the shadows of power
Ten years ago, editor in chief Hal Donaldson’s experiences
on the streets of Washington, D.C., changed his life and led to
the founding of Convoy of Hope, a ministry that has fed and shared
Jesus with millions of people. Washington, D.C., is a magnificent
tourist-friendly city with many vibrant neighborhoods. Following
is a diary of a night spent among the homeless.
The windswept waters of the Potomac
River greet me as I enter the nation’s capital from Virginia. On the
Mall, the Washington Monument pierces the low-hanging damp air, and undulating
greenbelts take on the appearance of expansive velvet carpet. Washington,
D.C., is in full swing, as if expending all of its remaining energies before
settling in for a long winter.
Vendors on street corners sell
hot dogs and patriotic souvenirs. Children file out of school buses and into
museums. Business executives race to appointments. But seemingly unbeknownst
to the passing crowds are homeless people perched on curbs or sleeping on
In this city, the political flagship
of the most prosperous country in the world, the stark contrast of rich and
poor is glaring. Side-by-side, political power brokers and human castaways
go about their everyday business — the powerful in stretch limousines
shuttling to and fro, the homeless pushing shopping carts in search of immediate
food or refuge — all under the shadows of the country’s greatest
Though I’ve come here to
peek behind the veil of this grand metropolis, I am not prepared for the lessons
I’ll soon learn. This night, I’ll learn how to exercise compassion
and pray effectively for those who call the streets “home.”
As I drive down Pennsylvania Avenue
on my way to a homeless shelter I promise myself that I’ll be open to
encounters and conversations I’ll have with people in need. Within minutes
I’ve broken my promise.
At an intersection I come face-to-face
with a disheveled man whose fingers poke through his tattered gloves as he
knocks on my car’s window. I reach to roll it down, but when our eyes
meet and I see his menacing glare, a hidden fear rises inside me and I quickly
recoil and turn my head as if he does not exist.
For the next several blocks, shame
monopolizes my thoughts. At the shelter, a sign on the front door adds to
my inner conflict. “Next time you see someone out on the street, don’t
pass them by,” it reads. “Ask how they are doing. Say hello. Get
them something to eat. Tell them that you care. Tell them that they are human
The last statement slams down on
me like a tsunami of conviction. I ask God to forgive me for being afraid
and to give me courage in the hours ahead.
opportunity to give
AIM Department, Convoy of Hope, and dozens of local churches
in Washington, D.C., will unite in an outreach during General
Council. Young people from across the nation will join local
believers in serving families in need through prayer, compassion
and after care.
If you would
like to support this ministry, please designate your contribution
to General Council Outreach/Account 100-000-21800. Please
make checks payable to the Potomac District Council of the
Assemblies of God and mail to Potomac Ministry Center, P.O.
Box 690, Gainesville, VA 20156, Attn: Barbara Ours.
Inside the homeless
shelter I receive permission to interview some of the men. As
I do, I learn that many of their stories are not ones of freeloading
and failure, but instead they are stories of missed opportunities,
misfortune and tragic mistakes. Once, many of these men held decent
jobs and had families. Now, when not in the shelters they live
on the streets, searching for food and seeking handouts. As I
speak with them, they articulate their thoughts and feelings with
honesty and clarity, revealing intact minds and hearts beneath
the rags they wear.
“I fear for the souls of
people who see others suffering and do nothing,” says a woman who volunteers
at the shelter. “There aren’t going to be any excuses come Judgment
Day. God will say, ‘Whatever you have not done for the least of these,
you have not done for Me.’ ”
Later, her words reverberate in
my mind as I escape to an upscale restaurant. I realize I not only need to
pray for the homeless, but somehow I need to press beyond mere sympathy to
some form of action. After taking inventory of my own blessings, I close my
eyes and repent for not hearing the cries of the poor.
I contemplate how Jesus responded
to the needs of hurting people and how He devoted much of His time to offering
them comfort. Jesus was a Man who could empathize with their plight because
at times He too was hungry, and at times He had no place to lay His head.
Lord, You accepted
all people, I think. High or low in society, just as
they were, You had the power to love them because You could look
past their appearances and see the potential of their hearts.
After picking at my
food for some 30 minutes it becomes obvious to me that no matter
what my intentions I am very unlike Jesus. Surrounded by cotton
napkins, a warm plate of food, smiling waitresses and laughing
patrons, I pray silently, Lord, please don’t allow my
comfort and possessions to keep me from having empathy for the
poor and hungry. Let me be more like You.
