My Homeless Experience

I slept under a bridge, with nothing but a sleeping bag, a journal, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and the clothes on my back.

This weekend, I experienced something called a "street retreat." As you read the word "retreat," you might be tempted to envision a cozy Church building, uplifting worship music, and talented speakers. A street retreat, on the other hand? Not even close. Instead of sleeping in a cozy Church building, you're sleeping underneath bridges. Instead of listening to uplifting worship music, you're listening to a possum or a rat crawling not too far away from your sleeping bag. And most of all, instead of listening to the stories of talented speakers, you're listening to the stories of men, women, and children who live their daily lives on the streets.

To put it simply, a street retreat is a spiritual experience in which you pretend to be homeless for a weekend. Why? Two specific reasons: 1) to understand what homeless people have to go through every day; 2) to understand the feeling of having to rely on God for each of your daily needs. In order to fully experience the life of a homeless person, we were not allowed to bring any money, debit cards, credit cards, food, phones, etc.

*I went on this retreat in Austin, Texas, with an organization called Mobile Loaves and Fishes, whose mission is "to provide permanent, sustainable solutions for the chronically homeless, with compassion, love, and dignity." There were 10 other individuals who participated in the street retreat with me - some being employees of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, others being locals from Austin, and still others being Notre Dame students from Texas such as myself. Both nights of sleeping on the streets and finding food, I was accompanied by at least one other member of the group.

Friday night, my Notre Dame friend and I got a little split up from the rest of the group (yes, Mom, it was pretty dangerous), and slept under a bridge on 6th Street. For those of you who know the Austin area, 6th Street is not exactly the safest part of town. Words cannot possibly describe the fear that crept through my veins Friday night. Imagine sleeping under a bridge. The concrete beneath your sleeping bag is not only excruciatingly painful, but it's freezing cold. A possum is crawling roughly five feet away from your head. It smells disgusting outside. Three drunk college kids are yelling and peeing only 20 feet from where you're sleeping. Oh, and to top it all off, it's 30 degrees outside.

I have never been so scared in my entire life. I kept falling asleep for a few minutes, only to quickly wake up in a panic, shaking uncontrollably from a mixture of both the fear and the freezing cold.

As the night grew colder, my fear only intensified. Just when I thought I couldn't take the cold, the fear, and the hunger any longer, I pulled out the Bible I brought with me. I flipped it open to a random page and immediately my eyes fell on the following words:

Is anyone among you in trouble?
Let them pray.
[James 5:13]

As I crawled back into my sleeping bag, I began to pray. Without any comforts of daily life to turn to, I turned to Jesus. And in the midst of my pain, He eased my fears. My body stopped shaking so violently from the cold and the fear. As He held me in His arms, I was moved and comforted by His selfless love.

That, my sweet readers, is the first major lesson I learned this weekend. No matter where you are or what you are dealing with, even if you're going through Hell on Earth, Jesus can give you Heaven on Earth. As I wrote in my journal that night, Even if I'm going through the scariest night of my life, I have my Jesus, and that's all I need.

As my time on the Street Retreat progressed, Jesus slowly revealed to me a second major learning lesson. One of the people on the retreat with me was a man named Bruk, an employee of Mobile Loaves and Fishes who was homeless for 15 years in Houston and Austin (he's been free of street life for four years now, thanks to Mobile Loaves and Fishes). Bruk was somewhat of a "Good Shepherd" for us this weekend, guiding us through the crazy street life of Austin and teaching us how to survive on the streets.

While we were walking near the University of Texas' campus, Bruk suddenly stopped in his tracks, dropped his backpack, and sprinted forward. In a matter of seconds, he embraced a homeless man. I soon realized that Bruk and this homeless man, Jason, once lived on the streets together for many, many years.

