Wednesday, April 01, 2009

After a long absence

I recently flew back east to lead a workshop on living the lifestyle of a missionary in the here and now, and spent a few days in Pittsburgh after the conference. I hung out with my friend Amanda after spending a leisurely morning at a hospitable community called Friendship House. It's located in a small neighborhood named Friendship near the edge of the modest city of Pittsburgh. Right outside of Friendship house, Friendship Ave stretches, connecting a line of houses in a community that has felt the pain of poverty and gentrification, but this beautiful community has been involved for at least a decade. Before spending time with Amanda, I helped serve in their after school program, shooting some hoops with some middle schoolers and listening to John Paul deliver a litergy to the kids in the midst of their raucous noise. After that time, I went with Amanda to a local coffee shop that unfortunately was closing down in a week due to lack of business. There were a number (about six or seven) neighborhood kids hanging out inside the shop, which gave it a homey feel, and they immediately gravitated to Amanda and me, so we started playing chess with them. The lady behind the counter offered them some hot chocolate in tiny little mugs, and it all contributed to a feeling that this little coffee shop felt like a bit of heaven on earth.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


A couple days ago I was chilling outside of the local police department (just because I needed a place to sit while I waited for a friend) and a white guy walks out muttering under his breath (but loud enough for me to hear) "I just can't take it anymore, I can't stop, I can't take it anymore." I looked at him, and he looked at me, and I asked him what the problem was. "I can't stop."
"What can't you stop?"
I talked with him for the next five minutes encouraging him to seek Christ and gave him my number. I also mentioned the church I've been going to, and he seemed really interested, because I told him that it's the kind of church that accepts people whoever they are--homeless, gay, yuppie, black, white, latino, whoever. I hope he calls me, and I'm praying that God will give him enough realization of his need that he will seek more help.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

New paradigm on evangelism

I was reading in Christianity Today from the July 08 edition, and read an article about a way of sharing Jesus with people called the "Big Story." The Four Spiritual Laws are replaced by four circles, with the following four captions. The first circle starts in the top left side of the page, the second one the top right side, etc.
Circle 1. Designed for Good
Circle 2. Damaged by evil
Circle 3. Restored for better
Circle 4. Sent together to heal

I like the emphasis that James Choung puts on the kingdom of God in his presentation of the gospel in these four circles. It's not just about me and Jesus--it's about joining in the work of the kingdom! A point that James makes in the article is that in explaining the diagram to people, many try to jump from circle 2 to circle 4, but it is impossible without the intervention of Jesus through the cross in circle 3.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

"The idolatry of money means that the moral worth of a person is judged in terms of the amount of money possessed or controlled. The acquisition and accumulation of money in itself is considered evidence of virtue. It does not so much matter how money is acquired--by work or invention, through inheritance or marriage, by luck or theft--the main thing is to get some. The corollary of this doctrine, of course, is that those without money are morally inferior--weak, or indolent, or otherwise less worthy as human beings. Where money is an idol, to be poor is a sin.
This is an obscene idea of justification, directly in contradiction with the Bible. In the gospel none are saved by any works of their own, least of all by the mere acquisition of money. In fact, the New Testament is redundant in citing the possession of riches as an impediment to salvation when money is regarded idolatrously. At the same time, the notion of justification by acquisition of money is empirically absurd, for it oversimplifies the relationship of the prosperous and the poor and overlooks the dependence of the rich upon the poor for their wealth. In this world human beings live at each other's expense, and the affluence of the few is proximately related to, and supported by, the poverty of the many.
This interdependence of rich and poor is something Americans are tempted to overlook, since so many Americans are in fact prosperous, but it is true today as it was in earlier times: the vast multitudes of people on the face of the earth are consigned to poverty for their whole lives, without any serious prospect whatever of changing their conditions. Their hardships in great measure make possible the comfort of those who are not poor; their poverty maintains the luxury of others; their deprivation purchases the abundance most Americans take for granted."
Pg. 245-246 "A Keeper of the Word," by Kellerman


"The seminaries have generally been so covetous of academic recognition and so anxious for locus within the ethos and hierarchy of the university that they have not noticed how alien and hostile those premises are to the peculiar vocation of a seminary. thus the seminaries succumb to disseminating ideological renditions of the faith that demean the vitality of the biblical witness by engaging in endless classifications and comparisons of ideas. All this eschews commitment and precludes a confessional study of theology...the appropriate location of the seminary is within the church, the Body of Christ, and not within the university. The seminary's manner in the preparation and qualification of those to be ordained should exemplify the church rather than imitate the university...In short, the enthrallment of the seminary within the ideology of the university sponsors a professionalization of the ordained ministry that aborts the edification of the people of the church and that contradicts the servant character of the clergy's vocation."
pgs. 257-258, "A Keeper of the Word" by Kellerman

Are American churches viable political threats?

