Unto the Least of These
Reflections on homeless ministry in Boston
By Craig Kavanaugh
Before I knew the Lord, I did not have compassion on the least fortunate among us, perhaps especially the homeless. I thought America was the greatest nation ever to exist on this planet, a land of unbridled opportunity to any who were simply willing to work hard and apply themselves in order to grasp the abundant wealth creation available to all. Further, I thought the homeless were in such a position by their own indolence, simply too lazy to work, while seeking to selfishly bum off of others. I could not conceive that there were other reasons, often beyond their control, which could lead someone to become homeless, indigent, and in need of assistance. Thus, like the priest or Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, I would typically pass by the homeless on the other side of the street, attempting to not even look upon them, and not feeling the least guilt for not giving them anything. In fact, I actually thought that were I to give them anything that I would be enabling their dependency. How wrong and blind was I.
The Blessings of Service
After the Lord mercifully saved me from myself and converted me to His amazing Truth, He filled me with His unselfish love and compassion for others in dire need that heretofore had been so absent from my life and heart. The Lord had brought me through an experience that revealed the deceptions of this world, and showed me how the love of money and the greed of the wicked was grinding down the poor, while piling up earthly treasures for a selfish few (James 5:1-6). I came to realize that many of the homeless had come to their desperate lot in life through no fault of their own, suffering the consequences of the sins and selfishness of others; I also came to realize that another portion of this class were suffering from the consequences of their own sin, slaves to addictions, or plagued with unsound minds. My heart wept together with the heart of God for the least of these, my brethren. I took the admonition of the Lord to heart and purposed to personally do something about it, and not simply to look to others to help alleviate this problem through donations of my meager funds.
Thus began my commitment to ministry to the homeless. At first, a few of us of a willing heart would get together and cook big pots of soup, often on Sundays, and go out around the cities of Boston and Cambridge in search of the homeless on the streets to offer them a hot meal, while giving them tracks of Truth-filled literature. Soon after, I met a dear brother in Christ, Enrique Aleman, at an Impact Boston planning event, and I learned that Elder Aleman had started a ministry for the homeless at a shelter in Boston. I went to the Woods-Mullen Shelter on Massachusetts Avenue (run by the BPHC) the next week on Monday evening, where we fed between 200-300 homeless men and women, cleaning the kitchen and dining area, and then offering a bible study to any who were interested. At first Brother Enrique would lead out most of the bible studies, leading his hearers through powerful studies that uplifted a risen Savior who had given His life a ransom for all. Soon though, Brother Enrique began asking me to lead out some of the studies. A few months later, Brother Enrique was elected first elder at his local church, Boston Spanish, which brought increasing demands on his time and availability. About the same time, I took on a second night of bible studies at the shelter on Thursdays. Then later the next year, Brother Enrique was called to service in another state, leaving the great responsibility of running the ministry to me. Little did I know how God’s providence was working to bring abundant showers of blessing.
I embraced my new role with enthusiasm, now preparing twice weekly group bible studies: simpler messages on Monday evenings focused on salvation in Christ, how to walk with God, how to study the Scriptures etc.; and more in-depth studies on doctrine and prophecy on Thursday evenings. The significant time commitments involved in preparing and teaching these classes, rather than a burden, proved to be one of the greatest blessings of my walk with Christ. They required intense and diligent study to show myself approved that I might really know that which I was called to teach and be ready to answer the many questions that would always result. My understanding of the Scriptures, both theologically and especially practically, grew in commensurate degree with the need.
Being Blessed and a Blessing
At the same time as the ministry and my commitment to service grew, I was struggling on a personal level with a number of unanswered prayers and questions. As I brought my troubles before the Lord in prayer, and diligently searched His word, the answers that I was seeking again and again eluded me. Having received so many blessings and so much wisdom from the Lord up to this point in my experience, I could not understand why the Lord seemed to be withholding understanding regarding these most serious of spiritual concerns. But out of this crucible of perplexity, the Lord taught me one of the most amazing Truths to be obtained in this life of toil and suffering. For as I taught my group studies at the shelter, it came to pass that my students among the homeless began to ask questions similar to those with which I was personally wrestling, and at that moment in seeking help from above to answer their questions, God would provide the very answer that I had been seeking for myself. But it was only when I took my eyes off of my own problems and struggles, and instead sought to help and bless others (Matt 6:33), that God poured out His heavenly treasure to listener and teacher alike. Thus, on several such occasions, I have sat equally amazed with my bible students at the answers that have proceeded out of my own mouth. Words truly fail to describe the wonder and awe such an experience brings in appreciating the majesty of God and His infinite wisdom and perfect timing—to Him and Him alone be the glory forever and ever.