I don't know if I've ever seen a more genuine smile than the smile I saw on Jason's face that day. It was real, unmatched happiness - a joy like no other. That, my sweet readers, was my second major lesson: Jason does not have a home, and yet he is happy. Because he has a sense of community - whether it be his friendship with Bruk or his friendship with the people who are still homeless with him - he has a reason to live. I wish you could've seen the smile on his face. I wish you could've seen him and the other homeless people dancing and singing, as if they were living the happiest lives in the world. In that moment, I realized that it does not matter where you are living, who you are living with, or who you are as a person, YOU have a reason to be happy. Why? Because there is a God who is real, active, and living and who wants a part in your life. Not only that, but there is at least one other person on this planet who genuinely cares about your well being and desires what is best for you. No matter what is happening in your life, even if you feel as if you don't have someone who cares about you, you have Jesus, and that is all that matters. Jesus is all you will ever need.

To close, I want to leave you with one final image. This morning, I attended something called Church under the Bridge, which is a worship service that local church volunteers provide for the homeless of Austin. At the service, a band played a few worship songs. As the band began to play, my eyes were immediately captivated by a homeless man to my left. Sitting in the corner by himself, he was singing every word of every worship song that was played. He sang these words with the most beautiful smile on his face: I cast all my worries on You God...my fears are behind me...I am set free. He lifted His hands in praise - a man who has nothing worshipping the God of Everything.

Tears immediately filled my eyes. How unbelievably beautiful.

So here is my challenge to you. When you are tempted to think that your life has no meaning, that you have no reason to be happy, or that you are going through Hell on Earth, remember that Jesus can - and WILL - give you Heaven on Earth. When your life seems headed for destruction and you just can't get back up on your feet, remember the image of this homeless man. I cast all my worries on You God...my fears are behind me...I am set free. When you have nothing, turn to the One who has everything, and then and only then will you find the peace for which you've been searching.

After experiencing a weekend of a very minimal sleep, hardly decent food, and much loneliness, all I have to say is this: if you have a roof over your head, a meal on the table, and a family to call your own...Tell me, what is there really to complain about?

Song of the Week: "Good Life" by One Republic

My Street Retreat family who made our weekend of homelessness a lot more bearable. They taught me that no matter what kind of life you lead, even if you're homeless, anything is possible with Jesus.

*For more information about Mobile Loaves and Fishes, visit www.mlf.org.

Shout out to my Notre Dame friend, Sam, who helped me survive the scariest night of my life. It was nice sleeping under a bridge with you, bro. I'm still terrified of that possum.

Comments

  1. I will always remember this retreat, and your gentle, reserved spirit. I will also never forget my 'brother', Jason, who is closer to me than most family I have. This is a beautifully written passage.

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  2. A humble experience with the greatest reward - God is sovereign over all! Psalm 46:1 "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble." Beautifully written, Haley. It was a pleasure sharing the experience.

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  3. Haley, I met Bruk almost five years ago when I was on a youth choir mission trip in Houston. He and Robin were homeless and shall we say pretty messed up the night I met them. However, the three of us feel the meeting was a God ordained moment to say the least. Bruk and Robin have come WORLDS from where they were the night I met them!! When I met them I knew, if given the chance, that down deep inside they both had what it took to get clean, become "indoor humans" as Robin would always say to me, and become productive citizens. They are both so smart and have a personality the size of Texas! I've told them so many times that they have an AWESOME testimony and that they need to get out there and tell the world how the LORD has blessed them! I say all of this to say that they have taught me that there are some very smart, talented, kind, courageous and wonderful people living on the streets of our great nation!! I would like to commend you for spending time out there and then writing about your experiences for all to see and read. We need to be reminded there are hurting people out there and just because we turn away and not look these people in the eye when our paths cross doesn't make the homeless problem go away. Bruk and Robin are just two of many that Alan Graham and Mobile Loaves and Fishes have reached out to and because of that they have hope and a new life!!!! Ever since I've met Bruk and Robin they have inspired me to see homelessness in a whole new light. Their kind and HUGE hearts for the homeless and others is a working definition of what it means to be the hands and feet of Christ. I'm so glad you had a chance to meet my friend Bruk :-)

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  4. Remarkable!!!!

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  5. Very interesting. I hope to read more of your experiences. It sounds like you are committed to not just knowing of Jesus, but living in Him and following his example.

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  6. A vacation that turned out to be a mission. And best of all, it was probably the best vacation ever!!!

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  7. Thank you so much everyone for all of your comments! I will never forget this experience.

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