Safety First?


There’s a lot of talk and opinion these days surrounding the current leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis. In his recent visit to the U.S. Pope Francis was driven through the streets of Philadelphia in a retrofitted Jeep Wrangler. Beyond the relative simplicity of his vehicle of choice, the thing that strikes me the most is Pope Francis’ apparent indifference to the usual safety precautions that Popes have implemented since the assassination attempt of John Paul 2 in 1981.

According to a CNN report, Pope Francis told a Spanish newspaper that he doesn’t use a bulletproof vehicle because it feels like a “sardine can.” With regards to his safety he says, “I know that something could happen to me, but it’s in the hands of God.”

Safety in and of itself is not a bad thing, and there is nothing intrinsically glorious about pain or death. In fact, I don’t think that death was ever part of God’s original plan for his good creation in the first place. But while I don’t believe Christians should go out of their way to self-destruct, we are commanded to prioritize “love of neighbor” over “love of self.”

Love trumps safety. Unfortunately, in the war-torn world that we call, “home” safety is often the price we pay for love.

The cliche, “safety first” might be a valuable secular philosophy, but for followers of the Crucified Messiah it is at best misleading, and at worst completely “Anti-Christ.”

Jesus pretty much says the opposite of “safety first.” While he promises his presence, his joy, his peace, and even his power, the one thing he flat out rejects is any guarantee of safety for his disciples.

In Mark 13 he predicts they will be arrested and whipped. In John 15 he says the world will hate us even as it hated him. In Luke 9 and Matthew 16 Jesus says we are to “take up our cross and follow him.” And just in case you’re still not convinced, Jesus also says, “there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

While Jesus wasn’t running to his death, he wasn’t running away from it either. Jesus understood that love is “stronger than death.” He understood that death is sometimes a means to the end of love, not the other way around.

I wonder how often I’ve allowed my own physical safety and security to create a barrier between me and the people I am called to serve?

What about you? How often have you prioritized safety over sacrifice? How often has the Western Church opted for “bulletproof glass” instead of skin-to-skin contact?

It seems that this Pope is so determined to reflect the attitude and love of Jesus that he is willing to risk his own safety to be able to physically touch the people God puts in front of him.

I don’t believe Pope Francis has a death wish but I do believe he wants so badly to touch as many people as possible with the self-sacrificial love of Jesus that he is more concerned about mission fulfillment than mission longevity.

Imagine a world where all professing Christians followed suit. Imagine a world where the name of Jesus was associated with radical compassion instead of radical judgmentalism, self-denying courage instead of self-sustaining fear. Imagine a world where Christian doctrine was understood only in the context of self-sacrificial love.

I witnessed a pretty bad fight at the Relief Bus a few years back and I found myself right in the thick of it. In that moment I realized that God is far less concerned about my safety than I am.

But come on, if there is one group of people that shouldn’t be the least concerned about getting killed, shouldn’t it be those of us who claim to follow a man that rose from the dead?

Grace and Peace,



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Spiritual Combustion



Once the Relief Bus is loaded down with soup, socks, and supplies, the volunteers have been assigned to their respective vehicles, and the last echo of our battle cry has been dispersed into the air, we climb aboard and drive as efficiently as traffic will allow to our destinations.

It usually takes about an hour to get from our base in Elizabeth, NJ to our outreach locations in NYC. And during that time we participate in something that has fueled our organization since our birth in 1989: worship.

As our NYC Outreach Director, Johanna Soukka, likes to say: “we’ve prepared the soup. We’ve prepared the buses. Now, it’s time for us to prepare ourselves.”

It’s not complicated.

We simply invite our volunteers to silence their cell phones, as well as their private conversations, and allow the worship music from the Relief Bus sound system to usher them into the Holy of Holies.

This time is sacred and it makes all the difference in the world.

I’m convinced that we serve a God who indwells the musical worship of his people. I’ve seen it. I’ve felt it. There’s nothing like it.
I’m also convinced that this same God bleeds for the needs of his children who suffer in financial distress, homelessness, and poverty.

