Homelessness and the Aroma of Christ
"But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ." – 2 Corinthians 2:14-17 ESV
A few months ago a man walked into Soma Austin on Sunday morning for our church gathering. You didn't have to see him to know he was there. As a matter of fact you knew he was there before you could even see him, and you knew when he had recently been somewhere. Your first thought when you met Danny wasn't so much a thought, but rather a pungent, bitter reaction to a grown man who smelled strongly of a mixture of urine and feces.
The very first weekend Danny sat on the first row just a few seats from me, and Bam!, the smell gets right in your nostrils. My very first thought was, "How will everyone around him respond?" I mean, we are trying to grow a church here, and not everyone gets that we are cool with this. As a matter of fact, looking around this might be the highest attendance we've ever had. It's pretty packed and you just can't escape it. My next thought was that some of these people won't be coming back. This isn't what they were looking for when they visited that morning.
Thanks be to God, he gave me a different truth to lay hold of and embrace.
"While some are sensing this as an aroma of death, it is actually the aroma of Christ to God."
Sure, when I saw Danny I saw evidence of brokenness, heartache and decay. But I also saw a community of faith willing to invite Danny into our church and to grow in knowing him and embracing him. And that is the aroma of Christ in God to all those who could see it. The fact that Danny could come in, grab a front row seat and then keep coming back was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful, a pleasing sacrifice to God and a sweet aroma to Him and all who had the ability to see it for what it was. As bad as he smelled to everyone else, that he was welcomed was way sweeter in Christ to God.
How Did Danny Get Here?
Danny kept coming back on Sunday, and then he started coming by during the week, hanging out, finding some refuge and letting us get to know him. We discovered a 54 year old man who was released from jail 5 years ago ago after kicking a cop in the head while being tazed. To be honest, if I am being tazed, I might kick you in the head. Shortly after Danny was released he got beat up while on the streets and had all his identification stolen. Later he had a stroke which limited his control over his bladder or bowels when he sleeps. Later still he had his hip replaced. For five years he was separated from his family because he was unable to contact them. Danny has been eligible for disability insurance this whole time, but for five years he hasn't had any ID to be able to get it. Because of all this Danny has been living under the bridge at Congress Avenue & the 71/Ben White freeway, sleeping 16 feet above traffic lanes with his feet hanging over the side.
What The Gospel Compels
So because Nate Schlueter loves Jesus, he starts playing detective and tenaciously tracking down family members. He eventually finds a grandmother, leaves a message and a couple weeks later Danny's wife calls us and says they will try to find some papers so we can get him an ID. During the week Nate and others keep trying to get to know Danny more deeply and speak some life into him.
Fast forward a couple weeks, and as I was finishing up one of our Advent sermons Danny starts walking up the center aisle from the back of the room. Every step, with his cane out before him, is labored because he has an artificial hip. And that smell, slowly traveling up the center aisle as Danny comes to the front row to sit in the seat right in front of me as I preach. It broke me. I wanted to say, "Hey Danny, glad you are here bro." I wanted to stop and acknowledge his strength and determination to come near to the throne of grace and be near the communion tables. I knew at that point I needed to meet Danny half way. I wanted Danny to have his dignity back. No man should have to endure what he endures.
So that week I picked Danny up from under the bridge, brought him home (with my wife's blessing) and helped him get a bath for the first time in a long time. It was heart-breaking to help a grown man in that condition. Cleaning up after a small child is one thing, helping a grown man after days (or more) of urine and feces is entirely different. I grabbed all his old clothes, threw them in the washing machine and got him a fresh set of clothes. Later I took him to get his first haircut in years and a straight razor hot shave, his first one ever. During that haircut and shave he began to blossom, started talking so much that I told him it was gonna be his last straight razor shave if he couldn't stop moving his head!
We started doing it every Sunday morning. I would pick him up at 8am under the bridge, bring him home, help him get cleaned up and we would ride to church together. The first Sunday he started moving faster and talking to everyone he could. Dignity.
And then last Friday something awesome happened. Nate got Danny connected to his wife on the phone and they talked for a bit. Finally Danny was able to tell her that he was sleeping under a bridge, and within 24 hours an amazing thing happened. After five years of not seeing her husband, she drove from East Texas to pick him up and take him home. Absolutely awesome.
You see, what Danny needed from people was not just another dollar. It wasn't only another meal. It wasn't even one night in a warm bed. All of those things are great, and truly wonderful people and organizations are providing those services. What Danny really needed was someone willing to go to the trouble to help him search for his family. What Danny needed was an opportunity for renewal. He needed some new relationships where people would seek dignity for him. He needed some people who had the opportunity to help and who would seize it. He needed someone who would help him get cleaned up, and presentable to his wife. He needed people who had been so changed by the gospel that they could no longer look at brokenness and sorrow, and then turn away yet again.
Thankfully Danny found all that at Soma Austin, a family and community of people committed to participating with Jesus in the renewal of all things. And I really think that to God every step along the way was a sweet aroma of life to Him, and to those watching who could see what was really happening.
Thank you Soma Austin community for loving on Danny and for offering your sacrifice on behalf of others. You are such a sweet gift.
Poverty Has a Name... and I Want to Learn It
Later today 10 people from Soma Austin will be living on the streets of Austin for the next few days. No phones, no PDAs, no credit cards, no wallets, no food can be taken with us. We aren't doing this to pretend that we are homeless, but rather we are doing this so that we might be changed in the process. We are praying that God would reveal himself more deeply in each of us, and in each of the people we meet on the streets. I am looking forward to learning their names and their stories. I am looking forward to doing this with others from Soma Austin.
Would you please pray for us this weekend:
- Jacob Vanhorn
- Nate Schlueter (also Kyler, Rory and Keean)
- Evan Solice
- James Dildine
- Austin Henderson
- Michael Allen
- Kristin Allen
On Sunday morning we will be walking to church straight from the streets. We will likely be sleep deprived, a little grouchy and pretty stinky. Please sit next us still. After all, it is the aroma of Christ.