Fulfilling wishes of the homeless is faith-affirming
After a tragic loss in our family, my husband and I moved from the serenity of the forest, surrounded by huge trees and a large porch with a water view in North Vancouver, British Columbia, to the heart of the inner city of Vancouver. It was what we needed.
We soon noticed a large number of men pushing grocery carts filled with cans and bottles. We could see from their appearance that they were having trouble and we wanted to understand their story. So one day we stopped a man and talked to him about his life experience. This is when we first began to learn about homeless people. Many are mentally ill, many are addicts, many have had physical problems such as brain injuries.
James says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after the orphans and widows in their distress and keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Our conversations with the homeless revealed that some of them are indeed orphans and widows. But, in a greater sense, all homeless are orphans of society.
We wanted to do something – to use our grief and God’s grace to help the homeless. In 2005, we established a collaborative relationship with a local shelter and started interviewing the people who came through its doors. We asked them a simple question, “What would you like for Christmas?”
The Homeless Partners Christmas Wish List was born. We added shelters and left interview forms for people to fill out. Our fellow Christians also got involved with the interview process. Most of the requests they catalogued were simple — a jacket, a phone card, a bus pass. Some were grander in scale — a chance to hear the opera, world peace. Some were heartbreaking. A 46-year-old man asked for the chance to visit a son he hadn’t seen in 20 years.
The church members posted the stories and wish lists they collected on a Web site, www.homelesspartners.com, using first names only.
The people of Vancouver could go online, buy the gifts requested, and drop them off at the shelter.
This was followed by a “media round” — interviews with newspapers, radio stations and TV in order to drive traffic to the Web site. The media were incredibly accommodating and gave the project optimal space and time, including two national TV spots and a half page in the national newspaper.
When people read the personal stories and requests on the Web site, they were able to get involved in the lives of the homeless in a way beyond usual charitable donations. The Vancouver shelters collected more than 2,000 gifts — far more than they ever had received before.
High school classes and elementary school children got involved, combining their resources to purchase gifts. Young children wrote hand-scrawled, heart-melting cards for the homeless.
The next year we started a second Christmas wish list program in Calgary, Alberta. About half of the homeless people there simply are working poor who can’t afford the city’s skyrocketing rent.
We hope that churches in cities all over America will consider launching similar projects. So far this year, Churches of Christ in New York City, Chicago, Dallas, and Regina, Saskatchewan, have expressed an interest in undertaking the project.
The project requires no financial commitment. Everything can be done with short-term, volunteer labor. The wish list project can enhance any existing project, including coat or toy drives. Adding the power of personal stories can increase people’s interest.
Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven.” This is what happened in Vancouver and Calgary. Christians let their light shine for the whole community to see the result of God’s love and grace.
Some of the homeless who had been on the street for decades changed their hardened, weathered expressions into ones of beaming children on Christmas morning when they read their name on gifts and received cards created just for them. One woman said, “The most encouraging thing is knowing that people care. I find it really encouraging that total strangers could care so much about someone they don’t even know.”
But it was the Christians who received the most encouragement, by realizing that they had led the way for others to put the love and grace of Jesus into practice — even those who don’t know him. I, along with many others, actually felt grace — physically, emotionally and spiritually. And for us it was a healing step.
The poor were helped, the community saw the church in a positive light and God got the glory. It was all a result of God’s grace because he gave us the supreme gift — his son.
JENNIE KEERAN and her husband, Dan, worship with churches in the lower mainland of the Canadian province of British Columbia. For more information on the Homeless Partners project, see www.homelesspartners.com. See a video about the ministry by searching for “homeless partners” at youtube.com. Contact Keeran at [email protected]