"Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows."(Luke 12:6-7 ESV)
For one hundred and thirty years, it's doors have opened and stood against the ravages of time, society and corruption to those to whom it has been created to serve…..for one hundred and one years in the current spot on the street that it has claimed for its own. My journey began on February 28th, 2010, as a travel weary band of fourteen people from a new church plant in Ann Arbor Michigan who travelled many, many hours to reach its red doors……I was one of those naïve people, though there were a few veterans, who walked into the doors of the Bowery Mission around 10pm that Sunday night. I may have glanced in a mirror at the man who walked between those two red doors if I had but known that I would never see him again. Then again, I may have not.
It was evident in the eyes that feel upon me that there wasn't much thought given to us; we were categorized as soon as we came through the door. We were the next 'crop' of volunteers, those careless souls who walk through the Bowery doors to serve those whom call the Bowery and its environs their home. A different group each week…….soon they would leave and maybe never be seen again. Ministering to the homeless is a effort that sometimes be fraught with disappointment, struggles and complicities that we cannot hope to untangle and therefore a ministry that is too often given nothing but a curtsy glance. The Bowery Mission is an opportunity for those who have the heart and the calling to be Christians to immerse themselves in the ministry of the homeless under the direction of Pastor Tom Basile. For behind the red doors of the Bowery Mission, God is doing a mighty work……and not just on the homeless men who call its walls home.
Someone asked me why I had to go to New York to work with the homeless. Until I got there, I couldn't answer.
The Bowery Mission has been doing its job well before I walked in the door and it will continue, even as I write this, to do its stated mission of "providing compassionate care and life transformation" as it has for the past one hundred and thirty years (101) at the current location. In 2009 alone, the Bowery Mission provided homeless men and women with over 346,500 meals, 73,000 nights of shelter and 43,000 articles of clothing. Not to mention 575 professional doctor appointments and 48 eye examinations. 150 lives were transformed with spiritual growth, sobriety, restored relationships, employment, housing and a plan for the future. It has hosted in its sister program 'Kids with a Promise', hosted 920 kids from NYC improvised neighborhoods at Mont Lawn Camp for a week as well as supporting academic, leadership and moral development of 12 children in the Young Scholars program and 78 teenagers in the Leadership Academy mentoring program. Over 39,000 hours of volunteer service has been given and over 2.9 million in-kind gifts have been raised. There is not much that my meager offering of a week's time could do in the Bowery's life…..or could it?
We dropped our bags off in the volunteer rooms and gathered back together to go find some pizza……when you are in New York, you've got to have some pizza from Ray's. We gathered in the tiny little walk-in place (not realizing there was a restaurant area right next store) and finally had some dinner around 10pm. Then we went back to the Bowery and fell asleep…well, most of us did. They provided, not the comfortable full and plush mattresses that I am accustomed to at home, but rather the homeless person's staple…..a thin, easily moved and efficient mattress…..life became raw when we walked in the doors of the Bowery, all the finery and coverings that we often employ in the daily living of what most of us consider life stripped away as unnecessary and wasteful.
I walked in the door feeling that I was alright, adequate and equal to the task at hand. I realized within the first day that I was totally unprepared for the life these guys lived…….they were the giants in the fight……I was a pretender, at worst, and so far from where I thought I was at the best.
My first experience was Martin…..I think he was from Puerto Rico……..who befriended me over a cup of very potent coffee made by one of the staff named Allen. God knows me very well and figured Martin's story was what I needed to hear first thing Monday morning as I contemplated what I had 'volunteered' for. Once again, as Martin told me his story, I realized just how powerful, merciful and just our God is……and how grateful I am for that mercy. Martin was addicted to horse drugs….and was pulled out of it by a pastor who dared to minister in that infested area of evilness. He had had two heart attacks and been in two comas by the time we talked. He was heading to the doctor the next day to have his heart looked at for damage. But, it wasn't the drug rescue that touched me, nor even the fact that Martin had been clean for several months as part of the program……it was the way he kept pointing to the sky, kept praising God and thanking Him for the mercy and blessings of being alive. As Martin put it, "Praise God that I am able to wake up today, get out of bed and walk down here for some coffee." Basic, simplistic and honest praise. How often do we overlook that, thinking God wants some elaborate and complex chant of praise and adoration from us before He'll accept it? Martin wasn't the exception to this rule, he was just the first I had come across to hear it from.
