It was just one year ago that I decided to take a weekend road trip to Marion, Ohio to meet up with the Heaven’s Saints Motorcycle Ministry (HSMM). Once a month they load up a converted bread truck and head in Columbus to reach out to the people living in the various pockets of homeless camps. My wife and I knew then that we needed to come back and bring some youth from the church to engage in, essentially, an urban missions trip.
Last weekend, my wife, our two children, and four others from our church headed down to Ohio.
When planning a trip like this, you can never fully capture the experience in the preparatory phase. But the youth and young adults were ready to take on the challenge.
Friday morning, we traveled. We waited for the toll booth while having a desperate bladder situation. Got some relief. Waited on the bridge. Stopped at Customs. Were questioned at Customs. Got pulled in at Customs. Waited in Customs. Got released from Customs. What should have been about and hour and twenty minutes took about 3 hours.
Friday afternoon, more travel, but another bladder situation. Gotta stop, in Detroit. At a Burger King. It didn’t have a washroom available, but it did offer bullet proof glass between the customer and staff. Safety first, I guess. Drive a bit more. Stop at KFC. They had a washroom that we were allowed to use, after some pleading. They also featured bullet proof glass. Customers order through a small opening in the glass, drop their money in a secure drawer that is pulled to the employee who exchanges the money for food and a receipt. No human contact. Just a transaction.
As the two girls were in the washroom, we watched a man corner another and ask for money. He got the money, presumably to go into KFC. He didn’t. He went over to the van with the girls, stood in front, and waved in a friendly manner. One of our travel companions didn’t feel overly friendly and closed the sliding door on the van. Safety first.
Washroom break over, laughs shared, and back on the road.
We arrived in time for dinner, unloaded our weekend gear and had some burgers at our hosts’ home, before going to visit my friends, HSMM Chapter President Tattoo and his wife Dot. They store all of the donations at their place. Instead of sorting, we were invited in to visit after our longer than anticipated road trip. After some small talk, I asked Tattoo to share his testimony, his story, with the youth.
Tattoo shared of his past drug use, his $1000 a day addiction, of being stabbed and shot, of failed experiences with religion, and a changed life through a relationship with Jesus Christ, and his love of Dot. She stood by his side and tried her best to keep him in line. She even tracked him down in a drug house, armed, and told him to get home!
Today, they both love Jesus, each other, and the people they minister to. The youth simply fell in love with this couple. So untraditional in their appearance with numerous tattoos and piercings, yet so sincere in their love and compassion for others.
Saturday morning we traveled down to Columbus to meet up with other volunteers and took in a quick bite of breakfast at the Fruit of the Vine outreach centre. There I met Steven. Homeless for a few years, he finds comfort in places like the centre, where he can get a warm meal, a cup of coffee, attend groups and studies, and feel accepted. Steven was kind and willing to share in the few moments we had together.
Shortly after 9:00 am, the caravan of seven vehicles filled with volunteers began the journey.
At our first stop, a few of us walked back into the wooded area across the road from an industrial condo development. I met L. He was on his own, with his dog, who was, well, overly affectionate – on command.
L was wielding a baseball bat when we arrived. He was drunk and defensive. The previous night he was beaten by people he knew. But nothing will be done about that. After Tattoo spoke to him and reminded him of who he was and why we were there, he settled. After a while, with just L and I back at his tents, but others close by, he allowed me to take some photos to illustrate the living conditions he survives daily.
A month ago, L was sober and praying for the Heaven’s Saints and the volunteers. Today, he needed us to help him. And we did. It’s not easy being homeless.
We met Crazy Chris – that’s how she introduced herself. One of the happiest people we met throughout the day. One who seems to have little, if anything, to be happy about! She joked with us and we sang songs on the street while food and clothing were handed out. Chris knows a ton of music. Together we sang songs by One Direction, Justin Bieber, and (of course) Eli Young Band’s song “Crazy Girl.” It just seemed fitting.
At another stop, a group of us walked with Tattoo into the woods to search for the camps. Tattoo knows many of them. He has spent hours walking down trails in search of people to help. He is clear though, never go alone. At one of the path outlets, we stumbled upon a city bike path, only feet away from the homeless camps. Passers by would have no idea. No idea that within a few hundred feet you could find a collection of tents, with people living out their lives daily, in conditions you could only imagine. No idea that at one tent in a corner you would see a sign that proclaimed, “Just Married.”
I met Michael at this stop. Michael accidentally killed a man when he was just 12. He was stealing a car when a man ran in front of him. He hit the gas. Charged with hate crimes, and sentenced at 15 as an adult, he knows the system. When Michael saved a guard’s life, his sentence was reduced and he’s been out for 3 years. He’d spent over 20 years in prison.
After his release he was soon homeless – homeless for three years. Despite all things against him, he didn’t give up. He’s read the bible over 15 times. He’s handed out 509 resumes. Last week, he landed a job and hopes to be out of the tent in the next month.
Michael had nothing to live for, but he kept on going, knowing that all of his troubles were temporary.
As we looked back on the day, many things will stay with each of us. Homelessness was de-mystified. These are real people, with lives, and with stories – some tragic, others offering hope. They have a sense of humour, and enjoy music. They will share laughs with you…complete strangers. None of them were greedy, only taking what they needed. And sure to give thanks. We could learn a lot for those who have nothing. Give thanks. Don’t quit. Enjoy the simple things.
Remember as you walk the streets in your towns, that homeless people are just that. People. People that notice when you look away or try to avoid them. People who feel pain and hurt. People who feel joy and shed tears. People who, like you and like me, have a story. Because, as you know, everyone has a story.