In front of me sits a middle-aged man, half drunk and muttering profanities into the air. I briefly introduce myself and shake his hand. He faintly smiles before digging his face back into the ground, impatiently waiting for the meal to arrive. “His name is Shawn, don’t mind him!” shouts another haggardly dressed man beside him.
To my right I fare better. This man is younger, tall, well kept, and with a unique story. His name is Ash, and after some chit-chat I found out that he left his parents early in life to distance himself from their business. Apparently they specialize in selling military ammunition and he strongly denounced their practices. “My parents dream about how to kill people faster. I hate them for that”. He is amicable, but I choose not to press him any further on the matter.
The last four months I have been serving at a church that focuses on feeding and offering clothing to the homeless and poor in the downtown core every Saturday. The event is called “Community Night” and its held at Toronto Alliance Church. It’s been going for the last 20 years and its a well-oiled engine. About 100-150 people from all walks of life come to receive a hot meal, clothing, and food items to take home, no questions asked. After the meal is served, a brief chapel service is run by the pastor for the few who stay behind. But this is no cakewalk. Logistics, volunteers, supplies, prayer, are all needed to make this event flow effectively. On top of it, those who suffer from poverty bring a host of their own personal problems such as alcoholism, drug addictions, and mental illnesses to name a few. Usually about once every two weeks a fight breaks out between the patrons (randomly at the pastors too), and it can get physical. A cool head and an iron-will is needed to survive in these tough environments.
There’s so many different angles to talk about when it comes to Community Night. There’s the practical side, the political side, the spiritual side, the relational side, the ethical side, it’s hard to know what to share about! Social justice is something I’m highly passionate about, stemming from my own brokenness of non-Christian upbringing and having Godly mentors who ran the same hellish gauntlet.
Perhaps what comes to my mind first when I share about poverty and homelessness is that it is a very complex system. There are real people behind it who are all made in God’s image. Poor people are not just to be treated as a “problem” but rather with dignity and respect. Their problems can stem from having a difficult upbringing, economic hardships, personal tragedies (depression, hit by a car), abandonment, abuse, difficulty immigrating, the list goes on and on. While we would like to believe life is (or should be) fair, the truth is some have it worse than others. Most often they did not choose that, but rather that life (God’s sovereign will) chose them.
Homeless people won’t smell nice. They probably haven’t shaved in a while and wear dirty dank clothes. They might have done all sorts of drugs and are suffering from withdrawal. They might even yell at you just because you are Asian. Some are single-parent families who have children that look like they came out of a World Vision commercial. This is only a drop in the bucket of how dark things can get.
Many will see these as problems, but to me I see them as opportunities. As I’ve gotten to know them by name and visit their homes, God never ceases to surprise me. For one, there are many poor and homeless people who love the Lord dearly. Sadly, many have been rejected or badly hurt by other churches. They might not look like it on the outside and I certainly wouldn’t have discerned that on the outset, but fellowshipping with them opens a whole new world.
One elderly couple that regularly comes to Community Night I’ve gotten to know quite well. I ran into them on my way back home on the subway and identified them by the plastic bags (food items) they were carrying. Apparently they were retired and willing to commute 5+ hours from Scarborough just to get food for one night. And they had been doing this for the last 20 or so years. They cannot find a decent meal at any church in Scarborough, and there are very few places they feel safe to do so in downtown Toronto. While this news saddens me, they also encouraged me by sharing about how this whole experience has strengthened their faith by teaching them about humility. “We all have to eat some humble pie and live simple lives like Jesus” the wife reasoned. She was right.
One more story if I may. Once in the Rexdale area I was driving home a 40 year old autistic Jamaican man after a different food bank event. He had the mind of a teenager and would constantly demand things from me. His mind could not understand “no” and it was hard to take his requests personally. After being annoyed from being heckled for a while, I decided to ask him what his favorite Christian song was. He quickly responded by singing the song, “Jesus loves me this is I know, for the Bible tells me so”. He sung it through over and over for the remainder of the drive. Much better than asking for KFC every moment. His singing was not choir worthy, but it was inspiring in that he had a genuine child-like faith behind all that baggage.
When I think about the poor, I think about what Jesus said shortly before he would be crucified, “The poor you will always have, but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:11). In some ways, we don’t always experience Jesus’ presence but we will always experience the reality of poverty. In serving the poor, there is joy in retrieving that missing presence of Christ again. After all taking care of orphans and widows is as James 1:27 said a part of the pure gospel. May you live a life that learns to love people from all walks of life; rich and poor.