I have known some street kids for going on 8 years. They had rough lives all, and some of them went to the streets at young ages like 14. All are intelligent and strong and resourceful and flexible. You don't survive on the street without these characteristics. Most have tried just about everything and have managed to survive anyway.
Street Youth Ministry goes out on the street near the University on Texas Fridays from 4 to 6. We often have university students who go with us on this "mini mission trip."
After a brief training session and a prayer, we set off. We probably look a little funny, a line of people walking down the sidewalk, each carrying two or three recycled green grocery bags filled with items to give out.
We have to walk single-file to avoid blocking the sidewalks in this busy part of town. But it has become a tradition for almost two years now.
Seeing The Least of These Among Us
We go to meet street-dependent young people. These people are high school drop-out and college-aged typically. Some are older and occasionally we have much younger runaways. They often live on the streets or in camps. They often travel from city to city, living a vagabond life. They are outcast and unwelcome usually.
The UT college neighborhood is typical and struggles with the presence of street youth. Many want them out. Many more are simply uncomfortable around them and don't know how to respond. When we meet someone from the street, we start by simply making a statement. "Hi! I have some sandwiches, if that would help." Street youth almost always respond openly, "That's awesome… I could really use something to eat now." or "I just ate. Could I take something for later?"
We also offer salty snacks, sweets, water, drink flavorings, socks, dog food, donated clothing, and toiletries on a typical Friday. These are all helpful things to the street youth. They are all donated by a network of volunteers each week.
Getting to Know the Least of These
Once we begin to give out items, I ask the volunteers to be curious and ask open ended questions. "Where are you from?" "How did you get to Austin?" "What is something you like about Austin?" "What is something that you enjoy doing?"
I want the students of UT, ACC, our local seminaries, and even our high schools to know that street youth are more like them than different. They share so many interests and abilities. And yet, they are different. I help volunteer explore the similarities and the differences each week.
As we move from place to place, I ask volunteers questions about what they are seeing. One volunteer said, "I never knew they were here." And yet that volunteer goes to school and church and must have walked by dozens of street youth in the past year.
Volunteers are pleased to find out that the street youth like music, play instruments, sing and dance. Of course they do–just like the volunteers. Volunteers are pleased to find out that the street youth like to read books, novels, classics, text books, and best sellers. Of course they do–just like the volunteers. Volunteers are pleased to find out the street youth love the environment, want to stop unnecessary and unfair exploitation of our natural resources and of oppressed peoples. Of course they do–just like the volunteers.
Windows into Hurt and Pain
And we learn more. Sometimes the street youth share tiny windows into their lives that show us the bad things. One day recently, we came upon a young man, about 24. He was sober and recently beat-up. He was eating a burger and fries on the sidewalk, a gift from someone who had come before us.
He shared, "I love your ministry, Terry. I'm completely unlovable but you come to me anyway." I re-framed his self-hate statement but he deflected it. "No… not me. I'll never get better. I have too many strikes against me." He then went down a list of tragedies and crises that had struck him as a young man: finding a mother attempting suicide, watching his grandfather attempt suicide, seeing his grandmother beaten and abused, being thrown out of his family, becoming an addict.
"I'm not even done with the list, but you can see, I'll never recover." I responded, "No… you'll never forget these things. But think of the strength that possess to withstand them. And think of all the good you can do to help people with all that strength when you can put them behind you."
I ask the volunteers about their reaction to these glimpses into the wounds of street youth. Some volunteers are saddened. Some have difficulty relating. Some can understand because of something that has gone on in their own circle of family and friends. Whatever their reaction, they are also stretched into seeing the street youth with compassion and as a fellow human-being with difficulties of their own.
Prayer and Hope
We ask, "How can we be praying with you?" Certainly not all street youth are Christians, but many believe in prayer. So they often respond. "Pray for me to get a job." "Pray for me to get enough money today to get by." "Pray for me to hang on."
Sometimes they grab a hand and begin to pray with us on the spot. Other times they have lost the will to pray but hope we will do so on their behalf. Sometimes they rebuff our offer, "You know me… me and God don't see eye to eye." Or "I don't believe in God anymore."
Sometimes the street youth reaction is very unexpected. One particular day, a very hardened street youth interacted with volunteers. He is very challenging and almost never responds positively. But on this day, he asked me, "Don't give up on me. You may yet win me to Jesus Christ." I assured him that we would never give up, and gave him a big hug.
We seek to know, to love and to serve street-dependent young people. We seek to help our community to see and to develop compassion for the least of these among us. We love without condoning behavior. We seek to help without condemning. And we never give up.
Check out m.StreetYouthMinistry.org on your smart phone!"To know, love and serve street dependent youth."
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