This was written for and published on Burnside Writers Collective on July 15, 2006.
There are a thousand questions about homelessness that we ask ourselves when the subject comes up. Imagine you’re driving down the road, and you see that same homeless person you’ve seen in that same area for the past 5 years… Who is he? Where did he come from? And the biggest one… Why is he homeless? All of these questions are valid, but as Christians, should they really make a difference in how we treat the homeless?
When asked what the greatest commandments were, Christ responded:
Mark 12, Vs 30-31: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” NIV Translation
I’ve been a Christian most of my life, but a few years ago I experienced new growth in my walk with God. At the time, I was attending the Vineyard church of Chattanooga, which is active in ministries for the homeless. On Sunday afternoons, the church would cook enough food for a hundred homeless and feed them at a park in downtown Chattanooga. At about the same time, I began working for a volunteer rescue squad.
I’ve been a SCUBA diver for many years, and when I moved to Chattanooga, I joined the volunteer dive squad as an outlet for my diving interests. The Tennessee River, one of our nations largest, runs directly through downtown. Quite often, when people die or kill themselves near water, they wind up in it, and one of our tasks is to find them and take them out. It’s not a happy task, but it’s a necessary one and one I treat with reverence.
During that time, we had a flood. The waters of the Tennessee swelled, rising over 30 feet, flowing over the banks of the river, covering the parks and backing up through the streets of downtown. One of our rescue workers received a call saying that a report had come in stating that a body was floating in the water. I didn’t go on this call, but later on I talked with the volunteer who did. They took a boat down a city street, searching for the body, and when they found it, it was a homeless person. For some reason, he had been incapable of finding his way out of the water, so he held tight to a steel cable until hypothermia ended his life. Smitty, the rescue worker who recovered the body of the homeless man told me that the man’s hand was gripped so hard on the steel cable that he had to pry the mans fingers free of it before they could bring him into the boat.
When I heard this story, it struck me that we often debate the causes of homelessness internally, but rarely are we forced to confront the reality of it. Even when we’re given the opportunity to intervene, more often than not, we won’t because we’re scared. In Chattanooga, we live in the heart of the Bible Belt. With all these churches dotting the landscape, why is it we have so many homeless here? Isn’t the grace of these hundreds of thousands of Christians sufficient to help all these homeless?
After hearing the story of the dead homeless man, it struck me that the one way we often define these people is “worthless.” What do they contribute to society? What do they take from it? When they die, do they leave a mark? But they’re not worthless… not if you love God. Not if you’re a follower of Christ. This homeless man who died in the rising waters of the Tennessee River, what was his life worth to him? Hadn’t he held tightly to life, even as it was slipping away? The man who came later to retrieve his body had to wrench his fingers free of their mooring on the metal cable. Hadn’t his life been valuable to him?
That man wanted to live. His life wasn’t the life you or I would choose, but it was his, and it was no more or less valuable than yours or mine. We tend to define ourselves by the quality of our surroundings. We look at the beauty of our home, the lines of our new car, the food we eat and somehow it gives us confidence that we could never be in that person’s place.
Not too long after the homeless person died in the flood, I had another, more personal experience with the homeless. It was in the fall, and the weather was beginning to turn cold. A friend and I had gone to get sandwiches and were looking for a place to park and eat. I decided it would be nice to park by the river, so we drove down an access road and under a bridge and parked near the water. We sat there, talking and eating with the radio playing, watching the river run in the dark. After a few minutes, I looked around and noticed something moving on the ground nearby. What I had taken to be a pile of trash sat up and blinked at me and said hello. It was a homeless man who had come under the bridge for shelter. He had buried himself in the trash to ward off the cold. We wound up talking to him, learning a lot about him and before we left I gave him the other half of my sandwich and a few bucks, which was all I had. That night, the temperature dropped to 20 degrees. As I lay in my soft, comfortable, warm bed that night, I thought of the homeless man in his garbage bags.
These circumstances, taken apart, might not have had such a drastic effect on me, but the combination of being in a church that takes an active role in helping the homeless, hearing the story of the homeless man who died in the flood and meeting yet another homeless man that night under the bridge had a strange effect on me.
Wheels began to turn in my mind. I began to look at the homeless in a different way. I began to wonder who they were, where they came from, if there was anyone on the planet who missed or loved them? I began to take a more active role in talking with them and trying to get to know them, if for no other reason than to satisfy my own curiosity. I would often see homeless people at intersections with signs, asking for money. I would look not at them, but at the faces of the people in their cars around me. They looked like I had had often felt, which was uncomfortable. I began to ask myself, why is it these people make us feel so uncomfortable? The answer was simple…they make us feel powerless. Most Christians, if you asked them, would say that they would love to help the homeless, but when pushed would probably say they don’t know how.
