On Sunday, April 19, we launched The River, an innovative ministry that will provide support networks for the homeless. We realize there are not enough resources just to keep “fishing drowning people from the river.” We also must dare to go upstream and discover some of the reasons so many people come close to drowning. We need to love mercy and do justice. This week, we’d like to share some thoughts from the steering committee that created the program, why they care about this and why they think you should, too. We start with David Gillespie, who birthed the idea for The River when he found a calling in reaching out to people who live on the street even before he started attending Virginia-Highland Church.
When I moved to near downtown Atlanta several years ago, I began traveling each day past a large paved area that jutted over the downtown connector, a concurrent section of Interstates 75 and 85 that runs through the core of the city. I’d see people sleeping there, and it tugged at me more and more each day. One afternoon, I took a few bottles of water and some granola bars to offer, and that’s when I met Nadine and Raymond. They were from Dallas, and had come to Atlanta to be near their daughter, who was a student living in a dorm at Georgia State University, just down the street. Raymond had lost his job, and Nadine was unable to work because of mental health issues. So, there they were, living on the street as their daughter attended college a few blocks away.
Every day, Raymond would try to find a job, while Nadine stayed behind to keep watch over the few things they owned. I helped as I could during the next several years, and, through them, I met men and women that live in tents, under cardboard boxes, in the brush and bushes, and on park benches.
About once a week, because I was driving by anyway, I brought sandwiches, chicken, socks, baby wipes, or other things that they might need to survive. I learned some of the places where I could direct them to find help, the resourceful ways that they found to survive, and what it was like to be homeless. Mostly, though, I found new friends who were willing to accept what I brought them and even more willing to talk about who they are, where they are from, and about their hopes and dreams. I realized that REALLY listening to them created an intimacy and a chemistry between us that was truly special.
A week didn’t seem complete unless I saw my friends, and I began to realize that I was getting more from our time together than they were. I also was getting a very clear understanding of how horrifying it is to be without a home, of the systemic and economic barriers that they face, and of how very, very difficult it is to get off of the streets. Each time I left them, I’d leave excited about how I might be able to help, but tremendously burdened by what they faced and how forgotten they are.
Before I joined Virginia-Highland Church last spring, I said to Rev. Piazza that I hoped it was okay for me to join because I really didn’t know what I believed about God, Jesus, or my faith. With that said, I am confident that Jesus hung out with those at the margins and stood with folks at the very bottom, to help them, yes, but also to build relationships with them, to give them hope, and to give them a voice.
We all have our own image of Jesus: who he was, what he looked like, and even what he did every day. I imagine a man who proudly stood with my friends. When I see them, I see him. When I imagine what The River can be, I see a reflection of the Jesus that I imagine every day.