It’s not the kind of rain that causes you to desperately run for cover. It’s also not the kind of rain that Seattle is known for and just seems to float in the air, not ever really getting you completely wet. In my opinion, this is the worst kind of rain. The kind of rain that tricks you. The kind that makes you feel like you don’t need to run but, as a result, soaks you through in quick order. Stephanie, the kids, and I huddle in line, trying to press as close to the building as humanly possible to avoid the soak. It’s early morning as we wait with others from our church for The Bread of Life Mission in Downtown Seattle to open its doors and receive the help we are here to offer.
We are a 30-minute drive away from our comfortable suburbia neighborhood. The day prior we all chose to come here to serve as part of our Serve The City Day at church. I used my powers of persuasion to push us out of our comfort zone near home and drive into Seattle. Part of the reason for the nudge is the response we always got from our three kids when driving across the floating bridge. It’s pretty cool to be that close to the water while in the car. It’s a rare occasion when we drive into Seattle and this would be adventurous. The secondary reason for pushing them toward Seattle is Tat’s.
As we wait in the rain I remind everyone of the prize at the end of the day of service. While just being there serving is enough of a reason to suffer the weather, the added benefit of knowing Tat’s Deli is just around the corner waiting for us to finish also helps. I act out biting into the award-winning pastrami sandwich and smile. The kids laugh, for a moment forgetting the rain. They’ve never had Tat’s. They’re in for a treat. This sandwich is so good it’s been on TV shows. It’s heart attack good. It’s worth the rain.
The doors finally open a few minutes past when they are supposed to and we all quickly step into the lobby and out of the rain. We are led into a briefing room for a volunteer coordinator to explain why we’re here. The coordinator shows us how to put together care packs for the homeless in Pioneer Square. The plan is to put the kids on the assembly line, hand the packs to someone who works at the shelter to hand out to the homeless as needed, and reward our good work with a great sandwich. Another successful day of serving in the books.
When I met Stephanie she served at a homeless youth shelter near the University of Washington; serving is in her blood. It’s also in mine. To this day we love serving together and we really love seeing this trait get passed down to our kids. I’m very aware that our comfortable situation, 30 minutes away, could change in the blink of an eye. It wouldn’t take much for us to be homeless. These men and women we serve are image bearers of the God we love. In fact, Jesus would have been counted among them, not having a home himself. It’s an honor for us to enter into their stories, even as a very small piece. I’m also humbled that God would give us the honor of representing Him to others. I want my kids to be a part of this.
I’m also very aware of the complexity of the issue of homelessness. I’m guilty of assuming the stereotypes of homeless running from the law or being predators. I recognize the realities of mental health issues and addiction within some of those in the homeless community. The truth is, some of these stereotypes are true. As a father of two boys and a little girl it’s my responsibility to protect them as best I can. We should guard our children at all times including those situations where they are engaging unknown people in an unknown environment. It’s also vastly important to recognize that not everyone in the homeless community are a threat. The balance can be tricky but it’s worth the effort.
The risk of me avoiding this population completely can be found in a story that Jesus told. In Matthew 25 Jesus talked about the last day when He will separate out the righteous from the wicked. He will thank the righteous for feeding Him when He was hungry, giving Him a drink when He was thirsty, welcoming Him when He was a stranger, clothing Him in His nakedness, visiting Him in His sickness and going to Him in prison. He will condemn the wicked for not doing so. Both the righteous and wicked will respond with confusion. The righteous will be confused as to when they actually did those things. The wicked will be confused because they never saw Jesus as one of those people. Jesus’ simple, yet profound response will be to say that when we chose to, or not to, do these things to the least of our brothers and sisters we either loved Him or chose to ignore Him in that moment. I’ve heard it said that when we finally stand in God’s presence, He won’t accuse us of being taken advantage of. However, we will be held accountable for ignoring Him by ignoring His children. I don’t know about you but that story is an eye opener for me.
