We’ve learned that some cannot acclimate to life in“our world,” finding that our super-high-tech, power-hungry,materialistic world is much less desirable than theirs. And so thechallenge is this: In being like Jesus who came to “seek and save thelost,” how do we reach into a street culture far different from our ownwith the love of God?
We must see with different eyes.
Re-humanizing the homeless changes things for me. When I walk through acrowd of 25 to 30 homeless to reach the front door of our center, Iaddress most by their first names. Once inside, Johnny “schools” me indominoes. Danny gets a copy of a hymn he wants to sing during lunchworship. Jennifer shares about the day job she got.
Because of our friendships, I can ask most about their spiritual lives.Whatever the response, my call is simply to be available for the momentwhen God brings each to a point of decision to be restored or immersed.Often a person I haven’t met says, “My friend under the bridge lastnight told me I could get my life right with God here. Is that true?”
After nearly 25 years of inner-city ministry, I’ve helped provide thehomeless with a shower, hot meal, laundry, case management, rehab, lifeand job skills training and housing. But, I’ve found, they’re lookingfor much more.
In the movie, The Soloist, a gifted cello player, Nathaniel AnthonyAyers, lives in a dirty, directionless, mentally ill, violent world. Asa young man, the voices in his head become too much, and he findshimself living on the streets.
Nearby, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who lives in anobsessively clean, overachieving world, does all within hisconsiderable power to better Nathaniel’s life. But when Steve tries toforce changes on him, Nathaniel bristles. “I’m not your boy,” Nathanieltells Steve.
After all of Steve’s hard work, Nathaniel remains schizophrenic, livingin an apartment secured by Steve. And Steve, though frustrated, gainsthe most in the relationship because he begins to see Nathaniel as aman living life as it has been handed to him.
Efforts to help the homeless often end like Steve’s experience. Thoughwe alter the surroundings, the person may never really change. Changehappens from the inside. Street ministers accept that there will alwaysbe homeless, but choose to love them — heart, mind, body and soul — asJesus does.
Some want to get off the streets, but many have found a home in asecluded alley, shelter or wooded camp near the freeway. Whether it’sfear of confinement, non-conformist attitudes, mental illness orirresponsibility, there will always be those who cannot, or will not,fit into “normal” society.
The goal is not to try to change the homeless so I can go home at nightcheering, “Hooray, got another one off the street!” Though helping someto do so, I want the rest to know that God, and I, still love them intheir homelessness, addictions and inability to overcome. I don’tcoerce, manipulate or even beg the homeless to come to Jesus. I respectthem too much. It’s not my way, anyway. We talk, think and pray aboutit, give it time, and then they make the choice.
Such has been the case with Elecia, 45. From the outside, she appearsskinny, scantily clad, drug-wasted and wild-eyed. I’ve seen her onstreet corners trying to “get a date” to help support her drug habit.To the casual observer, she looks like a hopeless case.
But when I sit with Elecia, she softens.
“Brother Anthony, do you know what it feels like to be sold for sex byyour mother to grown men to support her crack cocaine habit?”
I have to say, “No, I really don’t.”
She cries. “Well, I didn’t either, until I was 6 years old. That lasted until I left home at 14. It still hurts, really bad.”
The image of God is in there, deep down, somewhere.
DR. ANTHONY WOOD, evangelist at River City Ministry in North LittleRock, Ark., has served the poor, homeless and incarcerated since 1985.To find out more about his ministry, contact him [email protected].

  • Feedback
    This story touched me to the heart. I have never thought of it this way. I always felt so sorry for these people but never thought of their different view of the world. I wish there was some way for me to touch them as you are doing. Thank God for you and people like you.
    Linda Norris
    southwest church of Christ
    swifton, ar
    January, 16 2010

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