When we combine the worship of God’s people with humble service to the poor, we heat heavenly fuel and oxygen and explode with the power of Spiritual Combustion.

God has been trying to enlighten His people to this chemical cocktail since He made the Jewish temple the center of both sacrifice and service over 3,000 years ago. The people of God would go to the temple to atone for their sins, as well as give generously, so that those in poverty would have their needs met.

In fact whenever the Israelites rejected the poor, God would reject their worship. In Amos 5:21-24 God calls His people out for missing this point:

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

Like heat combined with oxygen and fuel, when the people of God lift up the name of Jesus while simultaneously lifting up the heads of those struggling with financial poverty and hopelessness, we experience the fire of God like nothing else.

If your only act of worship to God is singing songs of praise and you haven’t made time or space to engage and serve the poor, then you are missing part of the equation.

If you volunteer your time and serve food to folks who are hungry, but you don’t build in worship and praise to God who made both the rich and the poor, then you are only half way there.

God wants you to experience the fire of His presence. He desires for you to experience the fullness of his power. He is the Great Chemist inviting us to bring the necessary components to spark a revolution of love and restoration in our cities, our streets, and our homes.

There’s a reason we always worship on our way to serve our friends living in the street. We aren’t simply killing time or gathering our thoughts. We aren’t simply enjoying the music or mandating behavioral compliance.                                                                                              

We are stoking the fire! 

We are engaging in the single most effective strategy for organizational longevity and life transformation: Spiritual Combustion.


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Would you cut off your arm to save your life?

From a message I shared at the Bowery Mission.

What is your life worth? What can you let go of to allow yourself to live?

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Before and After Pictures


I think a lot of people go on missions trips because they want to experience the self-fulfilling thrill of “before and after pictures.”

You know what I’m talking about:

“This is a picture of the plot of dirt we found when we arrived. And this is the church building that we constructed in 4 days.”


“Here is a picture of the muddy, garbage-filled stream that the local children used to drink out of, and this is a picture of the village kids drinking crystal clear water from the well that we dug.”

For the most part, I think we come by it honestly. We want to make a difference. We want to know that all of our efforts were not in vain. That we accomplished what we set out to do. Then we want to celebrate the impact of those efforts by sharing the results with our family and friends.

The problem is that while we think we are celebrating the impact, we are usually just celebrating ourselves.

Missions trips are supposed to be catalytic, not cathartic.

It’s a good thing to leave your comfort zone and spend a week or two serving a community that has real and urgent needs. But please remember that the moment you put a bow on your efforts and say “mission accomplished” with an “after picture” you have officially declared victory in a war that was never yours to begin with.

When people serve with us at New York City Relief, there are lots of “before pictures.” Honestly, almost all the pictures we get are “before pictures.” Every now and then a volunteer team gets the privilege of snagging an “after shot,” but every “after picture” is the result of weeks, months, and years of effort that God has put in through countless vessels who were willing to say, “here I am, send me.”

In 1st Corinthians 3:6 one of the greatest missionaries of all time writes this: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.”

When we go on missions trips to communities where we are not entrenched on a long-term basis, we have to remember that we are in the business of planting and watering. The growing is God’s job.

So the next time you want to share the success of your short-term missions trip, let your life be the “before and after picture.”

Show the world how different you are “after” your short-term trip by engaging in ministries at home that serve the poor.

Find places in your community that need the same kind of involvement as the organizations you partnered with abroad.

Teach your family and friends the lessons that you learned by encouraging them to go on the same short-term trip that launched you into the mission of God.

Every person who surrenders his or her life to Jesus should be a walking, talking “after picture.” Not because you’ve arrived, but because you’ve started. And sometimes the best thing to get a person moving is a short-term missions trip.

Smile for the camera!

Grace and Peace,





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How Do I Knock on a Homeless Person’s Door?

DSC_5012The doorbell rings. My dogs start barking their heads off.

“Maximus! Hector! Shut up!” 

