On Tuesday morning our team split into groups; each one heading off to do different things. Most of the team continued hanging drywall, another group went to do yard work for a Katrina victim, and I volunteered for the group that was going to distribute free lunches to homeless people.We were headed to “Tent City”: a dense cluster of makeshift shelters – not just dusty and blackened camping-tents, but tar smeared blankets, boxes and out-of-place furniture under an overpass in the city. I saw a couch someone must have dragged out of a house somewhere. I saw an empty milk jug that someone had been using to pee in, uncapped, and setting next to their tent, half full. In fact, the whole place reeked of urine.
As Amy, Erin and I got arm-fulls of water bottles and lunches, and crossed the street into the shadow cast by the overpass, almost immediately a woman – who had sunglasses perched on her head, an expensive-looking but dirty red jacket, slacks and a wrist watch – appeared and curtly asked for two waters and two lunches. she snatched them and was gone even before she had finished saying thank-you.
A huge black man with dreadlocks – who moved slowly – came walking towards us. He was cradling a walkman in one hand; the headphones he had pulled down and left hanging on his neck. We found out his name was Kerry. He wanted us to pray that he would be cleared of the drug possession charges he was facing, and explained, at length, that his doctor had prescribed marijuana; that in the confusion following Katrina he had lost the papers he needed to prove it.
While we talked with Kerry, an obviously mentally ill woman wandered over to us and clutched the lunch we gave her. I could see some kind of diseased lesions on her arms and shoulders. I don’t know enough to guess what they could have been, but they looked painful. She talked to us – pretty incoherantly – about her son, who was in prison, and gave us each a perfunctory hug.
A man named Alfonzo accosted us and gratefully accepted his lunch and water. When we asked him if we could pray for him, and what he needed, he began talking loudly about what had happened to him. In an attempt to get out of New Orleans after the hurricane, he had stolen a truck. He was caught and thrown in prison for some months. His numerous subsequent attempts to find a place to live had failed, and he was now left with nothing. He was addicted to drugs, and very angry. Throughout his story, he emphasized over and over that – before Katrina – he had been a church-goer, a baptist, and a member of the church chior. We prayed with him, then, and when I had finished praying, he launched into an impassioned prayer of his own. He asked God to forgive him, and railed against his situation. He lamented the power of the devil in the city, and expressed confidence in his belief that the flood was punishment from God for the city’s evil ways.
I had prayed with both Kerry and Alfonzo, and I wondered If I had prayed for the right things. With Kerry, I didn’t want to pray that he would be cleared of his drug charges, since I didn’t feel like it was the most important thing. Instead, I prayed that God’s will would be done in his life, that God would make his love and kindness apparent to Kerry in a way that he can understand – that God would not only alleviate Kerry’s material situation, but show Kerry that he needs a savior. That much I could pray wholeheartedly, and without reservation, so I did. Kerry seemed okay with that. With Alfonzo, I prayed a similar prayer. I wonder what will ultimately be the greater testimony to people like Alfonzo and Kerry. WIll it be people like me and my team mates who prayed with them? or will it be that we simply listened to them?
It hurt that the people in tent city didn’t understand what we wanted to offer them. They could understand the food and water – they saw that they had a need for that. But so many of them refused our prayers, saying they didn’t need that. We were confronted with the problem of helping the lost to see their need for the Lord. When I come face to face with such spiritual blindness, I feel inadequate, and lost. I do not know what the proper response is – because all responses seem inadequate. Often I am paralyzed between the desire to be courageous enough to offer that which they need but do not want, and the desire to be sensitive to their condition, and to not push them away from the truth by being presumptuous in assuming I have all the answers.
As I left Tent City, I had a lot of questions to think about, but mostly, I think I was thankful. I don’t know if we changed any lives, but I’m happy to leave that up to God. I know that he has works prepared for me, that he uses me in ways I can’t begin to understand, and that my simple obedience is enough. Feeding the homeless in tent city was bewildering in that I felt totally inadequate, and almost futile, but my trust in my God, and his care for me, is renewed because of it.
Written By Daniel Gateley