I will never forget the night that my team in Des Moines, Iowa and I were out with our van full of volunteers bringing BBQ’d chicken, baked beans, veggies, cold drinks, and coffee to folks who were either experiencing homelessness or just on the streets of a struggling neighborhood east of Drake University. We drove past a beautiful young lady, walking the streets selling herself, and I jumped out of the van, gave her a meal, and declared to her, “You are too beautiful of a creation of God to be doing this to yourself!”
I am not sure what had gotten into me, as I didn’t often operate that way. The young lady introduced herself as Susie. I gave her my card, and she thanked me. A few days later I got a call from Susie asking for help. She said that if I brought a food box to her and helped her with 1 week of rent for her room, she would get off of the streets forever. I did not go alone. I took my friend and associate Scott Larsen, and we carried a food box in, sat down, and visited with Susie. I never saw Susie again, not on the street anyway!
I was walking through the lobby of our church 6 months later, and a beautiful redheaded girl ran up to me. “Andy, Andy! Do you remember me? It’s Susie! I have a job. I have my own place. I am doing well! I am going to get my kids back!” 6 months later, I received another call from Susie. “Andy, I know you’ve started a program for families experiencing homelessness! My kids are with me now, and I have more furniture than I need. I want to donate my furniture to your program!”
Susie’s story is amazing. Miraculous transformations of peoples’ lives usually take a long time and a lot of effort on everyones’ part, but I had witnessed a miraculous turnaround in response to one kind statement! It showed me the incredible power of words.
In a completely different situation, I had the honor of preaching on Father’s Day in a church. I preached an incredibly powerful encouraging message, powerful because I described my own Dad. I specifically remember a young Dad in our church thanking me after the message because it had greatly encouraged him as he was struggling to be a good father and husband. The next year, we heard from a different speaker on Fathers Day. He preached what I felt was a legalistic, judgmental, condemning message. This same young Dad was in the audience. After the service he immediately went out of the church, into a park, and hung himself from a tree.
Whoever said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” was kidding themselves. Words are powerful. They can lift someone up, or they can take someone down and destroy them. Jesus spoke about the power of words to do harm:
Matthew 5:21-22 (ESV)
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’
22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Personally, I’d much rather be physically pummeled than to be pounded with harsh words.
As I left a previous position, some of the folks in authority described me as “mentally ill” because of my passion for people experiencing poverty and homelessness. Those words still hurt nearly 6 years later. However I was able to laugh a bit the other day when I recollected the comments in front of a friend and she said, “Well, yes, you are! That is why I love you!”
Truthfully, the words back then hurt me deeply, but immediately after it happened a friend took me in my office and told me, “Andy. You are a good man. A great man!” Those were healing words and meant more to me than he will ever know.
I didn’t know it at the time, but a man I thought was a “friend” took that “mentally ill” description of me and worked hard to keep me from serving here at Union Rescue Mission. I am so thankful that his incredibly vicious words were not taken seriously, and that the leadership of URM recognized my passion for people who are struggling as the very thing they were looking for in a leader and allowed me to put that passion to use here in this wonderful place that offers hope and healing.
Now its happened again! Someone has tried to use false words and rumors to do harm to URM and our precious families at Hope Gardens Family Center. This is the letter I wrote in response. I hope my words are powerful enough to stop the attack dead in its tracks!
Dear Honorable County Supervisors & Staff,
I am writing today with concern about some unfortunate misinformation being passed between County Offices and your staff regarding Union Rescue Mission and Hope Gardens Family Center. I received word that this misinformation is causing some hesitancy to assist URM as we attempt to move our single moms and children off of Skid Row and out to Hope Gardens Family Center.
We heard a report that a staff member in a County Office reported that donations to URM do not go to our local guests but are used overseas instead. This is inaccurate and unfortunate.
We have over the years, as a small part of our work, paid a comparably small fee, to send Gift in Kind supplies overseas to assist people experiencing homelessness and poverty in other countries, as with the earthquake crisis in Haiti, where we sent over $1 Million in medical supplies for a total cost to URM of $12,500. In FY2009 we paid $351,514 and shipped supplies valued at $25,044,000 In FY2010 we paid $312,625 and shipped items valued at $25,695,000.
This fiscal year, because of the recession and the great local need, we have scaled that back even more to paying $75,000 in fees to ship supplies valued at $6,000,000. At this time, we do not know where our support will be needed, but if we have another disaster like Haiti we will proudly send resources to support those efforts. This $75,000 spent abroad compares to nearly $26,000,000 to be spent here locally to assist people experiencing homelessness in LA County.
Meanwhile, we continue to be the only agency in Los Angeles that houses two parent families, single dads with children, single moms with children, and teenage children; house over 1,000 people experiencing homelessness each night, nearly 1800 during Winter Shelter season, and we fed nearly 1.3 Million meals to people experiencing homelessness last year, and expect to do more this year as we face the most challenging time in our history.
No one in the County has stepped up like we have to assist LA County residents in this battle against homelessness, and it is very unfortunate that a false report has gone out from a County Supervisor’s office and created a hesitancy to support URM/Hope Gardens as we attempt to move all of our single moms and children away from Skid Row and out to Hope Gardens Family Center, to the LAHSA funded West Adams Project Restart, and to a County supported new site for 8 families at 83rd and Broadway.
We absolutely cannot be successful in this bold move without continued County Support for Hope Gardens, and I encourage you to look at the facts and consider moving away from this hesitancy due to an unfounded report, and instead move to support the good work of URM at Hope Gardens Family Center. Thank you, for your past and future support.
Please pray that the truth will be revealed through my letter and that the County Supervisors and staff will help us care for the men, women and children who are counting on us because they have nowhere else to turn. Thank you, friends!!