After seeing the good work the Vineyard people were doing with the homeless, and hearing the story of the man who died in the flood, I began to feel a desire grow in my heart to do something, but I also realized I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing. At that point, I did what every good Christian should do when they don’t know what to do…I prayed.
I asked God for to lead me into a new ministry for the homeless, one with a personal touch, one that would allow me to help people directly and drastically. I also wanted to be able to do something at a moment’s notice. I wanted to be able to help without giving cash. After getting to know more about them, I learned that often the alcoholics among the homeless will take even a few dollars and use it to purchase rubbing alcohol to drink. Many homeless are addicted to one drug or another. I wanted to be able to do something that would help without supporting their addictions.
I prayed about this and God gave me an answer. God showed me backpacks for the homeless. I began to feel God had been trying to show me a way to help homeless people on a one to one basis and in such a way that the dollars I spent would never be wasted or go toward something destructive.
God showed me that for very little money, I could assemble what amounts to a survival kit, and carry it with me in my car until someone in need crossed my path. It might not have helped the man who died in the river, but for someone sleeping under a bridge on a cold fall night, it could be a lifesaver.
I began to haunt second hand and resale shops, looking at what they had to offer. I spent time in dollar stores, the big box retail stores and other shops, trying to find out what they had that I could use to create lifesaving packs for the homeless.
You can find out more about the packs and how to put them together on the how it works page, but what I’ve discovered is putting together backpacks for the homeless is one of the most rewarding and easiest things I’ve ever accomplished.
There is nothing I’ve ever done that’s given me a greater feeling than following the prompting of the Holy Spirit, putting that pack in the trunk of my car, then being led directly to someone who desperately needs the supplies in that backpack. It’s happened to me many, many times. Backpacks for the homeless is a way to help that allows you to get the most for your dollars and also allows you to be prepared ahead of time. What this means is, when you see that homeless person on the side of the busy intersection, you can put your car in park, or pull over to the side of the road, drop your pack at their feet, give them a smile and walk away.
Backpacks for the homeless means taking a few dollars… $20 is a good number for the pack and all the contents. You can purchase a used backpack and fill it with food, a blanket, a tarp, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, a washcloth, a garbage bag and a bible. I get as many of these things as I can from resale shops. You can get a decent backpack at the thrift store for $1.50. The same backpack at Wal-Mart is going to cost $10. I buy 10 tubes of toothpaste and toothbrushes from the dollar store, along with big multi-packs of soap and washcloths. The tarp and blanket are important in the winter because they can be the most valuable of survival tools. The tarp is thick plastic, and on a cold night, a homeless person can put the blanket in the tarp, then roll up inside of it. This acts like a sleeping bag and can keep out even the most intrusive cold. It’s not perfect, but it works. For food I usually include canned foods, like tuna, soup, sardines, crackers, a large bottle of water and canned fruit. Don’t forget a can opener!
When God showed me this ministry, I didn’t feel it was something I should do alone. I felt this was something God wanted me to share with the world. One person alone can’t do much, but a thousand people with good hearts, each with a backpack in the trunk of their car, can help a lot of people.
It’s not a final “solution” to homelessness. Sometimes, all we can hope for is to help someone right now, at this very moment. It’s something you can do that you know in your heart will help them get through this day, and perhaps the next. Quite often, that’s all anyone can ask. None of us, no matter how rich or poor, are promised tomorrow, and if you can help one person make it through the day, you will lighten their load, give them something to be happy about. You will be, in that one moment, the good Samaritan. And that feeling, I can tell you from experience, is priceless.
WE DO NOT OWN THIS!!!!
First of all, we do not own Backpacks For The Homeless and don't claim to. This was a ministry God gave me, and I've been grateful to have the opportunity to share it. However, we don't claim ownership.
When I prayed and asked God to give me a ministry which I could use to personally touch peoples lives, God answered that prayer quickly. I was given a vision for the ministry, not only in the worldly sense, but in the supernatural sense. In my vision, God showed me a backpack with Scooby Doo on it. When I finally made it to the thrift store to start buying packs, this was the very first backpack I laid my hand on. It was a brown backpack with a large color Scooby Doo on the back. As part of the vision, I believe that I was told that a large part of my purpose here was not only to give packs myself, but to spread the word about the ministry. I've been doing that since 2003.
I feel proprietary at times about the ministry, but the truth is, it's not mine. It belongs to God, and I'm just a conduit. I'm grateful for everyone who has chosen to participate and I'm grateful to God for allowing me to do something that has spread so quickly.
For those of you who are interested, to my knowledge, the first people to practice this ministry in this form (although they might not have called it that) were a girl scout troop in Cleveland, Ohio. I was told that their leader, a lady whose name I don't know, came up with the idea.
Disclaimer: Backpacksforthehomeless.org asks everyone to understand that all people, homeless or not, can be unpredicatable. Please use due dilligence, caution and common sense when approaching people. Stick to well lighted areas, where other people are and try to work in pairs when possible.