April 13th, 2008

Loving Jesus = Loving People

I was sitting in Starbucks feeling hip. For some reason, the trendy music, paisley furniture and robust coffee gave me the sense that I was relevant. I had just finished a conversation with a guy next to me about free trade and coffee growers. So not only was I hip, but now I was globally conscious. All was good and right in my world. I was glancing through a book by Shane Claiborne on global social justice when I looked up and my day (and perhaps the rest of my life) was ruined.

He was not hip or trendy or globally aware, he was just cold. This middle-aged man, who was old enough to be my dad, was wearing faded black jeans and a dark green sweatshirt. The full beard draped down his chin into the crevice of his sweatshirt.

He was dirty–and not the kind of dirty that comes from digging ditches or paid labor. He was a street person. My emotions were at war. I felt a mixture of compassion and anger. The arguments that seem so far from God invaded my mind. “This guy just needs to get a job!” or “If you really wanted to get off the street, you could…”. You know those arguments.

In hindsight, I realize the little bit of compassion I was feeling was motivated more by my need to feel insulated and safe again. I just wanted my space back. I didn’t go into his fortress of solitude, did I? Starbucks is where I come to get away. I read and journal and study the Bible. I thought to myself, This is not where I want to see homeless people. Actually, I don’t really want to see homeless people anywhere, but definitely not here.

After a few minutes the homeless man walked to the counter and asked for a cup of water. Reluctantly, the barista handed him some. He sat down again and sipped his water. All conversation in my retreat center ceased. Everyone just sort of held their breath. We were stuck in a vortex of unfamiliarity. We didn’t know what to do. Should we talk to him or give him money? It seemed shallow to ask him if he wanted a half-caff caramel macchiato.

Ultimately, I did nothing. Finally, he left.

I left Starbucks that day, my mind swirling. I was angry at myself for reading a book on justice then acting cowardly and un-engaged when injustice walked into my neighborhood.

I was disgusted at my lifestyle when I returned home. Walking into my kitchen, I glanced at the Ronco Rotisserie, the new single-cup coffee brewer, and rows of food inside the fridge. I was also sad. Sad there were people in my city—a city where I was a follower of Jesus–sleeping under bridges and down by the river. I couldn’t help but count the hours I had spent serving the people in my church that came for weekly “tune-ups” yet have turned a blind eye to the forgotten. I felt lost.

The next day, I disregarded my regular Bible-reading routine and pulled what I like to call a navigational kamikaze, and just opened up the Bible and asked God to speak. The reason I refer to it as a “kamikaze” is because more often than not I land somewhere like Leviticus when God commands women to live outside the camp during their period. I crash.

However, on this day, God was in it. I landed on a passage that said Jesus had nowhere to lay His head. I was stunned. Jesus was homeless. Instantly, all the dots seemed to connect. God’s heart for the poor and marginalized wasn’t out of compassion, but out of necessity. He was one of them. He was poor. Great, I thought. Knowing I had made a huge spiritual blunder the day before could not be rendered right by a simple confession or good-intention check to World Vision. God was calling me to something more.

Within a few months the fog began to lift as I read and prayed and talked with others that were willing to go against the grain of the overweight, over-indulged, consumer church that I had led for 10 years. For the first time, I felt like I had woken up to the Gospel. There weren’t just souls out there to be saved, but people to be loved.

It seemed the marginalized in the corner of our towns were at the center of God’s agenda. The thing is, we weren’t sure where to start. So we just looked around and responded to the first need we saw: a food pantry. Immediately, dozens of families were impacted every week by the bags filled with groceries; a weekend homeless experiment to raise awareness seemed like the next step, so six of us slept in a train car for three nights in 30-degree weather and ate out of garbage cans; partnerships with like-minded faith communities began to take shape. Non-Christians began partnering with our efforts. They too sensed a great need for justice. We didn’t know what was happening, but we knew it was good.

As I finish this reprise on the last year, I sit here again in Starbucks. I sip my robust coffee and once again I feel relevant. But now, it’s for the right reasons.

Article from RELEVANT Leader. Jon Quitt is the pastor of Vineyard Community Church in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He is married and has two young children and a insane dachshund.