Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America

Posted: March 8, 2011 in books, christianity, justice, poor, review

James writes that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world,” (James 1:27).  Commenting on this verse, Doug Moo notes:

“The orphan and widow become types of those who find themselves helpless in the world.  Christians whose religion is pure will imitate their Father by intervening to help the helpless.  Those who suffer from want in the third world, in the inner city; those who are unemployed and penniless; those who are inadequately represented in government or in law – these are the people who should see abundant evidence of Christians’ ‘pure religion’.” (James, Tyndale New Testament Commentary Series, p. 86)

With this central Christian truth in mind, Mike Yankoski and Sam Purvis set out on a journey to the streets of America, to live beside the poorest of the poor, in a world that exists right before our eyes but is often far beyond our understanding.

Yankoski recounts the first time his plan to spend five months living on the streets of America came to him:

The idea came instantly – like the flash of a camera or a flicker of lightning.  It left me breathless, and it changed my life.  What if I stepped out of my comfortable life with nothing but God and put my faith to the test alongside of those who live with nothing every day? The picture that came with that question was of me homeless and hungry on the streets of an American city. (5)

And with that thought, Mike and Sam’s journey began.  Their purpose was threefold:

  1. To better understand that life of the homeless in America, and to see firsthand how the church is responding to their needs.
  2. To encourage others to “live out loud” for Christ in whatever ways God is asking them to.
  3. To learn personally what it means to depend on Christ for my daily physical needs, and to experience contentment and confidence in Him. (9)

Beginning in Denver (their hometown), Mike and Sam spent significant time in Washington, D.C., Portland, San Francisco, Phoenix, and San Diego.

On May 27 we stepped out of our old lives.  From then until November 2, Sam and I slept out in the open or in shelters or under bridges.  We ate out of trash cans and feeding kitchens.  We looked disgusting, smelled disgusting, were disgusting.  We were shunned and forgotten and ignored by most people who walked past us – good, acceptable people who looked just like Sam and I used to look, and maybe just like you. (12)

Under the Overpass is an incredible look into a world extremely foreign to most middle-class Christians.  We know little of the plight of the homeless (and often care even less).  Many of us live in towns where homelessness is not as prevalent (or at least, as visibly prevalent) as it is in larger cities.  When we do come face to face with homelessness, we often assume that the homeless of America are lazy, drug addicts, alcoholics, criminals, or that they have simply chosen to live on the streets.  This leads us to adopt the (ungodly, i.e. not like God) mentality that says, “Their bad choices got them there, so I have no responsibility to help them.”

The correction of this inverting of the Christian calling seems to be one of the main lessons of the book.  We are all destitute in God’s sight.  We all come to Him dirty, broken, and with nothing to offer.

In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning writes, “We are all equally privileged but unentitled beggars at the door of God’s mercy.”  I thought of that as person after person walked past without donating or even making eye contact.  I felt my frustration rising until I realized how unentitled I really was.  No one deserves mercy.  And no one walking by owed us a dime.  Mercy is, by definition, undeserved, or else it isn’t mercy. (52)

That’s not to say that Yankoski is careless or naive in his calls for more involvement with the homeless, however.  Throughout the book, Mike and Sam demonstrate a keen awareness of the very real and widespread addictions and sins that often plague those living on the street.  However, their attitude is consistently one of love, respect, and personal engagement, rather than distanced judgment and condemnation.

Other lessons powerfully explored in the book are: the importance of truly relying on God’s provision each and every day; replacing our attitudes of entitlement with attitudes of gratefulness; praying that God’s will (and not our’s) be done and meaning it; realizing that a person can be a Christian without conforming to many of our white, middle-class, suburban standards; giving even when it requires painful sacrifice; and not fooling ourselves into thinking that prayer is a substitute for get-your-hands-dirty service.

Yankoski also does a great job giving the reader a taste of what life on the street is really like – harsh, lonely, and discouraging.  The many anecdotes and insights into daily life are extremely powerful and are a good reminder that when discussing the homeless, we are talking about real people, with real needs and emotions, living an extremely difficult and dehumanizing existence.  Often their greatest need is that of friendship and acceptance.