The TV is on, my wife and kids are out, and I’m closer to a nap than I have been in weeks; I don’t feel like talking to people right now. I roll off the couch and sneak up to the front window to peek through the blinds.

As I do, I see a big brown truck pulling away from the sidewalk in front of my house.

UPS! My favorite kind of guest. They don’t come inside, they never stay late, and they always leave a parting gift. 

It occurs to me that having a house, a door, and a window with blinds all give me the power of deciding who I talk to and who I don’t. 

It’s my call. If I saw a Verizon FIOS salesman or a missionary from the great state of Utah, I could opt to just ignore them until they get the “message” that this homeowner isn’t interested. 

Why is it that we don’t often offer the same power to people without a door to hide behind?

Why is it that so many well-intentioned people assume that if someone lives in the street he or she would want the pleasure of my company, let alone my advice/criticism?

I was sitting on the floor of Penn Station once chatting with a new friend when a woman walking past us stopped abruptly, looked at my friend, and said, “my church feeds the homeless outside every Thursday. You should come. You need it!” 

She didn’t say, “hello.” She didn’t introduce herself or ask for my friend’s name. She didn’t even find out if he was homeless before declaring him to be one of “the homeless.”

My friend handled the interruption far more graciously than I would have. He smiled. Thanked her and explained that he was ok and she walked on without saying goodbye.

If someone just walked into my house without knocking, ringing the doorbell, or any other means of announcing his or her intentions, I would call the police. 

If you want to reach out to people who are in the street, and you want to start off on the right foot, begin like you would if you were introducing yourself to a new neighbor. 

Knock first. Make eye contact. Smile. Say hello. Ask them how it’s going. If they ignore you, cuss at you, or look the other way, just assume that either no one is home or that they, like me most of the time when I’m at home, just don’t feel like chatting.

The reality is that most of the folks who are homeless are so desperate to be seen, acknowledged, and cared for that they will run to the door, throw it open, and invite you in. For the most part, no body ever drops by for a visit. Everyone usually just walks into their foyer and tells them how to rearrange the furniture. 

Before you make a suggestion, make sure you have an invitation. Advice that is unsolicited is almost always ignored. Make a friend, then make a difference.

Grace & Peace,



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Do People Choose to be Homeless?

DSC_4957Lots of people ask me the question: “don’t people who live in the street often choose to be homeless?”

It’s a loaded question.

For one, if folks choose homelessness then it removes any responsibility from me to actually do anything to help them.

Secondly, it generalizes a diverse population into a neatly packaged box that we can put on a shelf and forget about until a more convenient time. 

If life was a multiple choice test and human beings actually felt that out of four options, “homelessness” was the one to go with, then I imagine the other three would make most of us throw down our number two pencils and storm out of the room. 

Most of the people we meet in the streets of New Jersey and New York City would trade their lives for mine in a second. Most are struggling with pain that the general public couldn’t even imagine. 

Some people seem to be under the impression that folks who are homeless either want to be out there so they can be “free” to drink or use drugs, or that they struggle with some kind of mental illness. The reality might surprise you. I recently read an article that does identify one common issue that almost everyone struggling with homelessness has in common:

“Less than 20131018-111023.jpg4 in 10 homeless people are dependent on alcohol and less than 3 in 10 abuse other drugs, according to 2003 data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Between 20 and 50 percent of the homeless have a serious mental illness, according to 2013 data.

The most widely shared problem among homeless people is not substance abuse or mental illness — it’s trauma.”

Anecdotally, I know this to be true. I meet people every day who have been abused by family members, sexually assaulted, robbed, hit by moving vehicles, seen death first hand either at home or overseas, neglected, born with a disability, shot, stabbed, you name it.

I had one volunteer express consternation because he didn’t understand why someone making such a small amount of money would choose to spend what little he had on alcohol instead of food. I told him that’s easy, “food fills your stomach, but it doesn’t help you forget.”