As we finish putting together the packs at The Bread of Life Mission, we start to get ready to leave. As I look to drop our box of packs off with the volunteer coordinator, he asks if we would be willing to go hand out the packs personally instead of delegating that task to someone at the shelter. My dad protection alarms are going off. We’re going to wander Pioneer Square in the rain with three kids to hand out care packs to homeless? The kids look at me as if to ask, “Do we really have to do this?” We are all a bit nervous, but we decide as a family to lean into the uncomfortable. We hesitate as we hand out the first bag. As I approach the first homeless man I see and engage him in conversation, the kids all stand sheepishly behind me. It can be intimidating to engage in conversation with someone new. This is especially true when we’re all standing out in the rain instead of a warm coffee shop or restaurant. By God’s grace we push through the initial awkward and enter into the unknown.
We repeat this process a few other times and something starts to happen. My kids start asking me for packs to hand out on their own. They proceed to go up to people by themselves, hand them a pack and say, “We just want to show you God’s love in a practical way.” I sit back, still in protection mode, but watch as God empowers my children to love the way He loves. Mind blown! To watch my 10 and 8-year-old sons and little 5-year-old daughter give a homeless man a bag and see the smile come across his face is a picture I’ll never forget.
Another successful serve opportunity in the books. We conveniently hand out our last bag outside the door of our waiting pastrami sandwiches. I praise the efforts of the kids. We talk about how scary the experience was and wonder why we were so nervous. We discuss God’s heart for the poor. We break down the idea that God is the giver of every good gift and as we handed those packs out we were able to mimic our Heavenly Father to some degree in giving gifts. We agree that sometimes just showing God’s love in a practical way is demonstrating the good news of Jesus. This was a great teaching opportunity. Steph and I are discipling our children and I feel like the best dad in the world.
That’s not the end of the story.
Speaking of discipleship, I’m more and more convinced these days that it is a two-way street. My job is to raise my kids in the “ways they should go.” To guide them toward a path of discipline. I think Steph and I do a pretty good job of that. We look for opportunities to show them our understanding of who God is. We actively listen to them to hear how the enemy is lying to them and how they may be believing those lies. We try to counter the enemy’s lies with God’s truth. Even in the midst of all that I still wonder if I learn more from my kids about the heart of God than they may be learning from me.
As we walk back to the car to head home we are high on life. To top it off, we have an extra sandwich from Tat’s, a Freudian slip on my part. I “accidently” ordered too many sandwiches and am secretly looking forward to the snack later that night as the kids go to sleep. Waiting for a crosswalk, another homeless man asks me for money. I apologize and state that I had nothing to offer as I have a thousand times walking through the streets of Seattle. The light turns and we begin to walk away. My son Levi, 10-years-old, looks at me with confusion, turns, walks up to the man and hands him my extra sandwich.
“Here’s a sandwich from Tats… it’s really good.”
The man takes the sandwich, looks at me and with tears in his eyes says, “That is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a very long time.” With tears in my eyes I agree with him. Me, the teacher, was being taught by my oldest son. In that moment Levi demonstrated God’s heart more than anything else we had done that day. I had served that day somewhat out of obligation and partially with ulterior motive. It didn’t cost us much other than some time and uncomfortableness. Even though we were done “serving”, Levi showed what it meant to keep giving. With a simple gift of a sandwich Levi reminded that homeless man his worth as an image bearer of God.
I had felt like my job was done. I checked the serve day off my list and went back to the normal routine of ignoring the overwhelming need around me. I felt like I had done my part. What Levi reminded me that day is that serving isn’t a task item I get to check off my list. Serving is a constant attempt to engage and treat those around us as the image bearers of God that they are. God used my 10-year-old son to remind me to love like He loves.
Not long afterward I was walking downtown Seattle on my way back from a lunch break. I worked in a big tower really close to where Steph, me, and the kids served at the Bread of Life Mission. To this day I don’t give money to homeless who are asking for it. However, that day I walked past a guy who wasn’t asking for money; he was asking for food. I initially walked past this guy but God quickly reminded me of the lesson I learned from Levi that day. I turned around and asked if I could buy him lunch. We sat in a sandwich shop and I was able to hear the story of why a guy named Randy was asking for food on the streets of Seattle. Me in my suit and Randy in his cloths became friends for a short time. Thanks to Levi, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some really cool people.
I put my arm around Levi as we walk away, short a sandwich, and thank him for teaching his dad how to recognize, love and serve Jesus. “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)