"If you're writing a book about prayer, you should hang around the homeless for a while," said my wife, a veteran of inner-city ministry. "Street people pray as a necessity, not a luxury."
Her advice made sense, especially after I interviewed Mike Yankoski, a Westmont College student who, along with a friend, left school for five months to live on the street. (His book, Under the Overpass, tells the story.) Mike told me that homeless people, having hit bottom, don't waste time building up an image or trying to conform. And they pray without pretense, a refreshing contrast to what he found in some churches.
I asked for an example. "My friend and I were playing guitars and singing 'As the Deer Panteth for the Water' when David, a homeless man we knew, started weeping. 'That's what I want, man,' he said. 'I want that water. I'm an alcoholic, but I want to be healed.' As I spent more time with David, I realized that a connection with God is his only hope for healing. He simply doesn't have the inner strength. He relies on prayer as a lifeline."
Mike estimates that a quarter of the homeless people he knows have an active Christian faith. When I visited a coffee house for the homeless in Denver, I found no shortage of street people willing to talk about prayer. Bill, a wry, articulate man who attended a college prep school, told me of several answers to prayer while hitchhiking. Once, he said, "God sent a biker with the very tools I needed to repair the vehicle whose owner had offered me a ride. Think of the odds against that happening in Salina, Kansas!" As he talked, he packed and unpacked a hand-rolled cigarette.
Scott, a young man who could sell saltwater to a sailor, shook my hand firmly, looked me in the eye, and started witnessing to me. He had just moved off the streets into a halfway house and was trying to kick a cocaine habit. "I checked myself in after I got a $9,000 inheritance and blew it all on drugs in a couple weeks. Now I go to 12-step groups every day and attend church as well as two different Bible studies." Scott prays all day long. "It's the only thing that keeps me straight."
As I listened to the homeless relate their prayers, I was struck by the prayers' down-to-earth qualityindeed, their resemblance to the Lord's Prayer. "Give us this day our daily bread": They all had stories about running out of food, praying, and then finding a burrito or uneaten pizza. "Deliver us from evil": Living on mean streets, these believers pray that daily. "Forgive us our trespasses": Deep down in each lay buried secrets of shame and regret.
After 25 years of ministering to the homeless, John, a trained counselor, has a theory that many street people suffer from attachment disorders. In childhood, they never learned to bond with parents or other people, and never learned to bond with God, either. They find it difficult to commit, to open up to another, to trust. They see the world as an unsafe, alien place.
John noted the ripple effect of this disorder: "Sometimes the people I work with go crazy, literally insane, because they can't stand being alone with their dark thoughts and secrets. A friend of mine ran a street ministry similar to ours. He had secrets about failures and financial pressures that he never told anyone. One day, his wife walked in the front door and found her husband, my friend, swaying from a rope attached to the banister."
From my time with the homeless, I learned a new meaning to prayer: It can be a safe place to bare secrets. Those of us fortunate enough to have a spouse or a trustworthy friend can share our secrets. If not, at least we have God, who knows our secrets before we spill them. (The fact that we're still alive and loved shows that God has more tolerance for whatever those secrets represent than we may give God credit for.)
"If I'm right about the attachment disorders," John said, "the best ministry I can offer is a long-term relationship. I hope that over the years and decades street people learn to trust me as someone who can handle their secrets. I hope that trust will gradually spill over to God. I tell people who encounter the homeless that eye contact and a listening ear may be more important than food or money or Bible verses. They need to connect in some small way with another human being, someone who sees them as a person of worth."
A few days later, I came across this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, written in the form of a prayer:
Make it so the poor are no longer
despised and thrown away.
Look at them standing about
like wildflowers, which have nowhere else to grow.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
An excerpt from Yancey's book on prayer is available from our sister publication, Books & Culture.
Previous Yancey columns for Christianity Today include:
Exploring a Parallel Universe | Why does the word evangelical threaten so many people in our culture? (Nov. 3, 2005)
God Behind Barbed Wire | How a Nazi-soldier-turned-theologian found hope. (Aug. 29, 2005)
The Japanese Joseph | What the North Korean regime meant for evil, God used for good. (June 21, 2005)
A Bow and a Kiss | Authentic worship reveals both the friendship and fear of God. (April 28, 2005)
Global Suspense | The trick of faith is to believe in advance what will only make sense in reverse. (March 01, 2005)
Back from the Brothel | Thanks to brave ministries, prostitutes are still entering the kingdom. (Jan. 05, 2005)
Hope for Abraham's Sons | What will it take for us to overcome this violent world? (Oct. 27, 2004)
Forgetting God | Why decadence drives out discipline. (Aug. 30, 2004)
Discreet and Dynamic | Why, with no apparent resources, Chinese churches thrive. (June 28, 2004)
Doubting the Doomsayers | Thank God not everything they say is true. (April 30, 2004)
Cry, The Beloved Continent | Don't let AIDS steal African children's future. (March 04, 2004)
The Colonizers | The best preachers have challenged earth to become more like heaven. (Jan. 16, 2004)
The Leprosy Doctor | Paul Brand showed how to serve others sacrificially and emerge with joy. (Oct. 23, 2003)
Going It Alone | We should take heed when much of the world says it distrusts us. (July 2, 2003)
God of the Maggies | In broken sinners, Jesus saw not their past but their future. (April 25, 2003)
Perestroika of the Spirit | In Russia, the vocabulary of faith needs interpreters. (March 5, 2003)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.