As a society we need to recognize that our homeless brothers and sisters are not simply rejecting the common good or rebelling against cultural norms. They are surviving. They are playing the cards they’ve been dealt; some cards are just better than others and some people are more skilled at playing the game.

So do people living in the street often choose to be homeless? No. I don’t believe that for a second. I don’t believe the people who tell you they choose to be homeless actually choose to be homeless. Sometimes it’s just easier to pretend than to fail.

Let’s start by waking up and taking responsibility for the people in our society who are falling through the cracks in the sidewalk that we created in our hurry to build a better world.

Grace and Peace,


Hands photo

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Anger Management

191175_10150122214547945_500087944_6581388_7895578_o“Can you help me get a job?” 

A tall, soft-spoken, African-American man with sharp features stood before me. I was in East Harlem on Park Ave. The Metro North thundered on the tracks that towered over us.

I waited for the train to pass.

“We can try to connect you to someone who can. What’s your name?”


“I’m going to need help spelling that one, bro.” He spelled it out. “Do you have a nickname? Something your friends call you?” 

He smiled. “Call me, Z.”

“Z? I can handle that. So what kind of job are you looking for?”

“Anything, man. I have my degree in Business Management from Monroe College, but I have this thing where I don’t work well with others.”

“Oh yeah? That surprises me, you seem so chill.” 

“Nah. I have never been able to contain my anger. Someone will tell me to do something or look at me wrong and I’ll just lose it. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’ve never been able to hold down a job. I’m going to get checked out by a pyschiatrist next week. I can’t keep going like this.” 

“That’s smart. I think a wise philosopher once said, ‘know thyself.’ If you don’t know what’s going on in your own head or why you respond the way you do, you won’t be able to take preventative steps to avoid those problems. You’re doing the right thing. The smart thing.”

“Thanks, man. I just need to get my sh*t together. I have a little girl and I can’t see her because of an assault charge that’s pending. They think I’m not safe. It really pisses me off though, because I’ve only ever gotten physical with other guys, I don’t hurt women or kids. I’d never hurt my little girl. But right now I’m living in the shelter and because of the craziness there I know I’m going to get thrown back into jail and I’ll never get to be there for my daughter.”

“When was the last time you got into a fight?” 

“Last week. I got into a fight with my roommate because he’s friends with a drug dealer who comes into our room. I told him I’ve got to stay out of trouble. He can’t be bringing that stuff into my space. I want to stay out of jail so I can see my little girl. But he wouldn’t listen. He said, ‘you’re in a f*ckin’ shelter! You can’t tell me who I can or can’t bring in here.’ So I snapped and I punched him the face.” 

“Dude… How did you stay out of jail?” 

“He didn’t tell the staff at the shelter that I hit him. But I don’t know how I can keep living like this. I’m doing anger management, but it’s not helping.” He looked down at his feet. 


“Well, here’s the deal man: I’m going to refer you to a job training and placement program that’s nearby. They are going to call you to enroll you into a program that will get you OSHA certified and hopefully working as soon as possible. But maybe just as importantly, next time you’re in a stressful situation, just text me. I want to be able to pray for you in that moment. We all need friends to talk us off the ledge sometimes. I’d love to be your friend.” 

He looked up, surprised. “Seriously? I don’t think it will help, but I do need a friend.” 

“Me too, bro. And I’ll text you the next time I feel like punching someone in the face too. We can help each other. That’s what friends are for. And one more thing: if you ever lose it again and get locked up, please call me. Whatever happens, I’ll be there.”

Grace and Peace,


haken family photo2015

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Fear Can Hold You Prisoner. Hope Can Set You Free.

imageIn my opinion, one of the best movies of all time is “The Shawshank Redemption.” In this movie Andy is a well-off banker who gets convicted of murdering his wife and his wife’s lover in a fit of rage and jealousy. He gets sent to Shawshank Prison for life without the possibility of parole and it’s there that the movie takes on themes like “friendship,” “betrayal,” “injustice,” “rehabilitation,” and “hope.” I have a Shawshank Redemption poster on the wall of my office with one sentence written in bold letters across the top of the picture that literally breathes life into me every time I see it:

“Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.”

