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To know, love, and serve street-dependent youth
I have a client I’ve know for two years. When I first met him, he was rebellious and high all the time. He did a stint in state jail and now he’s back. But he’s different now. He walked with me the other day and we shared a very meaningful conversation.
“When I first met you, I didn’t like you. I didn’t understand why you were here and why you were nice. And I knew you were religious, and I hated religion. I was an ass to you. I’m sorry.”
I replied, “Thank you for that, but I don’t remember you as an ass. I get everything you say. We are taught that nothing is free, so you wondered what my motivation is. Lots of people do. That’s why you’ll hear me say all the time, ‘My desire is to see you more stable, sober, reconnected with God, and finding a faith community when you want it.’ “
He asked a question, “Do you think there are any unforgivable sins?” This is a common question. I answered, “Jesus said blasphemy of the Spirit is unforgivable. But people aren’t in agreement what he meant.
Here is my take based on the whole of the Bible. God loves you but God does not abide evil. Evil must be away from him. So we are put away from him, we separate ourselves when we are evil. And it’s not God that goes anywhere. It’s us. It’s as if I turned my back to you right now. Our conversation would stop. And if I had wronged you, you would not forgive me because we would not be talking. However, when I turn around, we can talk again. And probably no matter what I’ve done to you, if we have a safe new relationship, you probably would forgive me in time.”
He thought about this, “Yes, I have learned to forgive a lot of things as I get older.” He is 20 years old. “I can forgive hurting me. I have forgiven stealing from me. I can forgive a lot. I think my line would be child abuse. I couldn’t forgive that.”
I replied, “I understand. But I’ve seen people who eventually have a safe relationship with their abuser and forgive them. It’s not easy and I’m not saying it is required. But forgiving someone releases a burden that you carry with you until you are able to forgive. Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting or trusting.”
He replied, “I think I need to hear this. A family member was never there for me. I have hated him all my life. But when I got out of jail, I saw pictures and he’s wasting away. He’s old and has a disease. He’s going to die. And I have realized that I love him, but I’ve never told him.”
I explained, “Forgiveness begins in a vertical mode, between you and God, or within you. It doesn’t involve the person who wronged you at all. It sounds like you may have done this vertical part now.” He jumped in, “Yes! It feels like a weight just dropped off me when I realized this.” I agreed and continued, “You may eventually have the chance to work on horizontal forgiveness with this person. It sounds like you’d like that. Sometime the person isn’t safe, isn’t available, or even isn’t alive. Then it’s hard to do the horizontal part and sometimes the vertical forgiveness has to be enough. But when you have a safe relationship of some sort with the person, the horizontal forgiveness can lead to good things sometimes.”
We closed by talking about what he wants from the future. “I don’t want to turn out like my family. But I find myself wanting a family. It scares me to death. I want a house and kids and a wife. I’m changing.” I smiled: “It’s all normal, dude. The street was a safe place for you. It was sweet freedom for you at a time when you needed it, but most people can’t stay here forever. You’re right on track. Keep exploring those things. I believe you’re going to make it out of here. I bet in the next year.” He replied, “I hope so!”
I pray for this client. His questions suggest he needs to be able to forgive himself and those who hurt him in order to move forward. He is super smart and capable. His thought suggest he is growing by leaps and bounds. I pray he continues to do this and has great dreams and visions about his future.
It’s such a privilege to serve him.
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Recently one of our clients stole our phone. We were using it as a music source during our prayer time, and they simply slipped out with the phone. Of course, at first that made me very angry. I hoped that perhaps it would be something the thief would repent of and return the phone.
First, I put the word out on the street, that the phone belongs to the ministry and that we needed it back. It would cost the ministry time and money that otherwise would be spent helping people; instead the money would be spent paying for a stolen phone.
Perhaps putting the word out on the street worked. Because in three days, the stolen phone was purchased by a local used electronics shop and they called me. In the meantime, many people offered to buy me a new phone. I wrestled with what to do.
I decided to buy the phone back from the used electronics dealer. I paid $50 to get the phone back. Sure, it can be argued that the electronics dealer is in the wrong. But I decided that wasn’t my principle calling. I wanted the “harm” to come back to the ministry. That’s where it originated and that’s where it should be dealt with.
