Monday, May 11, 2009

Why the Homeless? (a selective autobiography)

I've added Discipling the Homeless to the title of this web log, after recent reflection on where God has been taking my ministry. So, how did a 20-year aerospace engineer end up with a call to serve the homeless? A short, selective autobiography may be in order.

The 1990's collapse of the aerospace industry left me jobless in a market where 20,000 middle management engineers like myself were out on the street. 18,000 of these had college degrees—a crucial qualification that I lacked. After sending out 740 resum├ęs, I finally landed an interview—and a top job—in the exact place where I had sworn I'd never work: central Los Angeles, which I had looked on as the belly of the beast.

My new job as Director of Information Systems for a department of the County of Los Angeles often required working late. This gave me a view of the ebb and flow of contact between the cultures in L.A.'s Korea-town: The 'Suits' (which included me) would arrive at 9am from the suburbs, and abandon the city promptly at 6pm. In my building, they were replaced by the marginalized Hispanic workforce, who came in to vacuum floors, clean bathrooms, and haul trash outside to fill up the dumpsters. By 8pm, the Hispanics had returned to neighborhoods such as East L.A., and were replaced around our building by the homeless, whose job it was to rifle through our dumpsters in search of food, saleable goods, and overnight housing materials. The Koreans, by and large, were the other witnesses of these migrations, as they tended the stores that served all four populations: Koreans, 'Suits,' Hispanics, and the Homeless.

Many of these homeless were mentally unstable, and some were downright dangerous. Others were just lost. A few were quite charming. I remember one small, frail, and elderly Hispanic lady. At night she would pick out small glass vials from the dumpsters behind medical facilities and scraps of flowers from behind florist shops. Then she would fashion these discards into miniature floral bouquets and sell them from her pushcart the next day for a dollar each. Somewhere along the way, and without my knowing it, God gave me a heart for these discarded homeless people.

Little did I know that I would soon be homeless myself. At the time, I had drifted away from religious life, and I was not serving God. In fact, although I was at the peak of my technical career, my personal life was in the toilet. I lost my home, my family, and my job, and ended up running away into the desert for a year. But there Jesus reached out to me and Called Me His Friend, and I rededicated my life to God. Leaving the desert, I was sure that God would be sending me to help the homeless on Skid Row Los Angeles, but that was not to happen right away.

Instead, God led me into Victory Outreach International, a church that was on fire for God. I saw the faith that they had, and wanted a piece of it for myself. I spent 6 months in the Riverside, California men's home learning spiritual disciplines and street ministry while reaching out to heroin addicts. I became the home's office manager; the first contact point for men who were often homeless because of their addictions, and were contemplating turning their lives over to God.

Leaving the men's home behind led me to more personal homelessness, but not for long. In Springfield, Missouri, I joined an Assembly of God church (while also attending three others) and began reaching out to the homeless who frequented the town square. With another street evangelist, I planted a church just off Commercial Street (Springfield's own 'Skid Row') where more than one homeless young man and young woman turned their lives over to God. That was a tough winter, with ice storms coating the streets and bringing tree branches crashing through the roof of the church. But when the town fathers found out we were ministering to the homeless—with a dozen people sleeping on the pews overnight—they promptly shut off our heat and electricity.

That church came to a crushing end, which I attributed to three deficiencies on the part of myself and the other evangelist: lack of training, lack of credentials, and lack of organizational covering. But mostly, the failure could be chalked up to a lack paying attention to the leading of the Holy Spirit, who had been encouraging us to bring more townspeople into church leadership. Nevertheless, I determined that I would not strike out on my own like that again, at least until I had the training, the credentials, and the covering.

When I returned to California, I sought out the mother church of Victory Outreach where its School of Ministry was headquartered. Discipleship and street evangelism to the addicted were the focus there, although there was also some outreach to the homeless. For the first ten weeks I lived under a bush, while attending classes, volunteering at the School, and working a full time job. I gathered every credential they then were offering: Christian Worker's Certificate, Christian Ministry Diploma, and Regional Leadership Training. I moved to Pasadena, where I served for a year as the Director of the Pasadena men's home, teaching Bible lessons and spiritual disciplines to former addicts.