I was born and raised in West Africa into a family of missionaries. I’m the youngest of 4 kids and my older siblings loved to go rock climbing at the quarry just outside of the city where we lived. The cliff was about sixty feet tall and my brothers and sister would scamper up and down that rock-face every chance they got.

I was in 1st grade when I first attempted to climb to the top of that wall. I was so excited. I got my harness on, hooked the rope to it, asked the person holding me if I could start, and when they said the magic words, “belay on,” I started to climb.

There are a lot of advantages to climbing when you’re a 1st grade kid who does nothing but play outside in the African heat. I was pretty good. I was moving up that cliff like a monkey in a tree. The only disadvantage to rock climbing as a 1st grader was that I was short. The hand-holds that my siblings could reach easily, I could not.

I was about halfway up when I got stuck. I was hanging on to this tiny crack in the rock when I realized that I had nowhere to go. I could see the places that someone else might be able to reach if he or she was taller, but as hard as I tried I couldn’t get there. Someone was yelling something from down below, trying to give me directions, but I couldn’t hear them so I looked down to see who it was… Big mistake.

I’m not terribly afraid of heights, and when I was steadily moving upwards it was all well and good. But something about being stuck with no place to go but down made the distance from me to the ground below seem immeasurably worse. In that moment I was overcome with terror and I froze. I was a prisoner to my fear and I started to cry.

Have you ever been there? I realize it’s unlikely that anyone reading this has ever been rock climbing in a quarry in West Africa, but maybe you’ve reached a point in life where you feel imprisoned by fear?

Let’s be honest this world is a scary place. I talk to men and women every day who have seen the worst this world has to offer. People who have been attacked in the street, robbed, raped, abused, you name it. The reality is that most of us would be terrified if we stopped moving forward in life and looked “down” to notice for the first time just how far we are from safety.

“Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.”

“Meanwhile, the disciples were in trouble far away from land, for a strong wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves. About three o’clock in the morning Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. When the disciples saw him walking on the water, they were terrified. In their fear, they cried out, ‘It’s a ghost!’ But Jesus spoke to them at once. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said. ‘Take courage. I am here!’ Then Peter called to him, ‘Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water.’ ‘Yes, come,’ Jesus said. So Peter went over the side of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus.” Matthew 14

When Peter sees Jesus and hears Him say, “Don’t be afraid,” he moves from being frozen in fear to being courageous in hope. He sees Jesus and is hopeful that Jesus is able to carry him on the water as well. He has hope that Jesus can keep him from drowning. The storm is still raging and the boat is still teetering, but seeing Jesus walking towards him on the water changes the lens through which he perceives the storm. In hope, he steps out.

The only antidote to the paralysis of fear is hope.

In this life, our circumstances can look really bad. In fact, in and of themselves, they are bad. Life is hard. Loved ones get sick. Bills pile up. Hatred is pervasive. Death is real. When we look at this life as it is, without any reason to expect things to change, fear is the only logical conclusion.

And yet:

“When Peter and his friends were far away from land and the wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves Jesus came toward them, walking on the water.”

I believe as bad as it seems right now, Jesus is walking toward you. I believe as hard as life can be, Jesus is walking toward you. I believe as scary as your circumstances are, and they are scary, Jesus is walking toward you. As badly as you’ve screwed up, Jesus is walking toward you. As lost as you are, Jesus is walking toward you.

When I was up on that cliff and I looked down, all I saw was the people that looked like ants crawling on the floor hundreds of miles away. I was so focussed and imprisoned by my fear, I didn’t see my older sister climbing up the rock toward me to show me the way out.

Maybe it’s time for you to break out of the prison of fear into the freedom of hope. Jesus is walking toward you.

Don’t be afraid.

He hears you.

He’s coming.

On the night that Jesus would be brutally tortured and killed, he said this to the same disciples who were on that boat:

“In this life you will have trouble. Take heart! I have overcome the world!” John 16:33

“Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.”

