My wife and I went to church this morning at Transformation City Church. As I mentioned we've been going there, checking it out and seeing if it's where we should be. It's a church in the heart of Milwaukee and their message and mission seem to mesh pretty well where we are as a family. I'll admit the first couple times I went, I was skeptical and somewhat resistant. It's a bit of a drive, and it's not really "my neighborhood" or "local" as they say. At the same time, their focus on the central city, the homeless, the poor and hurting is right where we're at. I approached today differently thinking let's just see where God can use me in this church and see what happens.
The message this morning was convicting and real. It spoke about how as a culture we've built a "system" of education to job to wealth accumulation to retirement to passing on an inheritance for our kids to perpetuate this system. The point wasn't that the system is wrong, but rather that it was not Jesus' system, but rather ours. It went on to say that we need to reach out to the hurting and oppressed so that they can get out of the broken system they're in.
Afterwards we were asked to help clear chairs for the church's Christmas potluck. As I cleared them I was still kind of reeling from the message. When I was done, I started to make my way to the door and noticed my friend Steve was talking to a guy who I assumed he knew, so I joined him. As I stepped into the conversation he said he was in a tough spot right now.
We both listened as this guy who I'll call Clarence (not his real name) poured out his story to us. He told us how he'd just been released from prison 3 weeks ago and that his was his first time coming to church. With a little pride, he showed us a state ID that he'd just received because the church helped him pay for and acquire it. He said he was fortunate to have found a job recently, but just a couple of weeks ago he was going door-to-door to see if people would pay him to shovel their walk. Eventually someone called the cops because they thought he was a scammer. He felt insulted and shamed.
Shamed for trying to earn a living.
Clarence then went on to tell us of his terribly abusive childhood and the horrendous, unspeakable things that happened to him at the hand of his mother and father who were into alcohol and drugs. He spoke of running away and how he lived on the streets for years, sometimes stealing bundles of papers and trying to sell them illegally to earn money.
He went on to say how he'd spent the last 12 years in prison and when he was released one of the jailers said he and people like him were their "bread and butter" and that he'd be back in someday to insure that. Clarence has vowed to never let that happen. He wants to do better. He even said he'd like to get to a place where he can help others that are either in a situation like his, or better yet, to avoid getting into one like he was.
This man said he never had a Christmas tree, and that he was going to ask the guy across the street with a tree lot if he could have one.
Never had a Christmas tree. 56 years old. Broken. Healing. Reaching out.
While he had a job, he said that he was worried about getting a bus pass so he could get around. They cost $17.50 and he needed 5 of them. About this time, my friend Steve pulled out a $20 and gave it to him. I have a "private stash" of money I keep in my wallet that, when it reaches a certain point, I put it into my personal account. I use it for stuff I want or, occasionally, gifts for others. I immediately reached for it and gave Clarence $40. If I'd had $60, I may have given that to him.
I tell this story not to elevate myself, to brag or instill guilt. I tell it because it sure seems like God put this guy in Steve's and my life - at this moment - to test and see if we were listening to what we'd just heard. It was so real and so raw. My only wish is that I wish some of you could have been there with me. This guy was living proof of a hurting, healing world out there.
Sometimes these hurting people come into our midst directly, like Clarence did today, but more often, we have to seek them out, go to them. That's what experiences like our Guest House endeavors have taught me. You don't have to go far to help, but for God's sake, please help somewhere.
I told my wife I think I just gave her stocking stuffers to a recovering felon in the name of Jesus, and oddly enough she was ecstatic. It brought tears to her eyes much like Clarence's story brought to mine.