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Fourth Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh began ministering to street people several years ago, and now the homeless make up 8 percent of its congregation. Pastor James Stobaugh describes the lives of these street people and how the congregation has reached out to them.
Between the blue, acrid haze of Pall Malls and the shiny, stainless-steel coffee pots sit the fallen angels of East Pittsburgh. Street people languish in the dawn of an inner-city diner, mercifully permitted by the management to stay.
A country breakfast or the deluxe waffle belongs to the clean-shaven postman, but not to the street person. He waits for his 10 A.M. mushroom soup at the soup kitchen. It is 5 A.M., so street people wait.
Waiting is a way of life for a street person. If he is fortunate enough to have an address, he waits for a welfare check. At busy emergency rooms he waits for medical care. He waits for the dawn.
At dawn it is time to leave, time to wander. The night is dangerous for a street person. Always weak, undernourished, and expendable, he fears shadows that maim and destroy. Daylight brings safe sleep. Messy things can happen to street people at night, but daytime people won't allow messiness.
At dawn, all over Pittsburgh, street people begin to wander. By 9 A.M. they are asleep on a bench, under a bridge, or in front of the soup kitchen. Normal people rarely see them. Street people do not want to upset normal people; they are the providers, and street people need provision.
"Jesus loves his little Jessie," a bag lady sings as she limps out of Eat N' Park. "When she's good, and when she's bad, when she's happy, and when she's sad." With this simple childhood affirmation of faith, Jessie greets each new day. She has leaned heavily on her God since her husband abandoned her fifteen years ago. Jessie unceremoniously places some essential clothing, a picture of her unfaithful husband, a jar of Oil of Olay, and sixty dollars into a J. C. Penney shopping bag reinforced by a Giant Eagle grocery bag. Then she disappears at Penn and Negley.
Street people are created slowly. A repossessed car. An unpaid mortgage. A lost job. Eventually the street person is born, and all that remains are wistful intrusions into the real world, long gazes at the televisions in Sears.
Jessie is dying, and she knows it. Two months ago her left foot was severely cut by a piece of a PepsiCola bottle thoughtlessly thrown against the library wall by youths. It still bothers Jessie that kids would waste a nickel. "Kids," she growls. "Everything is given to them!"
St. Francis Hospital emergency-room physicians sutured her wound, but walking the root-cracked sidewalks, her oversized shoes, and too many days without a shower have doomed her. Her friend Sally had the same problem last year, and her foot was amputated. Jessie would rather die, and the awful smell coming from her foot reminds her that she soon will. "Jesus loves his little Jessie . . ." she continues to sing.
Dawn is past, noon is over, and the food closet just closed. Night is returning. Commuters rush by.
Street people are moving, too. Jessie is stepping onto a 71C bus. She will sleep in a downtown women's shelter tonight. A child on the bus is screaming. Jessie gives her a chocolate-chip cookie carefully saved in a napkin.
Night is here. Tomorrow, if they're alive, they will again stagger into downtown.
More than we bargained for
Our brownstone church is a dark, foreboding shadow in the early dawn, but each day our metal-reinforced doors gather almost thirty homeless persons into our radiator-hissing basement. Last year we joined with another group of churches and opened this drop-in center, a "rest station" for the homeless. From 10 A.M. to 9 P.M. the homeless of East Pittsburgh rest, receive a snack, get health care and a chance to talk.
Recently the homeless began to attend morning worship. We pride ourselves on being an open-minded congregation, but frankly, we never expected street people to attend our worship services. Our drop-in center, sure, our evening meeting, perhaps, but not morning worship! Morning worship was sacrosanct, clean, Presbyterian.
We secretly wondered if they were victims or just unproductive. Based on Matthew 25, we felt we had to feed and shelter them. But worship with them? That was another matter.
They originally came, I heard later, because we offered free doughnuts on the second and last Sundays of each month. Attendance is still higher on these Sundays, but now, some come all the time. Five are regular participants, and one is a Sunday school teacher!
In spite of our naivet and prejudice, we have been fairly successful in assimilating them. Most of us have never been unemployed, and we still think newspapers are for reading, but we know how to love. We carefully opened our homes and hearts to these new congregants. But we took no chances! We never allowed any homeless people to be unsupervised, especially men with children or ladies. If they were on medication, and many were, we made sure they took it daily.
Slowly, they became part of us. They were befriended by our children. They dressed more neatly, smiled more. Two obtained jobs. We are work-ethic Presbyterians, so we avoided handouts. But many of our new friends cleaned our church, mowed our lawn, and offered a security service (for a modest fee!). We require all participants in our fellowship luncheon to share something. One homeless person brought a pot of soup; another came with a loaf of bread; one offered to wash the dishes. They're part of our family, so we treat them like everyone else.
Our beginnings are modest. But we're growing more bold. We aren't frightened by the homeless. We have learned that a church-no matter how small and unsophisticated-is an effective rehabilitation agent. Government agencies, church cooperatives, and local businesses can provide jobs for these people. But in our pews, in our Christian community, the homeless find something that cannot be duplicated: unconditional love. Receiving that is the first step to a productive life.
This unconditional love has cost us. Some families have stopped coming. "What if I catch AIDS?" one congregant complained. Homeless people smell bad; they're "losers." To some degree, every homeless person I know has suffered childhood trauma, neglect, severe rejection, chemical addiction, mental illness, lack of positive role models, or no support system.
Yet even if members leave our church, even if we fail, we cannot ignore Matthew 25. The fact is, though, we aren't failing. No one is more surprised than I! Slowly, Robert, Jimmy, and others are finding their way again. It isn't easy for any of us. But it is truly a witness to the Incarnation to see a stodgy, upper-middle-class Presbyterian hugging an unshaven street person.
-James P. Stobaugh
Copyright © 1988 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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