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Gretchen and I have decided to take a drastic step in a new direction.

To get right to the point, we’re planning to open a restaurant here in Roanoke where we can serve good food and also do on-the-job training for chronically unemployed and homeless folks in our community.

Our plan is to open a little place somewhere downtown that just serves breakfast and lunch. People who are looking for an opportunity to get back on their feet can come and work for us for 6 months or so and then move on to full time employment somewhere else. While with us they’ll learn about food preparation, sanitation, professionalism and a variety of other topics that will help prepare them for a career in food service. They’ll also get some training in financial planning and some other life skills in order to improve their quality of life and help equip them to keep a job long term. After 6 months they’ll receive a Food Handler’s Sanitation license and we’ll help them put together a resume and find a permanent job.

Now I realize that, to some of you, this might sound like a naive and incredibly stupid thing to do, and I imagine that some of our close friends and family might want to discourage us from pursuing it. We understand that it’s risky and has no guarantee of success, but we feel that it’s something worth trying. Below are some of the questions people have been asking me and how I’ve been answering them.

Q1. Doesn’t it take a lot of money to start a business? Do you have any money?
Yes, it does take a lot of money and no, we don’t have any. Our plan is to incorporate as a non-profit so that we can raise the capital we need to get started.

Q2. Running a restaurant is hard. Do you know what you’re doing?
No, not yet. I’ve worked in restaurants before, but not recently and definitely not in this capacity. I approached a local restaurant chain with my idea and they said that I could come work for them for a year and learn what I need to know to run my own place. Lord willing, when we try to get this off the ground next year I’ll have the knowledge and experience I need to make it work.

Q3. Aren’t homeless people usually pretty lazy and unreliable? What makes you think that you could get them to come work for you?
As many of you know already, we’ve been very active with the homeless in our community for a while now. We’ve had the privilege of getting to know quite a few of the folks in our community who are chronically without homes or jobs, and in a few cases we’ve really come to love them. Most of them are homeless because of some sort of mental illness or problem with chronic substance abuse, and many of them lack either the ability or the desire to re-enter the work force and become productive, self-supporting members of society. Those people wouldn’t be the ones we’re looking for.

Our program will be open to those men and women who are homeless because of other circumstances. There are a lot of individuals who end up on the street because of an accident that resulted in inability to work, or a move and a bad investment, or a divorce and a period of severe depression. When people find themselves in those situations it can be very difficult to get their lives back together. Our hope is to provide a way for them to get back on their feet. I’ve been talking to some of our homeless friends about this idea and the response has been very positive. I’ve even been getting some questions about when we’ll start and how soon they can apply.

Also, there are a few places across the country doing this already, including a couple restaurants in DC that have been open for almost 20 years. They’ve had a lot of success and hundreds of people have gone through their program and settled into full time jobs.

Q4. What’s the matter with you? Why would you lead your family into financial ruin just so a few homeless people can learn how to cook?
Gretchen and I believe very strongly that Jesus Christ is God, and that the things he said when he was here on earth were true. As a result, we believe that if we make sacrifices in order to obey him, he’ll look after us and make sure that we’re alright. We also believe that he wants rich people to be generous to poor people. So generous, in fact, that they don’t stay rich very long.

We want our kids to grow up seeing us live by this principle, even if it means that they won’t have every little thing they want. We want them to grow up knowing that selfishness is unacceptable, and that giving to the point of sacrifice is normal. The Bible says this about Jesus Christ: “though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you, through His poverty, might become rich.” We want our kids to grow up seeing us act like Jesus in this way. We hope that maybe one day they’ll be better people because of it.

For more about God’s feelings about the poor, read these passages in the Bible: Deuteronomy 15:7-11, Proverbs 14:21&31, 19:17, 21:13, 22:9, 28:8&27, 29:7, 31:30, Isaiah 58:6-12, Matthew 19:21, Matthew 25, Luke 6:20, and 2 Corinthians 8:9.

Q5. That’s a very interesting idea. How can I find more information about it?
We’ve had a lot of success with this blog as a medium for communicating with our family and friends about recent happenings in our lives. I’m planning to use my own little blog as a forum for discussion as we work towards making this dream a reality. Up until this point it’s just been politics and weird stuff I found on the internet peppered with the occasional blustery monologue, but going forward I’ll be using it to chronicle our experiences changing careers and opening a restaurant. If you’re interested, go to http://leftovers.tumblr.com/ and watch for updates.

