Thursday, June 23, 2011

6th Avenue Heartache

by CWK

The Wallflowers' classic "6th Avenue Heartache" is reportedly about Jakob Dylan's acquaintance with a homeless man in New York City. He would often see the man in a certain spot with all his belongings. One day, suddenly, the man was gone. The song, it seems to me, is about how Dylan found himself connecting with this man.

Sirens ring, the shots ring out
A stranger cries, screams out loud
I had my world strapped against my back
I held my hands, never knew how to act

And the same black line that was drawn on you
Was drawn on me
And now it's drawn me in
6th Avenue heartache

I can identify with these lyrics. I spent 18 months in inner city St. Louis. I served homeless men, drug addicts, and inner city teens. I worked, not on 6th Avenue, but near 10th and MLK. I read a report shortly after starting my work that said I had a 1/10 chance of experiencing a violent crime just by working in this area. Then, about a week later, I got a flat tire right on the dot of 10th and MLK. 

Now, my experiences in the inner city with homeless men have taught me that 'the same black line that was drawn on you, was drawn on me.' I learned that we all have essentially the same struggles, essentially the same sins, and most important -- one, and only one hope. That is, Christ.

It was not hard for me to identify with men in the city who had spent years in prison, or years in gangs, or years in slavery to drugs. It wasn't hard -- even though I grew up in the country in a relatively sheltered environment. One of the greatest gifts God has given me over the years is a sense of need, 'what we need is need.' It was the grace of God that taught me just how much I needed grace. When I was able to see that I was literally in exactly the same position -- a needy, desperate sinner -- as the men I served, I found new avenues of genuine ministry opening up. I found, when I talked about my weaknesses, that they were willing to listen. The fact is, though, I don't have to make up weaknesses for the sake of connecting to people; I don't have to make up struggles with sin. I just had to be honest. I learned this in the inner city: every person we meet is really, really, really like us in at least this, "We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

The other things I learned from ministry to the homeless/ inner city youth.

 1) Blessed are the poor. A lady from a wealthier suburb of St. Louis asked me early on, "Is there any hope for these men?" I think she meant, "Any hope that they might get good jobs, live in nice houses, and achieve middle class status?" The answer to that is, "Being realistic... probably not." The real question, though, and the more important one was, and is, "Is there any hope for any of us to enter the Kingdom of God?" I answered the question I wished she'd asked, "Hope? There is more hope for these men than most of the people you live with and work with every day." I saw daily one recurring theme among the men -- they felt their own need. That is the beginning of hope.

2) It wasn't that bad -- for me. Working in the inner city gave me a new perspective on my life.I thought I had it pretty bad because my parents were divorced in college. Imagine my response when I witnessed young men who had no relationship at all with their fathers, and not much relationship with their mothers. Sure, my parents worked a lot. Sure, they had problems in their marriage. Still, they did stay together until I was in high school, and my dad was a real and enduring presence in my life. I used to think I had a rough childhood; I came to believe, after a year in the inner city, that God had been especially merciful to me in my family life.

3) Preach hard things courageously. The men in the shelter taught me to preach sermons on 'the hard sayings of Jesus.' Something about the desperation of the situation demanded this kind of preaching.

4) No, it's not always 'their fault.' One of the real hindrances to caring for suffering people is the mentality, "It's their fault." I used to think that men in a homeless shelter were invariably there because they drank too much, or didn't want to work hard. I learned that, very often, this kind of judgment was totally wrong. Certainly, there were men who had made terrible choices, and ended up homeless as a result, but this was not always the case. I will say that most men I ministered to explained their being in a homeless shelter as a combination of catastrophes AND bad choices. Some, however, were simply the recipients of a string of catastrophes that would crush anyone. One guy told me how his wife and daughters had been killed in a car accident. This sent him into a spiral that eventually left him homeless. Another man told me of how he had become disabled, lost his house, then both his parents all around the same time. This combination of disasters left him so shaken that he simply gave up. How would most of us fair if faced with similar disasters? 

So, what do I take away from this season of ministry? A renewed passion for real life service of -- to borrow a phrase from R.M. McCheyne -- "God's poor."

Now walkin' home on those streets
The river winds move my feet
Subway steam, like silhouettes in dreams
They stood by me, just like moonbeams

And the same black line that was drawn on you
Was drawn on me
And now it's drawn me in
6th Avenue heartache

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