By Sue Byrd
At Operation Inasmuch we offer the sustaining meal that Mama said was most important…breakfast. Around our tables each morning, there is comfort and fellowship and a hot, delicious breakfast served by loving and faithful volunteers from all over this community. The meal is satisfying and tasty, but the truth is, we rarely see someone who is desperately hungry. So why do they come?
Hunger takes many forms, from someone who is literally starving to someone else’s casual next meal to the way someone hungers for more in life. There is a hunger that goes deeper than a rumbling stomach. In the homeless community there is a starvation of the soul that no meal can satisfy. So they come, looking for acceptance, hope and a life of integrity around our tables.
The streets around us have incredible power over most of the lives we see, power to destroy with drugs, alcohol, prostitution, anger and so many other choices that lead them deeper and deeper into homelessness. Now, sadly, it has become a generational problem. Mothers with sons or daughters, grandfathers with grandchildren, aunts with nieces and nephews all sit around our tables and wonder, “Why is this my life? Will it ever be better?”
The answer is yes, but the question for all of us is how? So much depends on the choices they make, but part of the answer lies within us, the ones who care for them and serve their basic needs. We have learned so much about the homeless over these last ten years, but it didn’t come from seminars or books. It came from the day to day, year after year relationships that have grown with the homeless men and women who make up our Inasmuch Family.
We, as a community, assume they are hungry and need yet another meal so we “street feed” them and even deliver to their “homes” under bridges, in doorways and to abandoned houses. We assume they need more blankets and coats and hygiene items and we overwhelm them with “stuff” they can’t manage or use. It makes us feel good to do something. We are generous and want to serve the least of these, and we take the well-worn path of doing what we have always done. But in all of our caring, we inadvertently deliver the message that they are unable to meet even their own basic needs.
We know that isn’t true. We know because each one of them has been created in the image of God and wonderfully made. Many are gifted in ways that totally take us by surprise and make us wonder how that person ever lost their way or how their gifts were never recognized at all. In well-meaning ways, we have created a homeless community that looks to us to meet their needs and places their lives on our shoulders and not on their own. The hunger for a life of integrity only grows along with the frustration and disappointment of living out days with no purpose. In truth, it isn’t living, it is only existing.
What is the answer to this brokenness and never ending cycle of despair? As compassionate people who truly love and want to heal the brokenness all around us, we have to re-think what life changing compassion looks like. With all certainty, it is not in handing out money to anyone with a sad story. It is not another meal, toothbrush or can of deodorant that may get sold on the streets. It is not more clothes that instead of being washed are thrown into the trash because there are more available around the corner. The “stuff” we hand out is a band-aid for the deep wound of homelessness.
So if it’s not all those things, how can we help? There are many amazing organizations in Fayetteville and Cumberland County handling these basic needs on a daily basis and doing it well. Get involved with those who are already committed to the lives they serve. Volunteer on a regular basis in one of their established programs; don’t ask them to find something for you to do. Commit regular time to being a mentor for someone who needs that extra touch of guidance and friendship. Employ someone who needs that chance at life again because much of who we are is tied into using our God-given talents. And give! Give to those groups who have earned your trust and a place in your heart.
At Operation Inasmuch, there is great joy, hope and sometimes even heartbreak in the days we share with our homeless Family, but our volunteers, who faithfully show up, bring strength, warmth and a tender love as they go about serving the morning meal, planning our events and showing up week after week to work beside us. There is immense contentment in being part of the building of His kingdom on Hillsboro Street and erasing the hunger of an empty life.
Looking back over these last ten years of serving and loving the homeless, I can honestly say it is the hardest work I have ever done in my 70 years of living. But more importantly, it is the sweetest! For me, God saved the best ‘til last.