Just past 11 p.m. I
arrive at the Lincoln Memorial. The grand statue of Abraham Lincoln
seems to stare past the surrounding columns at a nation different
than the one he fought for. His gnarled hands hang motionless
over the arms of his chair as spotlights illuminate his face.
Twenty minutes later Lincoln seems
to look mournfully on two men who hunker down at his feet for the night. I
watch them settle in against the cold marble. But before they can close their
eyes they are roused by authorities and asked to move on.
At midnight, when members of Congress
and the hired guns who lobby for them are sleeping, Washington is anything
but at rest. Taxis knife through wide boulevards. Night owls ascend the monuments.
Veterans even weep at the Vietnam Memorial. But just off the beaten path I
come to a park lawn where many homeless people gather. City lamps light the
park but the area seems dark, almost haunting.
“This is a tragedy,”
I mutter to myself as I wander through a row of sagging cardboard huts.
My eyes dart to a child with smudged
cheeks nestled against her mother in a tattered sleeping bag. At that moment
all the architectural feats and political pageantry of the city pale in significance.
An elderly woman seated on a bench
stares at me, the middle-class intruder. Her frame is so mummified by layers
of clothing that she resembles a tackling dummy used in football drills. Her
tennis shoes don’t match. Wispy strands of gray hair sneak out from
beneath her stocking cap.
“What’s your name?”
The woman peers away in trepidation.
“I won’t harm you,”
Refusing to look me in the eyes
she tells me in a raspy voice that her name is Martha.
“How long have you been living
in the streets?”
“I don’t live in the
streets. That’s my home,” she says pointing to a sheet of plastic
and a blanket strung between two trees.
“Do you have family?”
She doesn’t answer as she
picks up a brown paper bag and lumbers away.
Suddenly, the unmistakable sound
of a gunshot jars my attention from Martha. By the time I look back, she has
disappeared. As sirens scream a few blocks away I see more homeless men and
women, some sleeping, some mumbling to themselves. One man warns me to leave
and tells me I am violating his private space.
Another man sleeps on a bench covered
in newspapers. Those who sleep use their backpacks and bags as pillows, partly
for comfort, but also so no one will steal their most prized possessions.
I meet Joe, a man close to 50 years
“The rats are really a problem
to us because they carry disease,” he says flatly, pointing to the sewer.
“Are you from here, Joe?”
“Been in the park for a couple
of months, I guess,” he says. “I’m from North Carolina.
Homeless, if you didn’t already know.”
“Do you have any way of getting
“Sometimes I get temporary
work,” he says looking past me. “Ain’t enough for a hotel
room and warm bath, though.”
“Does your family know where
“Some aunts do, but I don’t
talk to them,” he says. “They’re sort of ashamed of me —
I’m the black sheep.”
“Have you ever considered
getting into a program to get back on your feet?”
He shakes his head in exasperation.
“Man, I’d love to get into something that would help me out of
this mess. It’s cold out here.”
“Where do you get the papers?”
I ask, pointing toward the newspapers.
Joe grins a guilty smile. “They
drop them off near the racks, and I take them before the carrier can pick
them up. Or I just pay for one and take the whole bunch.”
The park contains endless tales
of human tragedy like Joe’s. I find an old woman leaning against a tree.
She has grayish shoulder-length hair and wears two-inch heels. Cathy, 68,
has been living in the streets since 1988.
“I decided a long time ago,”
she says, “that as long as my faith in God is strong, and I love Him,
He is going to help get me through all my problems. I don’t worry because
He takes care of me.”
Cathy tells me she was raped, and
because of it her life has fallen apart. She retreated to the streets, she
says, when her Christian family didn’t want her “drinking and
making them look like sinners” anymore.
she says, “but I have become sort of a mom for these homeless guys.
I watch out for them — give them the love only a mother can give.”
The next morning I board a plane
for home, the smell of poverty lingering in my nose, hollow voices
ringing in my ears and the sight of weary eyes passing through
my mind. Although the memories are troubling, I pray they will
haunt me forever and remind me to pray for those living in poverty
… and even those who walk the halls of Congress …
who don’t know Jesus.
Article reprinted and
abridged from Charisma Magazine.