Throughout the week, each moment within the Bowery walls and in its chapel…….serving dinner to the countless homeless men and women, both the residents of the Bowery and the community surrounding the mission….never was God far from someone's lips. Never was there not a praise going up for the meal given, the service performed or the fellowship between the volunteers and the residents. But Monday…..oh, Monday, was the day of trial and the day I realized why God wanted me to travel all the way to the Bowery Mission in New York City to serve the homeless when there is Grace Centers of Hope and the Detroit Rescue Mission so much closer.
Because I would've ran back to the comfortable, never remained uncomfortable and therefore would have never experienced God's work raw and unblemished.
Mantel's testimony, Randolph's testimony, Mohammed's friendship, LeShane's simple humility, John's connection as a vet or even the many others whose names escape me or who's stories still overwhelm me to the point of silence. These are guys living on the raw edge of God's mercy, fully reliant upon the grace that He has promised and provisioned for them. They aren't the neat, carved from the mold, Christians and know so much better because of the frankness and realness of its application the forgiveness and love of a sacrificed Messiah. These are the rejected of the 'suburban' Christian, who has often walked on the other side of the street just to ignore the lump of humanity that is sitting on the street…..panhandling for money. Granted, there are those professionals (we met one), but in reality that is the exception to the rule and not at all endorsed by these guys nor others who form this undesired brotherhood and sisterhood called homeless. We dare to judge them, pointing to that one mistake of thinking one drink won't hurt and the subsequent fall back into alcoholism or that life surrendered to that drug that shuts out all else in its hungriness for flesh…..and we cast those so judged into the 'discard' pile……….after all, free will and such.
We would have problems fitting Mantel into that mold of prejudgment…….he simply lost his job, couldn't afford his apartment and then fell into depression……and wound up at the Bowery doors through a recommendation of another shelter. We would have problems fitting in the men and women who struggle with mental illnesses and are cast off from society as undesirables into that mold….if we were honest with ourselves. We would be sorely pressed to explain to ourselves why we should get a third, fourth or even a fiftieth chance at recurring sin and yet deny forgiveness and restoration to another who fell from grace once again because we don't want to 'enable' them. The complexities within which we have to view the sins of others lie like a log in our eyes and yet too often, as we sip our lattes and eat our fill….scrapping the discard into the trash……we try to remove the splinter from these giants who walk the front lines of the battle between souls…….
Isolated in our world of comfortable things, and yes….even in my world such as it is, I must admit to a degree of comfortableness far beyond what the men of the Bowery experience……(I have fallen far, but am still a blink away from their lives)………we forget the dangerous appetite of freedom….real, unadulterated freedom….that lies within these men's grasp; for good or for evil. If not for the efforts of valiant souls like Basile and his staff, the chaplains and the operations people, these men would fall into the evilness of unbridled freedom and be cast aside. But, in the goodness of this freedom, these men live so very close to God because there is nothing else in the way……they have chased the American dream into the ground and realized the emptiness of its promise. God stands tall for them because there is nothing obstructing their view, nothing angling for their attention and nothing tugging at them for affection but God. Don't get me wrong, they still struggle….but they live immersed in the Word, refreshed by fellowship and bolstered by the very presence of the Holy Spirit in the hallways and community rooms.