Grace and Peace,



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Consistency. Excellence. Dignity.

“Do you serve hot soup in the summer time too?” The question was from a resource partner I was introducing to our work at New York City Relief.

“Yes indeed. We serve the same soup all year round.”

“People still eat it when it’s 90 degrees out?” He seemed surprised.

“Yep. We sure do. We make really good soup.”

As the old adage goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We have a profoundly simple operation. When asked to describe what we do, I like to steal Denzel Washington’s line from the movie Remember the Titans. As the new African-American head coach of a recently integrated high school, Denzel’s character, Coach Herman Boone, passes his play book out to the assistant coaches who used to run the team, prior to boarding a bus for summer training camp. One of the coaches remarks, “awful skinny play book ain’t it?”

Coach Boone replies: “I run 6 plays, split veer. It’s like Novocaine. Just give it time, always works.”

At New York City Relief, we don’t run a lot of plays. We don’t serve coffee with options for cream and sugar, decaf or regular. We don’t give out pants, shirts, sweaters, and underwear. We don’t serve meals with meat, dairy, or even deserts.

We serve the same vegetable rice soup, with juice or hot chocolate every day and we give away brand new socks and toiletry kits. That’s pretty much all we “do” but that is no where close to all we “are.”

The little that we “do” we do with excellence and we do with intention. We don’t “mix it up” a whole lot because, like Coach Boone says, “give it time, always works.”

Part of the reason we are able to be out in the streets week in and week out is because our operation is so simple. We offer consistency; rain or shine, we go. We have had some bad winters over the last few years, but we haven’t missed a scheduled outreach since Hurricane Sandy.

The people we serve can’t count on a lot, but they can count on us. One person we served described our consistency by saying, “they are faithful, like God is faithful.”

Beyond consistency, we also want to serve with excellence.

It’s the same soup every day, but like I told our new partner, we make good soup! There’s a rumor going around that it might be the best soup in NYC (I have no idea who started it)! We literally prepare our soup fresh every day with healthy ingredients. We also pick up a new batch of Portuguese rolls every day that are always delicious and never old. The socks we distribute run for the retail price of $20 for a pack of 6 and the hygiene kits are all prepackaged and even come with brand-name deodorant.

Not only do we serve consistently and with excellence, but we also strive to communicate dignity to each person that happens upon the Relief Bus or one of our Don’t Walk By outreach teams. We want each person who comes to the Relief Bus to be treated as a paying customer. Valuable. Empowered.

Too many people serving folks who can’t afford to spend money on their meals forget that none of us earns the physical capacity for wealth creation. None of us makes our heart beat properly and reliably. We all exist at the mercy of others, so we are not defined by our net worth or our ability to pay for stuff. Our value comes from God and He says that each person who sleeps in the street is worth Jesus being tortured and ripped apart from everything and everyone He loves. On the cross, Jesus does a price check on each human that has ever lived, and the sticker shock alone should knock us off our feet.

The people we serve have infinite value. They are literally priceless. The least we can do is act like it.

Ultimately, our end goal is to connect the people we serve to resources that could change the trajectory of their lives forever. We want to leverage the credibility we earn by being consistent, serving with excellence, and communicating worth and dignity to save lives. So many people living in the street are fighting for survival. We want to be the exit ramp off of the “highway to hell” and onto the road to redemption.

We build relationships with partner organizations that provide tangible help with things like detox, rehab, discipleship, housing, legal aid, counseling, food stamps, Medicaid, clothing, and many others. But we can’t connect anyone to anything if we aren’t consistent, if we don’t serve with excellence, and we don’t communicate dignity. Everything we do is designed to transform lives, both the lives of the people serving and the people being served. And in the Kingdom of God it’s not always clear which group is which.

Grace and Peace,


Hands photo

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The Happiest Man in the World

IMG_5689I was walking the streets of Manhattan with two teenagers from North Carolina. The two teens were a part of a visiting team of 45 that joined us for our weekly Don’t Walk By outreach.

