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In the shadows of power

By Hal Donaldson

Note: 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 benches.

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 monuments.

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 beings.”

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.

An opportunity to give

The National 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?” I ask.

The woman peers away in trepidation.

“I won’t harm you,” I promise.

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 old.

“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 money?”

“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 you are?”

“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.

“It’s rough,” 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.

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