On Thanksgiving some folks serve meals to homeless persons. That can be helpful, if the eaters are seen as unique individuals and not just shuffling men and women lumped together as "the homeless."
Some Christian shelters have programs designed to reintroduce men to the simple pleasures of ordinary life. Trips to the zoo, to museums, to ball games can become an alternative to drugs and alcohol, and a way to move from street culture to Main Street culture. One Friday afternoon at the Sunshine Mission in St. Louis my son Daniel and I went along to bowl and hear the stories of-not "the homeless," but individuals.
We talked with Danny, 48, who sports a mustache and an amused smile. At 6'5" he looks like a cross between Cab Calloway and the Incredible Hulk. "Strike coming in," he yelled time after time as he rolled a 16-pound ball like a marble. He usually missed the pocket but remained exuberant as he told his story: How he fell off a tall ladder, hit his head hard, and almost died three years ago, then "got into drinking, pot, fast women. I ran through my money partying." For a couple of years his life tottered like pins grazed by a bowling ball, but he knew he needed the attitude adjustment that a Bible-centered shelter offers. Danny was appropriately laid back about recreation but was learning to take serious things seriously.
Marty, 37, has a crewcut and big muscles. He stiffly hurled bowling balls at a furious speed, and in between spoke of always wanting to be perfect. He would get mad at himself when he messed up, decide he was worthless, and then go through a case of beer in three hours. He went to prison after receiving his third DWI conviction, and, reading the Bible, began to see that his worth goes beyond job performance. His wife of 13 years stuck with him, and lately he's begun to value simple pleasures rather than perfection. "Best day I've had in a long time," he said, "was when I walked my little boy around the warning track at Busch Stadium" this past summer. Marty had to learn to lighten up.
Joe, 51, has a darting smile and chipmunk cheeks. He danced down the alley, picked up any ball, bowled without any hesitation and from a variety of positions, and rolled strikes surprisingly often. He talked about how he used to hate white people, and also developed a heroin habit. Then he went to church and took to heart a New Testament verse, "How can you love God and hate your brother?" He is now reading the Bible and said he is relaxed about how things will all work out, because "I have joy in my heart." Does he have perseverance in his character, so he'll be able to get and hold a job? That's his need.
Adolph, 55, with gray hair and glasses, was on a continuing search for the right bowling ball, a 12-pounder with wide finger holes. Over the course of an hour he found a ball, threw it, knocked down maybe four pins, said the ball was wrong, and resumed his search. Finally, not finding the right one, he sat down and talked of "filling my time with weed, drinking beer, meeting the ladies." He became hooked on crack and went from 165 pounds to 110, but at the Mission he had become newly optimistic: "I just gotta find a ball." He kept looking but never found the right one. Adolph still had to learn not to make excuses and to work with the tools he has.
At the end of the match LaFayette Beck, the men's thoughtful supervisor, praised the winners, "We all battled all the way." That's true. What he didn't say is that everyone battled in different ways, against different problems. One man may be too intense, another too easy-going. The one-size-fits-all approach customary in government's welfare programs and some churchy ones does not work well for individuals.
A computerized search of recent press headlines brought out stock phrases like "plight of the homeless." During the Thanksgiving/ Christmas season, many people lump together several hundred thousand individuals and treat them the way kind people treat stray dogs: Put some food in bowls and send a check to the Humane Society to pay for their cages. But at Sunshine and other gospel missions around the country, charity is challenging, personal, and spiritual-and it works.