Every Thursday we split the center of midtown Manhattan into zones and we walk the streets from 6:30 – 9:15 PM in search of folks that the rest of the world has forgotten. We do a larger version of this outreach every Saturday in February with a consortium of Christ-centered organizations called the Rescue Alliance (

On this particular Thursday I was leading a group from 7th Ave to Park Ave, and from 36th Street to 42nd. This area includes Bryant Park, which is right behind a massive public library that simultaneously attracts tourists and street-bound children of God. We had encountered a few people and had given away a few pairs of socks, but on the whole it was a slow night.

When we entered the park I saw a guy in a green uniform emptying out one of the trash cans so I decided to enlist his assistance.

“Excuse me. We are volunteering with an outreach event to help connect people living in the street to resources and help. Do you know where we could find anybody in need of a new pair of socks, hygiene kit, or a meal?”

“Right over there.” He pointed into the far corner. “God bless you, for what you’re doing.” He stuck out his hand with a big smile.

It doesn’t surprise me that there are angels working with the parks department.

We meandered over to where he had pointed and there was an older white man trying to plug his phone into an outlet. He was struggling. He had bags on a table nearby. His wrinkled face was rosy and he had layer upon layer of clothing to protect him from the elements.

“Are you trying to charge your phone?” I asked.

“Yes. But this doesn’t seem to be working. I don’t know how to use this thing. I got this ‘Obama-phone’ yesterday. It won’t charge.” While there are many folks living in the street who are tech-savvy, many are not.

“Let me take a look. I have some experience with these things.”

The “Obama-phone” is a government funded cell phone that is free for folks who qualify by being on food stamps, welfare, or SSI/SSD. One gets 250 minutes per month and free text messaging on a very basic device. I’ve spent hours over the last 5 years signing people up, charging, and calling folks with them.

I’m a huge fan of the program because it’s ridiculous to assume that someone can navigate a place like New York City, let alone get a job, if they can’t be reached. Those phones are often the difference between someone getting the help and encouragement they need and spending more nights in the street than they have to.

I plugged his phone in and the light didn’t go on, so I pulled it out and hit the power button. Sure enough the screen lit up like a Christmas tree and the little battery signal was saturated from top to bottom.

“It’s not charging because it’s already fully charged.” I told him, handing him his phone.

“Oh thank you. Thank you.” He replied as if I had pulled him from a burning building.

“What’s your name?” One of the teens with me spoke up.

“Bill,” he said. “What’s yours, young man?”

We told him our names and immediately Bill opened up. He started telling us about how beautiful the park is. How blessed he is to live in this magnificent city. He told us where and how to sneak into a Broadway show during the intermission because, in his words, “they don’t care at that theater, they are good people.”

When he told us he sleeps on the subway, he wasn’t complaining.

When we asked how we could pray for him, he directed us to pray foIMG_5686r others because, as he put it, “I’m truly happy. How could I not be happy? Look around.”

He dropped scripture on us, Matthew 6 to be precise. Bill was a living breathing example of a man who lived “like the lilies of the field.”

“Stop worrying,” he commandeed us. “Your Heavenly Father knows what you need.”

He prayed over us. For the “young man” he prayed that he would always trust God and not get distracted by what the world tells him is important.

Towards the end of our conversation, Bill said, “you never know how God is going to bless you. He sent me three beautiful people to talk to and make my day.”

People often think that we are the ones with something to offer people in the street. That they “need what we have.” And to a certain extent that’s true. We all do have something to offer. But in the same breath that I say that folks who are homeless need you, I will also say, “you need them.”

I needed to learn from Bill that night. I needed to sit at his feet and let him be the voice of God in my life. I needed to receive what he was giving away.

Next time you feel like serving in a soup kitchen, clothing bank, food pantry, or doing some other “good” or “charitable” deed, remember that each life that you touch has the capacity to touch you right back. And just as you give, if you are open to it, you will also receive.

Grace and Peace,



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