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At the shelter everybody gets a hot lunch everyday, but most mornings the only things available to eat for breakfast are stale doughnuts and peanut butter on white bread. I know that any food is better than no food, but a meal like that is not a good way to start the day, especially for folks who spent all night sleeping on concrete. In fact, I think it’s a shame that people often use this “beggars can’t be choosers” sort of reasoning to justify providing substandard services to the poor, and then having the audacity to call it “mercy ministry”. Imagine if Matthew 25 reflected that mentality: “When I was hungry you begrudgingly fed me your scraps, when I was injured you hastily slapped a bandage on my wounds, when I was naked you pointed me towards a clothes closet a few miles down the road…” It sort of loses the punch doesn’t it?
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At the Samaritan Inn things are busiest during the lunch hour. All morning folks usually just sit around and catch up on their sleep or talk and drink coffee and eat whatever breakfast pastries are available that day. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere and everyone is welcome to come and go as they please.

But when 12:00 rolls around the doors shut and Wayne starts talking. Generally he shares a mixture of Bible verses and life stories for about half an hour, then we pray together and eat lunch. The folks who listened to Wayne’s talk get in line first and everyone who stayed outside pours in after them. The food gets served in big portions and is eaten quickly. When everybody’s had enough folks start packing up and trickling back out onto the street. About a dozen or so usually linger until right at 1:30 when everything shuts down to clean up and get ready for the next day.

After lunch last Saturday while most folks were talking and gathering their things, a stocky man with a gray beard approached me. He introduced himself as Curtis and asked if I had a minute to talk. We sat down in Wayne’s office and closed the door and I asked him what was on his mind. Curtis told me about his former life as an electrician and a handyman. He told me about his family and his hobbies and how much he had taken for granted while he was still strong. He’d had a stroke less than a year ago and in the process lost everything. He lost the use of his left arm and left leg, and as a result he lost his job and the ability to make a living. Then, when he couldn’t provide for his family anymore he lost them, and with them his home and his possessions. Now he was living at the Rescue Mission and had no idea what the future held for him.

When he had finished his story we sat there together in silence for a few moments. “I’m sorry”, I said. “I’m so sorry.” He asked me if I would pray for him, and I did. I asked God to have mercy on him, to protect him while he was so vulnerable and give him the strength to carry on. I thanked God for caring so much about weak people like us and for loving us even though we don’t deserve it.

When I was done praying I said, “You’re a brave man. If I were in your shoes I would be so scared”. Curtis looked at me, and all of the sudden he was crying. I started crying too (even though I wasn’t really sure what we were crying about) and hugged him. He sobbed a little bit and then said, “Thank you for saying you would be scared. I’m terrified to be so helpless and it makes me feel like a little baby.” Then I lost it too and we were both sobbing.

Sometimes it’s simple things that are meaningful to us. Remembering someone’s birthday or the anniversary of when they lost a loved one. Giving a little gift or making a phone call for no reason. Just telling Curtis that I would be scared too made all the difference to him. In the same way, it’s the little things about Jesus that make him such an accessible person. The way he wept for the crowds and made such a fuss over little kids, or the way he willingly spent time with to crazy people and listened to the poor. I am so thankful that God pays attention to details.

CNN ran this article on violence against the homeless today.

An update on this situation:

The “word on the street” is that the kids who were perpetrating the violence against our homeless neighbors have been apprehended. I’ve seen nothing about it on the news or in the paper, but evidently a police officer stopped by the shelter recently and told some guys that they were caught last week. Whatever happened, the attacks have stopped and folks feels a little safer. I would say that they’re “resting easier”, but the cold weather is making that difficult. I have a hard time imagining what it’s like to spend all night on a freezing cold sidewalk, but some of these guys spend every night that way.

I’ve been spending more and more time at the shelter recently and I’m getting to know some folks pretty well. Gretchen is down there four days a week working in the thrift store, so she’s meeting some great people too. I’ll try to post some stories soon.

I realize that this blog has become primarily a medium for distributing baby pictures and cute stories to friends and family, but I had a more serious experience this week that I want to talk about.

For the past few months a group of teenagers has been harassing and sometimes physically assaulting the group of homeless men and women that sleep outside the Samaritan Inn, a shelter a few block from our house. They drive by and scream profanities at them, often stopping to throw bricks or bottles. Over the last week or so the frequency of these incidents has been picking up and on Thursday night it reached a new low. At around midnight some kids actually parked their car, got out and started shooting the folks sleeping in front of the Inn with a paintball gun. One sleeping man was shot in the face several times, and even after he woke up and tried to hide behind a post they continued to shoot him.
So000313-Homeless
I like to go over the the Samaritan Inn and spend my lunch break there when I can, and I knew the man who was shot. It was an absolute shock when I saw him on Friday. His face was all swollen and cut up, and his eye was terrible looking. He told me what happened and my heart sank. I was especially disturbed by the fact that this has been going on for months and no one had done anything about it. None of the guys have been able to get a good look a the license plate and even though they’ve been reporting these incidents to the police nothing has been done to deter further attacks.