"...The churches in America are more innocuous...there is an elaborate American comity by which political domination of the churches is sanctioned by the status of church property holdings. Thus, tax exemption for the churches inhibits a critical political witness by the churches. Thus, a presidential assurance of aid to church-related schools can in sure the silence of the ecclesiastical hierarchy on certain public issues. In short, the dependence of the American churches upon property renders the churches so utterly vulnerable to political manipulation as to obviate a more direct ecclesiastical interference."
pg. 271 "A Keeper of the Word" by Kellerman

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Fear nothing

"Remember, now, that the state has only one power it can use against human beings: death. The state can persecute you, prosecute you, imprison you, exile you, execute you. All of these mean the same thing. The state can consign you to death. The grace of Jesus Christ in this life is that death fails. There is nothing the state can do to you, or to me, which we need fear."
--William Stringfellow, from when he was asked to give a short word to a group of believers meeting together to support Daniel Berrigan and others from the "Catonsville Nine," who were on trial at the time. I've been reading from "A Keeper of the Word," an anthology of Stringfellow's writings by Bill Wylie-Kellerman. I highly recommend it.

Teddy Bear

After the after school program finished on Tuesday, I walked around downtown for a while, deep in thought, and I heard a voice from the side of the sidewalk ask me, "is that a guitar?" pointing to the little travelers guitar I had over my shoulder. I turned, smiled and began a conversation with this elderly black man who had three or four cigarette packs neatly displayed on a handkerchief in front of him. As we talked about four or five people interupted our conversation to ask him for something, and he would either sell them a cigarette for 25 cents or deny them their request. The street was kind of noisy, so I couldn't hear everything that was said, but I gathered that he also sold other drugs besides nicotine, but didn't want to sell them with me around. He soon introduced himself as "Teddy bear" and proceeded to lift up his shirt and reveal a bright blue teddy bear hiding in his pocket. When I offered to let him play my guitar, he was surprised and exceptionally grateful, saying something to the effect that this was the nicest thing someone had done for him in a while. He offered a seat next to him by laying out a folded up towel for me to sit on, and I sat next to him and chatted while he idly played some blues licks. He seemed to have a good amount of skill from accumulated years of experience, yet it also seemed as though it had been a while since he had a guitar in his hands. Although it was very hard for me to understand what he was saying, he seemed to be spiritually attentive, and was concerned for my safety on the streets. When I got a call from a friend I was planning on hanging out with, I bid him farewell, and we both promised that we'd see eachother again.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Farewells, Cookie, and Old Macdonald

I went to my normal hangout after a sad night at the youth program. One of our longest standing staff will be leaving in three weeks (she has been there for seven years), and one of the kids, Christopher, lost his best friend to a shot from a gang. I sat with him for a while, not saying much, just asking an occasional question, and letting him share. I listened to Lisa sharing her heart with the kids, a kind of matriarchal farewell blessing to them, encouraging them that she loved them all dearly and was simply seeking to follow God's will for her life. I left the room without saying goodbye to that many people and on the way to my spot outside of Pinkberry I noticed an older lady in front of me, wearing scraggly clothing and a blanket over her back which was slightly dragging, and I wondered if there was anything else she was dragging behind her in her life. I thought she was mumbling to herself, so I cautiously greeted her, only to be surprised at the lucidity of her response. She gave me a big smile and asked me if I had any cigarettes. My negative response didn't end our conversation, and I gratefully chatted with her about where I was from and where I lived as we walked over to Little Tokyo. As we passed by a bench outside of a frozen yogurt shop, she asked me to sit down and wait for her while she got a cigarette. She came back not only with a cigarette but with a little plastic tray full of slightly melted mochi, a delicious mixture of icecream balls wrapped in a yummy gummy bread. I ended eating four of the six because she had just had a big meal. Apparently, she was able to live completely off of unfinished meals of patrons of restaurants in the area. She was born in South Korea originally, and married a U.S. soldier. She told me the marriage didn't last for long--only a couple of years, leaving her out on the streets, unable to have much contact with her family in Korea. Although she misses them, she also mentioned to me that it is good for her to be here, where there is plenty of food to eat. I am in complete agreement. After she left with kind words, I went back to a bench to play my guitar for a while, and a man came up to me with a grin and an "Eyi eyi oh" in greeting, and proceeded to share a joke with me (I can't remember what it was, but it had a slightly off color ending). As we chatted a bit, he complemented me on my upbringing--I must have good parents (which I do). I offered him a couple bucks (he hadn't asked anything of me) and he shared another joke, interspersed with occasional Eyi eyi oh's, so I asked him if he was Old Macdonald, and yes apparently that is what some people call him.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Interview in Portland, revisited

Well, I earlier posted a link to an interview a journalist had with me when I was sleeping on the streets of Portland. The link didn't work for a while, but then resurfaced so now I'm going to post the whole article so as not to lose it again. I pretty much agree with what I said back then, except for my comments about marriage--back then, I make it sound as if I'm only interested in dating or marriage with someone who wants or is open to living the homeless lifestyle. That's no longer true.

