I returned home Sunday night from a short mission trip called “Urban Plunge,” where rural folks like me plunge headlong into the reality of urban suffering, a mere three hours from our doorsteps.
On the streets of Omaha, Neb., I witnessed the beauty of irony among the homeless, the lonely, the needy.
For 48 hours, I experienced Jesus at work through prayer, the lifting of burdens, the reminder of God’s provision for the broken.
But, you see, the one on the receiving end — of prayer, of lifted burden, of provision — was me.
Me. … One who is no less broken than Merced the Homeless, or Roosevelt the Poor, or James the Drunk, or Octavia the Fatherless, or any of the others I met here in the midst of their own suffering.
What gift is this, that I should receive so abundantly from those who have so little?
Vignette I: Reality Check
They were waiting for us, in a single-file line outside the doors of the homeless shelter. Fifty deep, I’d guess, hungry for what we’d bring. They trusted that we’d come — like folks do every Friday night.
We came to offer a bedtime snack — and a bit of hope.
Two miles south, you could spend $200 on a meal at the French Cafe in the Old Market, while sipping vintage cabernet over candlelight.
On the menu at the French Cafe:
Le Carre d’ Agneau
rack of lamb, thyme demi-glace
white beans, pomegranate relish
On the menu at the Siena Francis House homeless shelter:
Nacho Chips and Melted Cheese
Crispy, with a slightly salty finish
Cost: Free for the taking
She clutched a handmade blanket and was in search of the one to receive it.
The one. Not just any-one. This blanket was for a special someone, and she wanted to find him. And there he was, against the wall. I followed Rachel to Merced the Homeless. I was skeptical and wary and protective of my 12-year-old niece.
She offered the blanket. He accepted, then told the story of his trip from Guadalajara to Washington to Omaha, Neb., in search of work. He searched for answers to questions that required the digging up of old wounds. Was his oldest son 17 now? he wondered.
We prayed with Merced; Rachel wanted to go first. “Dear God, Please be with Merced and help him find a job. Help him to be happy and not alone anymore. God bless Merced.”
I brought Rachel, my goddaughter on this trip, to influence her. Yet who was the greater influence?
A child shall lead them. Beautiful irony.
Vignette III: Burden Lifted
I was on shopping-cart duty.
At the largest food-pantry in Nebraska, needy families may come once every 60 days to fill boxes full of canned goods, frozen food, milk, bread, fresh vegetables.
The boxes are so heavy that the pantry assigns volunteers to wait at the back door with shopping carts to carry each family’s food to the curb.
And that’s where I met my friend Roosevelt the Poor — in the shopping cart lineup. He was eligible to receive food from the pantry, but today, he also came to serve. For three hours, he and I and a crew of others carted groceries from the back door to the curb.
Roosevelt, a man of great poverty and suffering, was rich in giving and sacrifice. He’s 42. He’s single. He speaks with a stutter. And he can’t drive on account of his drinking.
He took an hour-long bus drive through busy city streets to get there. To serve.
Roosevelt served me, too, you know.
Time and again, my shopping cart overflowed with brimming loads — 50 pounds or more in one box. Would I be able to lift it over the edge of the cart and into the back of a trunk? Roosevelt asked me.
I said I could, but he didn’t want to take a chance.
Here, n-n-n-now,” he said, “that’s too heavy. L-l-l-let me. You wait for the next one. This one can be m-m-m-mine.”
My burden became his.
On our final morning, Pastor John called us to the lobby of the dormitory for an impromptu communion service.
He used communion wafers. He poured wine into a Styrofoam cup, atop a crumpled paper towel — disposable, headed for the trash.
John spoke of the condemned buildings that we had seen the night before — reminding us of the broken lives within, calling attention to the condemnation we’d face were it not for the grace of God.
There was no music to heighten the mood. No choir to move us to new heights. No PowerPoint presentations to help us visualize Christ’s sacrifice.
“The body of Christ, given for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you.”
We are rescued from our condemnation for something more.
Beautiful irony ..