I have since learned that one client stole it and hustled it to another client for $20. Obviously they were desperate. That client hustled it to the electronics store for $30. Clients normally involve a third party with a “clean ID” to hustle for them. So, I assume that accounts for the remaining $20. Or perhaps someone else got a piece?
I wrestled with what to do. I prayed a lot. I DO forgive the people who did this. And I feel deeply sad for them, that they are so desperate as to steal from someone who tries to regularly help them. I have continued to spread the word that I do forgive them, but that I hope and pray they will have the courage to admit what they did and repent of stealing.
Second, I decided that the ministry would absorb the $50 as a teaching opportunity. All theft has victims. Someone pays. And frankly, it usually trickles down, through higher prices, insurance costs, etc. to little people who can ill afford it. So as a demonstration, I have eliminated $50 from our food and benefits budget this month. That means no salsa on our donated breakfast tacos. It means no creamed cheese on our donated day old bagels. It means no sour cream on baked potatoes (also recovered from grocery stores). At each occasion, I will explain that the missing items were in effect stolen by whomever took the phone. I will make sure everyone knows the person is forgiven. When they say it’s not fair, I will explain that even forgiven sins have consequences. And in this case, the consequence is that the limited resource, hard earned by donors and supporters, was wasted by the thief. And simply that is why there is less this month.
Third, I want to ask our clients to stop theft. I’m not asking for a community of snitches. I’m asking them to become a community of people who intervene, stepping in as someone makes a move to steal and say, “No… not here. There’s another way.”
Most of all, after soul searching through this, I want our clients to know that nothing that can be stolen would keep us from doing ministry. One person will not spoil the works. We don’t need to offer food at all. We just like to offer food. And if thieves make it so that we can’t be trusted to go inside partner churches for fear that anything not bolted down might be stolen, we won’t stop the ministry for that either. We can do our ministry outside on the sidewalk. It’s just nice to offer the simple hospitality of being able to go inside a church.
Certainly I was initially mad. I pray that this response is a strong Christian response, and one led by The Holy Spirit. We love all of our clients and nothing they can do will change that. But our love is an expectant one. We know they are our clients are capable of great things!
We began our Wednesday night fellowship dinners again, taking as many clients that want to attend to Covenant Presbyterian Church for dinner with members; followed by a small group. It’s a great success so far; after three weeks. Although we do offer the option to leave campus after dinner, so far, not even one person has asked for a ride back to the Drag at 6:30pm. Everyone has stayed for the small group afterward.
A co-leader has been preparing a class each week on a simple parable. This particular week was on how to pray The Lord’s Prayer, and the parable of the stranger at night.
As we closed our discussion, I prompted the group to let me know how I could be praying with them by asking, “What do you want God to do in your life?” I got few responses. So, I prompted them several more times, probably freaking out my two co-leaders. But slowly, the numbness wore off, and the clients allowed their true wants to come to the surface. “A place to live.” “Money.” “Happiness.” In the middle of these and other answers, one young man simply said, “Forgiveness.”
We closed our session in prayer and began looking for drivers to take the clients back to the Drag. I arranged to take the young man, who said forgiveness, back alone. On the way back, he played the radio. Eventually, I turned it down and told him that I needed to follow-up. I wanted to know more about the forgiveness he wanted in his life. We talked a bit in the dark truck cab. He knows he does wrong. He knows he’s been a burden on his parents. But he wants forgiveness in these things and more.
I shared how the Gospel works, forgiveness in exchange for asking and believing. It sounds too good to be true. And it would be if anyone else in the universe were promising it. But God IS trustworthy. The client wasn’t sure yet, but we are continuing to work on it.
Please pray that this client comes to understand the grace of Jesus Christ. Please pray for all clients that suffer from numbness. Help the desires of their heart to break through, because no matter how much sin is in their life or has touched their life, some of their desires are truly good and noble. And these desires will give rise to the desire to know the One who is holy and worthy, and the source of all goodness in the universe.
And that will be a great day for each of them!