The following is a section of an online book called Youth Stories by Eric Marley.

Chapter 3 Nathan

Sometimes I am frustrated by my inability to go back and ask follow-up questions. Nathan is one of the best examples I can site of this inadequacy, including what are probably poor technical interviewing techniques as well. However, he is a good example of the educated homeless; those whose stated reason to be on the street are different than the standard ones. My frustration with this interview is my inability to get to the bottom of the real reason for his homelessness. I think it has more to do with his "weakness" than he is admitting. That notwithstanding, he was an interesting young man and a breath of fresh air – a nice change from some of the more heart-wrenching stories I'd heard that day.

Nathan was laying in a doorway at about 8 am on March 10, 2007 when we first passed him. After another interview we passed by him again and he was rolling his sleeping bag. I noticed his bright eyes, cheerful countenance and North Face sleeping bag – none of these being standard equipment for homeless people. I was overcome with curiosity. This interview is the result of that. Nathan seemed to be an example of one of the good but confused people on the road. He's not addicted to drugs, there was no alcohol on his breath and he certainly doesn't seem to be a violent person. But there were in congruencies, holes in his story. There were also references to some undisclosed weakness that he was battling. This notwithstanding, whether he is being completely honest with himself or not he is almost certainly doing others some good with his ready smile and sense of humor.

Interview: March 10, 2007

Place: Portland, Oregon in a doorway on 9th street near Burnside, about 10:45 am

Weather: Overcast

Subject: Nathan, 23 years old.

Your name?


Where is your hometown?

Well, I grew up overseas in different places. I guess the closest thing is Quakertown, Pennsylvania.

Did you live there long?

Maybe about 3 years total. Not too long.

What's your education level, Nathan?

College graduate.

I knew it!

(We both laugh uproariously)

Where did you graduate from and what was your major?

Grover City College in Pennsylvania. My major was Christian Thought.

Interesting. So why are you out of doors?

I'm traveling. I've been hitchhiking. I want to visit some different Christian communities throughout the US. I also want to learn what it's like to be out in the streets, learn from the people. Just be with them.

What are you learning?

Um, I think I'm learning that it's easy to judge but it's hard to love.

What are you going to do with this information?

I'm trying to explain…it's much easier to learn experientially. But I'm trying to explain through my blog and through emails and stuff to my friends and family just what the lifestyle's like so they can come to a better understanding about how they can relate to the homeless. So I hope to basically tell other people from the middle class so they would come to a better understanding and have more compassion and more wisdom I guess, relating to the homeless.

Why is that important to you? You're a college graduate – you could have a more comfortable life I would imagine.

I worked two years with AmeriCorps. The second year I worked with homeless families. Basically calling up shelters and helping them get into shelters. And I realized that there's a lot of help out there for the homeless, but there is not a lot of compassion. So…I think primarily what we need as a middle class, the people that have their stuff together, to learn how to humble themselves and to help other people out, and not be so concerned about their own needs as the needs of others. And what people out in the streets need is not so much a judgmental attitude, "you need to stop drinking" or "you need to stop drugs", but more of a compassionate, "hey, do you want to sit here and chat?" Not necessarily offering anything, but just becoming friends, and creating that dialogue. I think that for too long we've been separating ourselves – the middle class has been moving out into the suburbs, and leaving the city. Now the rich are moving back into the city and kicking the poor out to who-knows-where – somewhere else.

How is this tied to your spirituality? You obviously consider yourself a spiritual person.

Yes. I've been learning a lot about faith and about life through the eyes of the homeless. I went on this trip because of my faith in Christ. I'd say it's taught me that my weaknesses are still the same when I'm on the streets as they were beforehand. I had this idealistic thing, "well, maybe I won't struggle as much with my pet sins because I'll have to be constantly relying on God to help me through this. Boy, that was a big mistake.

So they're still there.

Oh yeah. So, I'm going back to LA because…I guess that's my new hometown since I stayed there two years recently.

