If you ask a church leader or member about the most important ministry of their church, you will get a variety of answers, everything from small groups, to discipleship to music, to prayer ministry. All of those are great answers, but let me give you a different response as we have just finished celebrating the birth of a baby to a family with no shelter and nowhere to go.
Ministry to the homeless.
Over the past 10 years, I have seen more life-change, more amazing miracles from God and more growth in followers of Christ in this ministry in my church than in any other thing I have done. We call it Room in the Inn here in Nashville, where 126 churches participate by accepting a night of every winter week to shelter and feed those without either. Here’s a link to an article explaining Room in the Inn.
My involvement began with my friend Rodney on a cold, snowy January night, where our church was the shelter and the food provider for 10 needy men. I almost didn’t come back after my first experience.
Joe, one of the men we cared for, began choking on his own blood at 2 a.m. as he slept on a mat in one of our Sunday School classrooms. An addiction to alcohol had so destroyed his ability to digest food that what we fed him that night caused his stomach to hemorrhage. We cleared his airway, got him breathing, got him into ambulance, where he got the medical care he needed. We found out he was OK, but we have never heard from him again.
Just for the record, we have not had a challenge like Joe’s since then. I was traumatized, but I kept coming back to serve at Room in the Inn.
Homeless ministry changes your misconceptions about the homeless.
They aren’t panhandlers. They aren’t criminals. They are people – just like you. Occasionally, we run into a few people who have no desire to help themselves, but those are few and far between. They are people who struggle with addictions and mental illness. They are the working poor who cannot afford housing. They are immigrants, trying to get a start in a strange land.
One night, we provided food, shelter and a conversation to a Vanderbilt University student who was attending college on the GI Bill, but didn’t have enough extra money temporarily to afford dorm or apartment rent. He was an honor student.
Increasingly, they are people who once were living paycheck to paycheck until they lost their jobs. They had no safety net, so they became homeless.
Homeless ministry changes you.
It’s pretty easy to live in the American suburbs and conveniently ignore the plight of the poor who struggle to exist just a few miles away. When you regularly serve the needs of these people, you begin to hesitate about wasting food or overeating. You don’t just toss some slightly worn socks or shoes into the garbage. You can’t go into a clothing store without thinking about people who need a coat or a hat or even underwear. When you lay down at night in your warm bed on a 20-degree December night, you find yourself thinking those people who are sleeping under a bridge or in a tent down by the Cumberland River.
You begin to think about people the way God does. You begin to hurt for people the way God does. The hundreds of passages of the Bible that command us to serve the less fortunate come alive and knit themselves to your soul.
Homeless ministry builds leaders.
A few years back, my friend Joe began feeding the homeless through Room in the Inn. Now he’s leading the ministry at our church. He’s great at building relationships with the friends we minister to every Wednesday night and he has a great grasp of the details of what it takes to run this ministry. The night before Thanksgiving, he prayed for our meal with our group and it brought tears to my eyes. Joe is a man who loves God and loves people, and it’s impossible for him to keep his love for Him and for the homeless to himself. He has become a church leader through Room in the Inn. The same thing happened with my friend Jeff. A Marine who has served multiple tours of duty all over the world began serving the homeless, was saved by God’s work in his life through seeing Him at work in homeless ministry and is now a leader in our church.
Homeless ministry connects your heart to Jesus in a way I just can’t explain and He moves you to a different place of ministry.
All of us who serve Room in the Inn have countless opportunities to build relationships and share our faith. Most of the time, we don’t have to do much to start a faith conversation. When you show you care and when the Spirit prompts you to imitate Jesus, these people engage you. They want to know what’s in your heart.
For me, the homeless are in my heart. I am convinced God placed them there.