Another incredible blessing that I have learned from laboring together with God is the tremendous joy of laboring together with other dedicated brothers and sisters in Christ in service for the Master. Many have volunteered to help with our homeless ministry over the past several years, too many to name them all here, but I am so grateful for each and every one who has given of self to help serve. Cooperating together unselfishly to bless others brings so many blessings in its trail in return. One particularly faithful brother that I would like to mention is Brother Ronald Bates. What a dear friend indeed. Despite being at least a decade past retirement age (though he hardly looks it), Brother Bates is my most reliable partner in ministry, coming every Monday evening by bus from Cambridge across the river to Boston, without fail, be it in rain or snow or on a holiday, for years on end now. What an inspiration! In fact, Brother Bates has become one of my closest and dearest friends. Rich in wisdom and experience, Brother Bates also has many talents that he employs in service for God. A gifted mechanic and metal craftsman, with a full metal and wood workshop in the basement of his humble abode, Brother Bates has countless times repaired and fixed my bicycles upon which I rely for transportation to do ministry. Further still, he has taken the time to teach me how to repair them myself. All I can say is praise the Lord for Brother Bates.
Coming Out of the Shadows
Ministry to the homeless is not complicated. Beyond entire reliance upon the grace of God, I have found that it requires only two basic components to achieve rich rewards. First is consistency; the lives of the homeless are generally chaotic and ever changing, with almost nothing or no one upon which they can rely. Therefore, sporadic assistance, while welcome, will yield but meager returns. Rather, this ministry requires a firm commitment and a consistent presence; thus, we endeavor resolutely to show up week after week, month after month, year after year, regardless of circumstances. When you are always there, and they can count on you being there, you gain their trust and sincere gratitude. And the second key aspect of homeless ministry is to ask for and remember their names. The sad truth is that the homeless are daily treated as if they do not exist and conditioned to think of themselves as worthless; countless people walk past them each day (as I used to) without so much as a glance in their direction or acknowledgment of their existence. But when I remember a homeless individual’s name, their hearts are touched and melted by the love of Christ. Normally, I am not particularly skilled in remembering people’s names; but I have found that when you pray for someone by name, it becomes very difficult to forget a name. I have witnessed faces light up with joy inexpressible in utter disbelief in response to my remembering their name. Many precious souls at the shelter, including many who do not attend our bible studies, greet us with enthusiasm and real fondness, enjoying a brief conversation, and often telling us how glad they are to see us and how grateful they are for our service. A few have even told me that our dedicated ministry has restored their hope in humanity. This affirmation makes every sacrifice seem light and paltry in comparison, and more than worth the simple effort expended.
The Gift of Art
If there be one blessing above another that has resulted from this ministry, it is the dear friendships and godly love one for another that have developed between myself and the many homeless men and women who attend our studies. We have shared many joys and many sorrows, and grown together in our love for God and His Word. I have shed countless tears over these past several years, many from stories of overcoming and victory, many more from experiences of tragedy and harrowing ordeals. All are stored up by God in a bottle in heaven (Psa 56:8). The lives of the homeless are often ones of great suffering and trial, and yet often simultaneously ones of great perseverance and tender kindness.
I would like to recount just a few here for you now that have touched me deeply. A dear sister in Christ, Julie, has been attending our studies at the shelter for as long as I have been attending, or nearly four years now. Praise Jesus, Sister Julie tells me that she loves attending our studies because she always learns at least one new precious Truth at every lesson. Having at one point in her life attended theological training at Gordon College in Hamilton, MA, Sister Julie’s faith is well grounded and growing, but often sorely tried by the trials of her existential life. And yet Sister Julie is always thinking of others and seeking to bring blessings to those around her. One way that she has tremendously blessed me and others is through her gift of art, as she is quite a gifted artist. Below are some pictures of a small sampling of the touching artworks that she has made and given to me just in the past year, beginning with this adorable tribute to the Psalms using cute little birds to mark the notes . . .
