My interaction with urban ministries began at Wheaton College when I grabbed a pre-packed sack lunch from SAGA, hopped into a comfortable twelve passenger van and headed to inner-city Chicago on Saturday mornings to befriend and disciple girls. These mornings integrated Biblical teaching with cool craft projects and games, offered nutritious snacks and impromptu tutoring. Back on campus, my semester’s reading list included Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.
Working as an emergency room nurse further introduced me to the plight of the urban poor who were seeking health care in a large hospital in downtown Houston, Texas. Occasional opportunities provided by our local church in Charlotte, NC, took our family from the suburbs to soup kitchens, inner city neighborhoods, and urban ministry centers which facilitated outreach as well.
It took a series of unforeseen events last month, however, for me to walk the streets of San Jose in the footsteps of those who rely on public transportation (and their own feet) and sit shoulder to shoulder with the urban poor on crowded buses. In the early morning light, I walked over the sleeping homeless, inhaling the odor of rotting garbage, diesel fumes, and the fetid breath of beggars. The quiet stillness of my ten-block journey between bus stops allowed me to take it all in, but it has taken much of this holiday season to process this up-close-and-personal urban interaction, yet I still cannot describe the effect it has had on my heart and soul.
The return walk between distant bus stops was an assault to the senses-- crowded sidewalks bustling with people, street vendors loudly hawking their wares, and even more polluted air and unpleasant odors mingled with the greasy odor of fast food and roasting nuts and coffee. The commercialism of Christmas no longer captivates my attention, and my eyes and heart are open and seeking to love as Christ would love—not by cultivating dependencies, but by showing mercy and offering dignity and the Gospel to the unfortunate, to the urban poor and refugees in the clinical setting, and to the individual sharing the seat on an overcrowded bus. Or wherever my footsteps take me.