Church is Here : the story of a night in downtown Pittsburgh

We piled out of the Word of Life van into the freezing coldness of downtown Pittsburgh. “I wish I’d worn an extra pair of socks,” I commented to Brandy and Alysia, remembering how cold it had been the night before.

“Yeah, I just thought of that,” Alysia said. Brandy concurred. We’d spent the night before searching downtown Pittsburgh for opportunities to serve homeless people and give them clothing, and maybe take them somewhere and get them something to eat. When we found someone, named Colleen, we talked a little to her and found out that she had a son about our age. We prayed for her, and she prayed for us. There weren’t enough seats in the suburban for all of us to ride back to the Greyhound station to get Colleen something to eat or drink. So Alysia, Adam, Brandy, and I stayed behind so Colleen could get a ride.

We’d stood there for about a half hour, trying to explain to Jordan how to spell B-O-U-L-E-V-A-R-D of the Allies so he could put it into the GPS and come pick us up. It got pretty cold, and my toes were starting to get very very cold. Aaron and Jamie left Colleen at the bus station with some food, a tote bag, and something warm to drink. And a relatively warm place to stay for a little while, until the bus station closed.

On the way home the night before, Jamie had commented that as relieved as we were to be going home to our warm houses and showers and beds, Colleen had none of that. She couldn’t call it a night and go home. She couldn’t just hop in the shower and curl up in a nice soft bed in a warm room like we were all looking forward to.

I couldn’t believe I was back again, the very next night, though. “Everybody grab a partner,” Aaron said. I linked arms with Garrett, not sure why we needed partners. We walked behind the van to the open rear doors, where Jordan handed us a couple bags of clothing.

“Uh… now what?” I asked.

“Go down there and put the bags on the table,” Jordan said as if the answer was obvious.

“Okay…” I said. Garrett and I hung back until Jordan led the way down toward the bridge above the bus stop for Boulevard of the Allies and Stanwix Street.

There were more people there than I had expected. About forty or fifty in all. Some weren’t under the bridge, most carried medium-sized brown paper bags, and there was a line next to three tables full of food in large aluminum dishes like you see at catered events where there’s going to be a lot of people. Wedding rehearsal dinners, for example. At the far end of the table I saw three or four of those large orange thermos containers with spouts on one end.

As I passed by the group, it took a moment to figure out who were the homeless people and who were from the church that was sponsoring this dinner. It seemed to be the ones behind the table who were serving the food, so I decided they were from the church. Further down, I found a table with a lot of people gathered around. One guy approached me.

“Is that a blanket?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. He asked for it. I started pulling it out of the bag, but he said he wanted the bag too. Jordan tried to warn me, but it was too late.

“Give it to the people behind the table,” he said. “They know who’s already got stuff and who doesn’t.”

“Oops.”

As we started mingling, I figured out why we were supposed to have partners. Aaron and his partner (I can’t remember who it was; maybe Jamie?) started talking to one guy there. Aaron was a little unsure of himself, but he dove in anyway, asking the guy if he liked any sports and trying to gain common ground of some kind.

Garrett pulled me aside. “I don’t know how to relate to these people.”

“Neither do I. I guess we can pray, though.” We stepped a little bit out of the way and I said a quick prayer. We kept walking. Garrett tried to strike up a conversation with a woman who replied three times with one-word answers and then walked away. I had to hand it to him, though. He tried.

I walked up to Aaron. “Have you seen Colleen?”

“Uh… no. Why don’t you go talk to that lady?” he asked, motioning behind me. I turned around and Colleen had just walked up beside me.

“Hi!” I said. “We were just talking about you! I wondered if you were coming.” She gave us a warm smile.

“I feel better tonight. Do I look better?” Aaron assured her that she did. Personally, I agreed with him.

We talked to one guy wearing a pin that said “Payback time” who told us he was friends with Hulk Hogan and Hulk was helping him pay back the people who had gotten to him, and that Hulk had come down to give him a hand once, and that he’d been an honorary member of Hell’s Angels since 1971. Garrett and I nodded appreciatively, but I didn’t believe a word of it. I wasn’t quite sure what to say to him. I figured I was supposed to look for a lead-in to talk about Jesus, but I wasn’t sure where it was.

A little profanity erupted at one point, and a thin, tough-looking woman shouted “NO PROFANITY!” They grumbled a bit, but the foul language ceased. A few minutes later, the tough lady was praying for one of the issuers of the profanity. I thought it was neat. One homeless person praying for another. I didn’t realize until a little later that she was actually with the church group.

We walked over to another white church van, this one labelled “Bethel Assembly of Pittsburgh – North Side.” Bethel Assembly was the church sponsoring the feeding ministry on this Friday; there were four or five other churches who came on other Fridays during the month.

Scotty was handing out the brown-bag lunches out of the back of the van, and Garrett and I found a guy there who looked like he might be homeless. He had a white beard, a rugged-looking face, and a work coat that had the name “Joe” on it. He didn’t have a brown bag, though, and it turned out he wasn’t homeless either. He was a motorcyclist, and his name really was Joe and he worked at the company named on his work coat. He didn’t go to Bethel Assembly; he’d been invited by a friend who did.

We stood around for a while, watching, listening, trying to find someone to talk to, and trying to get up the courage to talk to somebody. Every now and then, we’d drop by where some of the others were talking. When we went over to get Brandy a hot chocolate, one of the kids from Bethel Assembly offered to pray for Garrett. Garrett accepted the offer, and he prayed.

Eventually, they started packing up their stuff. Aaron pulled the van alongside us and we piled back in. I wanted to say goodbye to Colleen, though. I got back out and hugged her goodbye. I have a friend on the streets of Pittsburgh.

Jesus said the poor are the really blessed among us, ’cause the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. The King sent out his servants to welcome in whoever. The people who were poor, who were in the streets, the people who society looked down on.

And on that day, I’ll find Colleen, grab her hand, and when they ask me at the gates of the Kingdom what right I have to enter, I’ll point to Colleen and say, “The King said the Kingdom belongs to her and her kind. I’m with her.”**

The church isn’t four walls and a building. The church is a line of people who represent our good Master Yeshua, standing out in the cold and feeding other people who represent our good Master Yeshua (see Matthew 25:31-46). The body of Christ is in downtown Pittsburgh feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, and hugging, speaking to, and loving on the unloved.

Loving the people God so loved is louder and sweeter worship than the songs we sing in churches. Walls, massive televisions or small slide projectors, hymns, and preaching? Church is here, but not so much.

Homeless people in the cold getting food and warmer clothing and an uplifting conversation with people who care? Church is here.

**I can’t remember where that idea came from; I think it’s in one of four different books, all of which I’ve scoured for that thought so I could quote it correctly, but I can’t find it. If you know where that idea came from, comment here. It’s either in “Ragamuffin Gospel” by Brennan Manning, “The God Who Loves You” by Peter Kreeft, or “Crazy Love,” by Francis Chan. …Or maybe it’s in “Jesus for President” by Shane Claiborne. If you know, let me know so I can re-write that last paragraph. Because really, “My hope is built on nothing less / Than *Jesus’* blood and righteousness.”

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One thought on “Church is Here : the story of a night in downtown Pittsburgh

  1. Hi David, that's awesome you and the WOL group did this. Sean and I used to work a lot with the homeless down in Oakland. Many of them are so excited for simple things like socks, soap, etc. Little stuff that you and I take for granted.

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