I was blessed by the team to be allowed to give the two chapel sermons that we, Mosaic, were responsible for. The Chapel meets three times a day, centered around the meal time…..you receive spiritual food and then physical consumption…..in the famous symbol of the Bowery Mission…..the heart, as Tony Carnes labeled it. "Great hearts are built in tragedies," Carnes writes in his pamphlet The Chapel: The Great Heart Of The Bowery Mission. After a tragedy in 1898, where eleven men died horrible deaths in the mission at 105 Bowery near Hester Street, the president Louis Klopsch was determined never to have it repeated. What evolved at 227 Bowery, an old coffin factory, was a renovation that was 'absolutely fireproof.' All the wood and casements were sealed in metal and the floors were steel and concrete. Dedicated in 1909, the chapel is much like its predecessor, long and decorated with verses along its walls with a 'new' gothic look. In this chapel, such famous and infamous people have used its graceful roominess for God's work or for self-promotion: William Howard Taft stopped by to say hello; JC Penny found his heart's strength in the hymns sang in its walls; Mrs. Sarah J. "Mother" Bird taught young Chinese girls in its pews; Governor Al Smith spoke of his own Bowery experiences; Eleanor Roosevelt sang here as a child; Franklin Delano Roosevelt, running for Vice President, stopped in to speak of New Yorkers compassion; NY Mayor Jimmy Walker traded witticisms with the crowd here; the Reverend Billy Sunday spoke here; Howard Meredith place commemorative flowers here; Ann Graham Lotz gave a sermon here and under the guidance of pastor Reggie Stutzman, the chapel continues to serve the community of the Bowery both as a center of worship and a resting place for the homeless each night.
But, as Pastor Tom would say, it's not about the 'famous' or 'infamous' people that came to the chapel, but that 'sleeper' who wakes in the street slowly and with groaning body stands…..to face a day that promises, in their limited view, to be a sad, discouraging day. They travel down the street named Bowery because they've heard of the promise of food for a requirement of listening to a sermon…..the possibility of hope in the dismal and grey world of raw discarded humanity…..the warmth, if for a little while, of a building where they are welcomed with open arms. As Tony Carnes writes in conclusion to his pamphlet, "Maybe, just maybe, the sleeper, a new guy, will stumble into the chapel and gain a new heart."
A humbling experience, indeed, to step into a 'visiting chaplain' role in such a historically vibrant place…..me, who haven't given voice to God's gift or calling in two years. I can only hope that I gave honor to the congregation of the Bowery and brought praise to the Father with the words I spoke on Tuesday morning service…….
For I know that my sister in Christ, Julie's drama to the music of Switchfoot and the challenging reading from Haggi presented by my sister in Christ, Vanessa, fully covered and overshadowed the simple offering of my testimony and my sermon for the final chapel service on Thursday night to the Bowery community. God called us to rock the foundations and if the talk was any indication, Mosaic was up to the challenge and the call……..
So, as I try and readjust to the life back home, I have come to realize in the fullness of this experience that the reason I had to go to New York to serve the homeless was simply because that was where God was working and inviting me to go; to reclaim the calling He's given me, to expand the compassion I feel for the lost and rejected and to do so in a place where I could not run, could not hide and could not deny His presence.
There was a bad connotation given to being a Bowery boy once…they were one of the 'famous' gangs in the northern area of the Five Points district of New York that included the Bowery section of the city, a nativist, anti-Catholic and anti-Irish gang that frequented the Bowery saloons and brothels marked by black stovepipe hats, red shirts, black flared pants, high-heeled calfskin boots, black vest and oil slicked hair. One of the most famous members was William Poole, aka Bill the Butcher. This is not the Bowery boy I would speak of being. No, the Bowery boy I speak of is marked by the red doors of the mission that shapes him, helps him realize God's definition of him and equips him for the world……a red-door bowery boy.
I left a piece of my heart in the Bowery…..I will forever be a man of the Bowery's red doors. And, if you look real close at the faces of Mantel, Randolph, Mohammed, Anthony, Allen, LeShane, Luis, Martin, Bobby and the other residents of the Bowery discipleship program…..you'll see one thing that will help you recognize them……
A family resemblance.
There is nothing I can write that would fully articulate the experience of the Bowery, nor would I want to. To do so would deny you the reason, the golden opportunity to live life raw with the men of the Bowery and to see God walking its halls. The Bowery may be famous in some people's eyes because of the celebrities who have come to its doors….but in the hearts of thousands and thousands of Bowery men, it is famous because of its compassionate and life transforming care.
Once, Billy Graham walked the Bowery's streets and had a lesson given in compassion before his famous 1957 Madison Square Garden crusade. As he faced the crowds at the crusade, he said this……
"I believe that if Jesus were here today, He would be down there much of the time with these people who need Him so much."
That is why you have to go to the Bowery Mission to serve the men of the Bowery.