So my friend Dave and I went over there the other night and along with Wayne, the owner of the Samaritan Inn, we sat up for most of the night and tried to get a glimpse of the kids who where doing this. It was raining a little and they didn’t ever come by, but some of the guys stayed up with us and we had a great time talking. They had surprisingly good attitudes and very little anger towards the kids that were trying to hurt them.

This whole series of events got me thinking. There are a lot people who are passionate about the environment. They chain themselves to trees and clean up oil spills and fight against air pollution. There are folks that devote their lives to standing up for bald eagles, polar bears and manatees, and a lot of time and effort is spent making sure that pets are cared for properly and stray cats and dogs aren’t mistreated.

So where are all the people standing up for the homeless? They are one of the most defenseless and vulnerable groups in our society, where are the folks who are passionate about their rights? If there where kids driving past the SPCA every night and throwing bricks at the dogs in their kennels there would be a public outcry, but when it happens to the homeless it doesn’t even make the news.

This is a trend all across the country too. Teenager-on-homeless violence has been rising sharply in recently and very little is being done about it. In the last few years hundreds of violent crimes against the homeless have been reported, many of which where lethal. In Michigan a 53-year-old man was beaten to death with sticks and logs by a group of teenagers who admitted to killing the homeless man just for fun. Two New York City teens kicked, punched, and finally beat a 51-year-old homeless man to death in a churchyard. He crawled to the church steps before finally dying of a fractured skull. (read about more incidents here)

I think that every human being deserves to be treated with at least the respect that we show stray dogs. If you’re a Roanoke resident, give some of your time or money to the needs of the homeless through the Rescue Mission or the Samaritan Inn. Don’t badmouth the homeless to other people or around your kids and make sure that your teenagers aren’t watching any of the videos that glorify violence against the homeless like Bumfights. If you’re interested in doing something for homeless individuals personally, make them a care package.

I plan to spend a lot more time at the Samaritan Inn in the future and I’ll post more about this particular situation as things develop. I feel like this is an issue that Jesus Christ would be doing something about if he were in my shoes. Let me know if you have any good ideas.

I noticed an article on wired news this morning about the increasing number of homeless people using the internet. The article was very interesting and it rang true with my own experience recently. It only takes one trip to a public library downtown to notice that there are indeed more and more homeless folks in the computer labs all the time. Being small minded and ignorant, I had assumed they were just playing solitaire, but it turns out that a lot of them are blogging. Evidently the increasing availability of internet access via public libraries and WiFi hotspots is resulting in a lot of homeless folks reaching out and finding a voice over the world wide web. Who would have thought?

One such blog is written by Kevin Barbieux, a man living in a shelter in Nashville. I took a minute to read a few of his posts today and he seems to have a very intelligent and well-rounded perspective on homelessness. I would highly recommend you check it out if you have the time.

Here is a snippet from one of his posts:

So, you ask yourself, “Self, what can I do? How can I help homeless people, even though I don’t have much?”

Well, there IS something you can do. There are many things that homeless people usually do without, which sometimes seem insignificant, that homeless would be very happy to receive.

This is a project you can do rather inexpensively – and you can make this a project to do with friends, or your Church group, and share the expense – and you can include people of all age groups.

Get some paper lunch bags and fill them with little goodies. This is just a list of things I can think of, that everyone on the streets would need and appreciate. You might have your own good ideas too. — “travel size” tooth paste and tooth brush and deodorant. A pair of new or clean socks (it’s hard to keep feet healthy on the street) nail clippers, a comb, a bar of soap, gloves when it’s cold out, a disposable razor, etc. Then add something special, like little Halloween size candies, a personal note that says “I care”. You could even decorate the bags with drawings of happy faces and hearts – yeah, even mean ol’ grumpy homeless guys like that kind of stuff – even if they don’t admit it.

Once you have your care packages together, take them to where homeless people hang out – wherever it’s safe for you too. If you aren’t a proper adult, bring along proper adult supervision. And personally hand out the packages. Just try to plan to have enough for each homeless person.

Now it does happen sometimes, when you do this, that a street person will then ask you for something you don’t have, or you are uncomfortable with giving. Just tell them that the packages are all you have right now, and that you’re sorry you can’t help more. Sometimes they will try to make you feel guilty so they can get more out of you. Be polite but firm. If you set, and hold to your limits, they will respect you for it. This is a great way of giving. I have received such packages myself – they’ve always been a blessing.

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RSS Verse of the day

  • Proverbs 3:11-12
    My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.

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