Then follows another beautiful piece with a more somber tone inspired by Psalm 137 . . .
And then here is another lovely picture showing her great appreciation for our locale here in New England . . .
Prayerful Petitions of Faith
Sister Julie is also a textbook example of perseverance in prayer; she is always praying for others and maintains numerous lengthy prayer lists. Nearly every week she gives me an updated prayer list that we might unite our petitions before the throne of grace. Often, as can be seen below, Sister Julie decorates her petitions with beautiful pictures as well . . .
And here is another very recent list that she produced on the spot at the beginning of our Monday evening bible study, and yet for which she took the time to add a decorative border . . .
Giving to the Heavenly Treasury
Another dear sister, Susan, has just recently begun attending our studies, perhaps for just a few months now. And yet her dedication, zeal, and great faith are an inspiration to all. Recently, as we have been studying the book of Acts, Sister Susan asked a question about tithes and offerings (when we covered Acts 5). By God’s grace, a clear answer from the Scriptures strongly convicted her heart to want to support the work of God. Despite her abject poverty, Sister Susan has subsequently insisted each of the past several weeks on giving me money to support my ministry as a bible worker. Imagine, a homeless woman giving me money! I feel like I now know how Jesus felt when He marveled at the faith of those not in Israel (Luke 7:9). Despite explaining how unnecessary it is for her to give me money (as tithes and offerings are calculated based on the increase in our funds of which she has essentially none, and also how God loves and appreciates the sincere yet simple gift of her time and talent), Sister Susan has steadfastly insisted, and thus I have graciously taken her faith-filled offerings (Luke 21:1-4) and given them into God’s treasury to help support finishing the work (John 4:34-36) . . .
Yet another touching story pertains to another dear sister, Cindy. Sister Cindy has only attended our studies a handful of times over the years, but I have sought to befriend her nonetheless. I would cheerfully greet her in the food service line each week, and for a time I would send her uplifting text messages. But then Sister Cindy stopped responding, and I saw her less and less at the shelter. Yet I continued to keep her in prayer. Then, the week before Thanksgiving this past November, Sister Cindy approached me from the food service line to say that the shelter had given them each two tickets to a charity Thanksgiving meal at the Boston TD Garden, one for themselves, and one to invite a friend or other in need. Yet Sister Cindy said she really wanted me to come that I might have a nice Thanksgiving dinner and be served for once (rather than serving), and she gave me her second ticket . . .
Touched deeply, I gratefully attended the delicious meal, and rejoiced at the opportunity to sit down and eat with many of the homeless that I had had the pleasure and privilege to serve over the years. By God’s grace and providence, I even was able to catch up with several individuals with whom I had lost contact over the years, as they no longer attend the same shelter.
A Brand Plucked from the Fire
While just knowing that hearts are being touched and some small suffering is being relieved is all the motivation needed to ever strive to uplift these dear children of God, our gracious Lord gives so much more. I continually stand amazed at how the Lord can work through broken and sinful instruments such as myself, and by His eternal Word bring transformation to hearts and lives. By His unsearchable grace, our ministry has also yielded fruit from His vineyard. Praise Him, a most dear brother and true friend, Chris, this past spring chose to give his heart to God and publicly profess his faith in baptism. As my first begotten in Christ, no parent was more filled with joy and elation at the birth of their child, as was I to bear witness to this miracle of salvation. Brother Chris began attending our studies as soon as I began giving them, and he faithfully attended them at the shelter for over two years. Then, in God’s mercy, the Lord saw fit to provide Brother Chris with housing. But thirsting for His Word, Brother Chris requested that I continue to offer him personal studies at his new apartment. After a few months, Brother Chris asked about baptism this past January 2015, and we began preparatory studies in earnest. The old Chris went down to his watery grave, and Brother Chris rose to newness of life in Christ on Sabbath, May 16, 2015 . . .
I continue to study weekly with Brother Chris, and now often with several other homeless or formerly homeless that he encourages and to whom he is now ministering. And Brother Chris for the past several months has now returned to the shelter, not as a resident, but as part of our ministry in service to others in need. For through experience I can testify that the seed of the fruit is indeed in itself (Gen 1:11-12). All praise and glory to Him alone who is so very worthy! Amen.