I have to admit that before I began reading, I worried that the author would do one (or both) of the following things:

  1. Harshly criticize the American church to such an extent that they actually disparaged the role that the church has played, and should continue to play, in engaging with the poor.
  2. Emphasize the importance of meeting people’s felt needs to such an extent that the Christian’s call to preach the Gospel message was relegated to a position of secondary importance.

I am glad to report that neither of these fears proved true.  Yankoski was consistently gracious and humble in his critiques of the American church, and was quick to point out examples of the church doing things right.  His tone was consistently encouraging and constructive.  At times, he was quite critical:

An ongoing struggle to find safety, a place to sleep, a bathroom, and food becomes dehumanizing for anyone.  One experience at a time, a person’s sense of dignity and sense of self-worth gets stripped away… Blithely allowing this terrible stripping to occur is a blight on the conscience of America, and especially on the conscience of the church.  If we as believers choose to forget that everyone – even the shrunken soul lying in the doorway – is made in the image of God, can we say we know our Creator?  If we respond to others based on their outward appearance, haven’t we entirely missed the point of the Gospel? (103)

And:

Although Sam and I had spent every Sunday morning at a church somewhere on our travels, the lack of community was taking a toll on us.  Even at church, we felt isolated because of how we looked, how we smelled, and who people perceived us to be.  In fact, walking into a church where we hoped to find genuine fellowship only to be met by condescension or suspicion or disingenuous flattery was the worst kind of rejection. (151)

But at other times, he highlighted positive experiences with Christians.  For example, Yankoski recalls the story of a church leader who humbly apologized to him and Sam after treating them rudely and telling them they had to get off church property.  The man, obviously feeling the Holy Spirit’s convicting power, asked Mike and Sam for their forgiveness and treated them like brothers from then on.  He writes,

You can never tell what the Spirit is up to in a heart, whether it’s beating under a crisp, white polo shirt or a filthy, torn, brown one.  You never know what God is up to inside His people everywhere, or inside the building they dedicate to Him… Love can’t cover wrongs if we let frustrations and failures keep us apart. (160)

Yankoski was also solid in his insistence that the most basic and important need of the homeless (and all people) is to be reconciled to God through the sacrificial death of Jesus.  Writing about a drug addict named Peter that he befriended in Denver, Yankoski writes,

I leaned back against the fire escape that night, wondering what the God of love had to do with all this.  Christ offers us real freedom, eternal freedom in Him.  Jesus says in Luke 4 that He came to “proclaim liberty for the prisoners.”  I sat there feeling a weighty, yet wonderful truth: some bonds in this life can only be broken by Christ.

“Peter…only Christ can set you free.  Let His power work in you.  Otherwise, your best attempts will leave you right where you started.” … The next morning Peter got a Bible from the intake chaplain and began reading. (28-29)

However, Yankoski never allows us to divorce the Good News about Jesus and the freedom He offers from the acts of love and kindness that His people are supposed to demonstrate.  The message and the messenger go hand in hand.  We can’t offer someone the Gospel of Jesus Christ with any authenticity if we are unwilling to actually engage with them as human beings created in God’s image.

“Why do we so often overlook obvious ways to show the love of God we so loudly proclaim?”  Without waiting for an answer, I charged on.  “If someone’s thirsty, give them a drink!  If someone’s hungry, feed them!  I mean, this is not complicated stuff.” … “I’m starving and my feet hurt, and that guy back there knows it.  But, hey, he’s praying for me.” (142)

Perhaps the most powerful section from the book was near the end, where Yankoski reflects on what he learned through this experience.  Commenting on Deuteronomy 8:7-11, he writes,

Suddenly the terrible dangers of lacking nothing came clear to us.  Having everything “just because you can” is a trap.  It numbs and blinds the human spirit.  It can separate us from our calling and our privilege as Christians in this needy world.  “Be careful that you do not forget…” [Deut. 8:11]  In the weeks after we returned, Sam and I talked often about that.  Again and again it seemed that the culture we had returned to knew how to enjoy God’s material blessings, but had forgotten – or didn’t care to know – how to use those blessings to help others in Jesus’ name.  We didn’t want that to happen to us.  Ever. (210)

Amen.

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