The Homeless and the Role of the Church

“Excuse me, are you in charge?” I asked the elegant woman who was setting up a serving table of hot pasta and bread.  A long line of people snaked around the corner and were already pushing and shoving, impatiently waiting to be fed. 

I smiled and stuck out my hand which she ignored.

“Why?  What do you want?” she responded snappishly.                                                                         

“It’s our first time here.  We’re from Mariners Church in Mission Viejo and we brought some food and clothes too and we don’t want to get in your way.”

The lady rolled her eyes at me and turned her back.  “Do whatever you want,” she barked.”

I was confused.  I had just arrived at the park near the courthouse in Santa Ana notorious for its large homeless population.  Why did this churchy lady who was supposed to be helping the poor act like I was a dog pooping in her yard? 

It wasn’t about a lack of need.  The need was OVERWHELMING.  There were about two hundred people in the small park meandering around.

My group chose another spot on the opposite side of the lawn and set up our tables.  Within seconds another fifty people were crowding around us.  I asked my Marine friends to stand guard while we tried to find a modicum of organization amidst the chaos. 

All of a sudden a frustrated homeless man started shouting there were scammers crowding to the front of the line.  He yelled out “They ‘aint homeless!  You come here to feed us cuz we got no homes and they take all our food and go home to their houses.  They are cheating.  They’re going to steal the clothes you brought for us and sell them at garage sales AT THEIR HOMES.”

Certain faces in the crowd –certain VERY clean faces stared at the ground in shame.

We did our best.  We tried to bring the folks with tickets from the police for sleeping outside to the front of the line and help them out first.  People argued and shoved and I tried to be stalwart when my heart-felt like a squishy noodle.

A little later some of the homeless girls I was chatting with pointed to a woman with four nicely dressed children taking off with about six bags of our clothes. They claimed she was a known garage sale scavenger and in her arms was my prized collection of baby clothes. 


They were Kolby’s first sleepers and handmade diaper cloths and I actually cried while packing the bags –trying so hard to trust God and to let go of stuff. 

And now here was this lady –this garage sale troll stealing my baby clothes from the people in need to sell them for profit. 

So I confronted her.  She played dumb and pretended to not speak English and I stood there feeling pissed off and helpless. 

Do I take my clothes back or do I trust God for justice?

And so I let them go but my spirit started churning.

When I got home I debriefed with my husband and he explained the reason why the other church didn’t want us at the park was because they make the homeless sit through a gospel session before they are allowed to eat.  And here we were just giving away food and clothes for free.

How dare we intrude with no agenda?  No Jesus shoved down their throats.  We had the audacity to just hang out and meet a microcosm of the need at hand.

It makes me sick to my stomach and yet…

I want to go back with a desperation I don’t understand.  I am dying to return to this septic tank of poverty where people are robbed and beaten up for the clothes we just gave them.  Where the homeless are force-fed Jesus by stupid and obtuse churches.  Where predators exploit the poor and use the system to get free inventory for their garage sale business.  And people without homes are treated like criminals and ticketed while the corrupt steal from them daily.

I want to go back to see Gloria who was so sick she could barely stand and to hang out with Princess who fled an abusive husband and to connect with Joe, the sweet filthy man who did everything he could to take care of his friend before helping himself. 

Joe pointed up to the sky as I left and then pointed to me.  I smiled weakly, not really feeling very Christ-like.  I was furious and resentful at the unfairness of life.

And in this awful place where I wonder where God is…maybe Joe reminded me. 

Sometimes it’s just about showing up.

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