Sunday, May 20, 2007


When I was recently asked to give the sermon at the Central Union Mission here in Washington, DC, I quickly said yes. It had been a long time since I had preached at a mission, so I figured I was due for it. As always, it turned out the mission was a far greater blessing to me than I could have been to it.

We had a wonderful service the Tuesday night I went. A worship team from my own home church provided music. The hundred or so homeless men in attendance responded in different ways; from spontaneous standing gyrations to head bobbing naps and loud snores.

As the sermon time drew closer, I knew I'd have to do something to get my congregation’s attention, so I opened with a question. (It’s always a good way to arrest an audience!) I asked, “How many of you have ever been done wrong by your woman?” Lots of hands went up. Then I turned the tables and asked, “How many have ever done wrong to your woman?” Even more hands went up.

My text was Hosea 2:7, about the prophet’s prostitute wife, Gomer, becoming unsatisfied with her adulteries and returning to her husband. I made it a lesson on our unfaithfulness to God and our need to return to Him. When I gave the invitation, many responded. It was a moving night of life-saving evangelistic ministry. To be frank, I had predicted as much. The poor always receive the Gospel more easily. People who have nothing also don’t have many obstacles to faith.

What I didn’t anticipate about my visit to the Central Union Mission was the flood of memories it would bring back to me; memories from 31 years ago. Back then I lived and worked at Teen Challenge in Rochester, New York, another sort of mission. While attending Bible College, I was a resident counselor for this church-run rehabilitation center for troubled young men. Our residents came from the courts, the jails and the streets. Most were addicted, some were mentally ill, all were, indeed, deeply troubled. My job was to befriend these young men, provide a disciplined atmosphere and steer them toward living clean, Christ-centered, law-abiding, gainfully employed lives. You know-- your typical part-time job for an 18-year old!

That first night I was given a staff bedroom literally under a staircase in the old dilapidated mansion that was the center’s dorm and chapel. I can still see the beat-up metal-framed bed and feel the gaping hole right in the center of the mattress. It was a cold November and the heat vent directly under the bed had no grate on it. The hot air belched directly from the ancient octopus furnace in the basement just below. To make matters worse, the room’s miniature window had been painted shut so many times I couldn’t open it even a crack. With the house filled with 20 recovering drug addicts, alcoholics and one rapist, I didn’t dare unlock and open my door. I nearly suffocated.

In the middle of that long, scorching night, I awoke to a furious banging. I rolled off the concave mattress and guardedly opened the door. Standing in the hallway was one of the residents. He was bleeding profusely from his arms. He told me flatly, “I tried to kill myself. You better get me to the hospital.”

Taking my one and only towel from the bedpost, I wrapped the arm with what appeared to be the deepest slash, bundled him into the facility’s van and rushed off to the hospital. He had to bark directions at me because I didn’t have a clue where it was. He turned out to have mostly superficial wounds. The hospital admitted him into the psychiatric ward and I returned to my hothouse at about 4:00 in the morning.

That inauspicious beginning set the direction for the next four years. I loved Teen Challenge, but the situations with our residents never got much better. I would eventually become executive director; supervise two more centers and a lot more guys. Cheryl and I were married during those years. We returned from our honeymoon to move into a small apartment in the adjoining house that served as our offices.

What years those were. I learned so many lessons: about the power of God to change lives; about human resistance to change; about the depth of depravity to which human beings can slide in this life; and the soaring peeks to which they can climb with God’s help and the interest of others.

Sitting on the platform at the Central Union Mission brought all of it back to me: the smell of street people; the postures of those beat down by sin, sickness and mental illness; the loving, self-sacrificing service of the staff; the gratitude in the eyes of those cast off and ignored by most everyone else.

The one big thing I got out of my reminiscences about Teen Challenge (and the more recent experience at the mission itself) is that there really isn’t much difference between what I did 31 years ago and what I’m doing today. The up-and-outers in high public office that I work with now aren’t much different from the down-and-outers I worked with back then. They smell a little better, but their sins are no less consequential. The up-and-outers make messes of their lives, too, but money, prestige and power do a good job hiding those messes.

I think I’m going to preach at the mission more often.

Back later . . .

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