But it was time for more. In fact, it was finally time for Skid Row. I moved into one of the Skid Row hotels (700 rooms, one maid), and within weeks found myself assigned as assistant pastor at Harvest of Hope, a storefront church of the Assemblies of God. Here I was in direct contact with street homeless, running Sunday services and preaching while still holding down that full time job. I attended Latin American Bible Institute to prepare myself for upper division studies before transferring to Vanguard University to get a Bachelor's degree in Religion.

After two years immersed in that once-feared belly of the beast, I moved to Orange County to pursue a Master's degree in Bible Studies. Taking time off from active ministry was painful, but I was gratified some years later when I found some of the formerly homeless that had been a part of Harvest of Hope participating in ministry to others at Saint David's Anglican Church in North Hollywood.

Orange County led me back to my historical roots in the Anglican tradition: I had heard that there was a charismatic Episcopal church in Newport Beach, but I had no idea that there was an Episcopal church that was also evangelical and orthodox. I found all three at Saint James Anglican, a church now aligning with the new Anglican Church in North America, although somewhat distracted by its property fight with The Episcopal Church.

With the completion of my schooling, I was ready to move back into full time ministry. Newport Beach, despite its $2.5 million-plus median home price, had its share of the homeless, but ministry to them was spotty and not well understood. Once-a-month or once-a-week ministry opportunities were just not what I was looking for. Father Richard Menees, who had been trying to recruit me as a missionary from day one at Saint James, suggested that I check out Church Army. "They take in misfits," he said. So off to Church Army headquarters in Pennsylvania I drove.

What I did not expect to find there was a little-noticed branch of the Anglican tradition, the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches and its non-geographical fledgling Missionary Diocese of Saint Aiden Lindisfarne. Its bishop-in-waiting, Alan Morris, was preaching radical discipleship to a pair of house churches and had attracted a following of Trinity Seminary graduates with big ideas. I found in Alan a kindred spirit; combining the fire one might find at Victory Outreach with the respect for tradition known to the Anglican tradition. By the following year, I had been ordained a Deacon in the CEEC as one of 17 ordinands at a CEEC church in Florida.

A month in Pennsylvania and a month in Branson gave me a view of what Church Army was doing, especially with the addicted, but a month in Mississippi captured my heart. Homes, businesses, and whole towns had been wiped off the map (down to the slabs) and most of the help was coming from Church-based organizations, including James and Mary Giles of Church Army. They were making great strides at relief work alongside God's Katrina Kitchen, but had been flummoxed by the traditional homeless, who had always been there, but were now in worse shape than ever before, since their supporting services had been mostly wiped out by Katrina.

In a year-and-a-half in Mississippi, we ministered to the homeless who showed up at the food line in the kitchen, helping with referrals or just a shoulder to lean on. More intense care was provided to others, namely 14 men who we invited into my bunkhouse to work in Katrina relief, practice spiritual disciplines, and learn the 12-step addiction recovery program as taught at Church Army Branson. Of the 14 men, 12 had a history of substance addiction, while the remaining two were simply chronically homeless. All of them were touched by their experience there, but the majority relapsed into their addictions. One of them—Samuel—I baptised in the Gulf of Mexico, assisted by James Giles.

When the Mississippi mission came to an end, I was at a loss as to where to go next. Now I had the training (Men's recovery homes, Skid Row, 12-Step recovery); the credentials (Ministry School, B.A in Religion, M.A. in Bible); and the Covering (Deacon in the CEEC, Captain in Church Army). All I thought I needed was the next task from the Lord . How wrong I was. At my Bishop's invitation, I moved back to Pennsylvania to help the diocese.

It wasn't long before the Lord sent me my next task: caring for a grade-school child on the edge of homelessness. My detailed ministry budget got knocked into a cocked hat while I redirected resources into school lunches, allowance, basketball team fees, and most of all, disastrous automobiles. Yet I'm still being true to my core ministry—as Saint James termed it—the Rolin Bruno Benevolence Fund for the Homeless.

Thank you, Lord, for your promise that you would always be there for me.

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