Was that also with AmeriCorps?
Yes, but I was also doing an internship with a missionary group called "Servants To Partners." They sent teams overseas to the slums, so, I'm going to go back there and kind of reconnect with some friends and develop more of accountability, a stronger accountability.

Tell me about your family. How do they feel about you being out here – are they worried?

Um, I think my parents are okay with me being out here. They were Christian missionaries.

They were? So they probably had similar experiences?

I would say my lifestyle growing up in Korea and South Africa was maybe slightly lower middle class lifestyle of an American so I was pretty comfortable growing up. Since then I've come to a deeper conviction of the reality of suffering in the world and the need to take on some of that suffering in order to be a real person. To be involved in helping other people and being "Jesus" to them.

I think the Christian doctrine is that Jesus "descended below all things", so you are really trying to emulate his path, is that correct?

Yes, I think that in following Jesus – which is essentially what being a Christian is – it's not all the other things that people add on. I don't even label myself a Christian because people misunderstand what it means. Yeah, so, following Jesus means taking up your cross, which means suffering. He said if anyone would come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me. So I don't claim to be doing that right now. One of my favorite philosophers, Soren Kierkegaard, said he didn't claim to be a Christian because he didn't think he was actually following the level that Jesus called his followers to follow. But…I'm trying to anyways.

You're making an effort.

Yes, I'm making an effort.

And yet, as an outsider, I'd say you're going through tremendous lengths to try to follow Jesus in your understanding of people that are less advantaged than you.


So is it your weaknesses, or things you want to overcome, is that part of it, too?

Yes, I'd say it is. Some people distinguish between their 'social gospel' and there's this whole camp of people like that and then there's this other camp of people that are all about holiness. "Oh I have to not do certain things, or be a certain person." Well, I think Jesus encapsulates both of those together. He was a very holy person – and to distinguish holiness again from what some people think Christians view to be, such as not smoking and drinking and all that stuff. I'm talking about holiness as being set apart for God's work. God is holy and that means he is set apart. So that means…it's very complicated since he's also with us. So…um, I think that the important thing is for personal holiness, values, to also be motivated by love, which means action. Right now I'm struggling with personal holiness values. So I need to kind of reconnect with God on a personal level to deal with some of those issues. So and then I'll better be able to help others out. You can't help others if you're not working and trying to help yourself.

Where do you want to be in 5 years?

I'd like to be two places in five years. Either overseas with a team such as Servants To Partners helping to see Gods kingdom come into a third world slum or somewhere here in the US hitchhiking traveling around on foot, but by that time with an established community that I can always come back to. Um, so there's a community called "Simple Way" in Philadelphia. It's a group of believers that have come together and they are living in a run down area. They live together, pool their resources. So it's not just a community in the sense that they meet together, they also live together.

So it's like a commune?

Yes, exactly. So at that point I'd either like to be overseas or here in the US with a community that I can come back to.

Do you want to have a family of your own someday?

It's kind of up in the air. That's a good question. I do think that my family in a lot of ways is the people I'm with wherever I am. That's one of the things I love about traveling. It's meeting completely new people and establishing this connection – you know you feel like you've been brothers or sisters for a long time. I'm open to eventually getting married. I wouldn't say I'm going to pursue it right now, but I'm hoping to. There aren't too many women out there who want to travel around hitchhiking, sleeping in doorways. (Laughs). But there's a few I think. Actually one of the things that got me interested in this was an article in Prism magazine (an evangelical magazine that talks about issues related to social justice) about this homeless couple in France. One was a former Franciscan priest that started going out on visits with a Franciscan brother, living in shelters and sleeping outside with the homeless – he felt that God was calling him to do this. And actually he met a lady that was serving at a shelter and she wanted to go out with them so the three of them went around for a while. Eventually he got married to her, so he renounced his celibacy vows and they went around as a couple. About three quarters of the year they would be out on the streets.

So is the path you're on now going to help you be where you want to be in 5 years?

Yeah, I've been visiting different communities in the US. I spent a week in a monastery – that was interesting. I also spent a week in a 500 person Christian commune in Chicago. Just north of Chicago they had another one where they had different houses where they would live together. But the one 500 person one in Chicago they all lived in an old hotel, right in uptown Chicago. Jesus People USA. They run a shelter there and it's pretty cool.

What's the name of your blog?

What is a mendicant?

That's a beggar. The mendicants were, in the earlier church, back in the middle Ages, the mendicant orders were groups of people like Saint Francis and his followers. But I've only panhandled a couple of times. I kind of see it in a spiritual sense – a beggar for God.

Thanks, Nathan.

You're welcome.