In my first year or two at the campus ministry that I joined during my undergraduate studies, I worked as a part-time student liaison between the church and the campus. I was leading a Bible study one evening when our small group was joined by a heavily intoxicated man. I attempted to do my best to make him feel welcome, but the Bible study was rather a bust at that point. The man had questions, but wasn’t capable of really articulating them beyond the point of interruption of whatever I was trying to say.
The pastor came in, quickly took in the situation, and immediately ushered the man politely but firmly outside of our campus ministry building. He assured the man that he was more than welcome to return once he sobered up. I was aghast. The intoxicated guy hadn’t been threatening in any way. He seemed to be interested in talking about the Bible, even if that interest resulted in more commotion than communication. It seemed genuinely unChristian to show the man out the door with so little care. How could we claim to be the Church, and yet be unwelcoming to those who desperately need to hear the Gospel and receive the tangible love of Christ through Christian community?
It is just this conundrum that perplexes this book and author.
Under the Overpass
by Mike Yankowski recounts an experiment in living as a homeless person that he undertook with a friend for five months spanning five different cities across the country. Yankowski at the time was a student at a Christian liberal arts college close to where I now live. He felt compelled to do something radical to test his faith, and decided to leave his comfortable life to live as a homeless person. It’s an ambitious undertaking, one that should not be undertaken lightly. I commend Yankowski for his willingness to step out into an extremely different environment from the one he apparently was raised in. His experiences are undoubtedly life-changing, and have certainly impacted many other people who have read the book.
That being said, however, the book was greatly lacking in depth of spiritual reflection. Not that the author didn’t make comments regarding the Christian faith – whether his or other people’s – but it never really grapples with what it means to be Christians and the church in our culture. It stays rather pointedly on the Christians-should-be-nicer-to-people-and-not-be-so-quick-to-judge-or-ignore. Is that true? Absolutely. But the way it is often interpreted and applied throughout the book is more problematic.
What is the role of the Church? What is its primary and unalterable function? And what is the role of individual Christians? There isn’t much distinction made here. Churches are routinely criticized for being suspicious and unwelcoming to Yankowski and his friend. Yet he admits that many of the homeless are mentally ill and substance-addicted. How is the Church to minister to these people? More specifically – since Yankowski doesn’t make this distinction – how does a typical parish church minister to these people? Must every congregation feed the homeless and house them? Is it possible to be faithful even when it seems heartless?
These are big, complicated questions, because the answers are often yes and no simultaneously – a constant state of flux and fluidity that requires every situation to be evaluated uniquely and bucks hard against the convenience of policies and standing rules. At times Yankowski and his companion appear to intentionally wish to make people uncomfortable, and are then critical of their discomfort.
The Church has one role – to proclaim the Gospel. More specific, historically what this has meant was the preaching and teaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments to those who had been prepared to receive them. This is what the Church does. It is the one function of the Church that is not duplicated by any other organization on earth. If the Church does not do this job, this job does not get done. There seems to be no awareness of this simple fact on Yankowski’s part. If a church offers him free food, it’s a good congregation. If it doesn’t offer him free food, or is disturbed by his smell, or seeks to protect its property from those who hold no respect for it, its a bad church.
There is an important conversation to be had about both the opportunities as well as challenges that owning property and a building raise for a congregation. But that discussion isn’t addressed here, and an overly-simplified approach to what it means to be ‘the Church’ is put forth.
To be fair, some of these issues aren’t apparent to people until they are placed in a position of responsibility for a piece of land and the buildings on it, until they are charged with ensuring that the congregation is capable of carrying out its primary responsibility of proclaiming the Gospel. In this regard, I believe that Yankowski is simply young and inexperienced. His passion is admirable, and it is a balance of that passion with the wisdom that comes from experience that is most needed in congregations around our nation and the world. But the book doesn’t reflect much wisdom or depth of exploration.
Further, I was disturbed by how little awareness there seemed to be that even in their homeless condition, these two men could be powerful witnesses to congregations through a desire to serve, by breaking the stereotype of homeless people and forcing people and congregations to re-examine their assumptions and pre-conceived notions. The two seemed to spend all of their spare time in journaling and sleeping – but I don’t recall them ever seeking to be active in helping and serving any of these communities they came across. Grace and giving seem rather one-dimensional in this book, and that’s problematic for any Christian when talking about any relationship other than God’s relationship to us. In that case, it’s all one-way, all God giving and all us receiving.
The lack of deep thought on major topics bears out at the end of the book. A bullet list of 4-5 things that the reader might do to respond to the challenges raised in the book is provided. They’re all decent suggestions. But not one of them addresses any of the issues that the author was so critical of congregations for in the book. Suddenly, it’s all about the individual rather than the congregation as an entity. This is where the focus needs to be, frankly – on how the individual Christian responds to the grace of God in his or her life. I just wish that he had arrived there sooner in the book, and had taken fewer pot shots along the way.
What function can the book serve then? I think firstly it can serve as a reminder to Christians (and everyone else) that it is possible to survive very different circumstances than what we are used to. It is possible to see opportunities in the midst of adversity, and faith is more than just a full stomach and a roof over our heads. I suspect there are many Christians that could use that reminder.
Secondly, it serves as a tool for introducing the reader to the homeless as creations of God the Father. Beneath the dirt and smell and addictions beats a heart that Christ died for, and we are well-reminded that ministering to the least of these is an important, recurring definition of God-pleasing
faith throughout both the Old and New Testaments. If we find ourselves unable to look at a homeless person, unable to make eye contact, unwilling to share a smile, and steadfastly unmoved by the opportunity to provide a cup of water or a bite of food, there’s a problem in our hearts that we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to work on. If we are capable of not seeing people as people, and if we think we are completely justified in doing so (justified even by our faith), we are mistaken.
We get a few glimpses of real people in this book. Addicted, broken, suffering, real. We get to see that these people are sometimes (oftentimes?) truly grateful for the kindness of a free bite of food. Not everyone on the streets is only after a beer or a joint, and even the people who are looking for their next fix still need to eat, to be reminded that they are human beings.
Thirdly, this book should challenge members of congregations to think hard and deep about what their church is about and how it is going about it.
Fourthly, it should inspire people of all ages to step outside of the box from time to time and allow themselves to be stretched and molded through their discomfort. There’s nothing wrong with awkwardness. We learn a lot about ourselves in and through our discomfort.
The book could be an excellent opportunity for discussion in small group studies. Where does the author really nail the Christian life on the head, and where does he seem to be firing randomly? How does a congregation seek to reach people of diverse backgrounds and experiences? What does a congregation gain when it stops focusing on ‘growth’ as a means of survival, rather than on proclaiming the Gospel regardless of how it does or doesn’t materially benefit the congregation?
The book will naturally be appealing to a younger demographic, to teens and 20-somethings in particular who are searching for meaning and purpose and authenticity. With proper guidance, hopefully they’ll realize that authenticity comes in a lot of shapes and sizes. This book provides one such shape and size. It certainly isn’t the only one.
I still struggle with what happened 20+ years ago between my pastor and the drunk man. I can say that I far better empathize with and understand why my pastor chose to act the way he did. I’m inclined to say that he was in the right, given the circumstances. But there is still a nagging voice of doubt, all these years later. I think that a constant, vague discomfort is a good thing for Christians. It prevents us from slipping into the apathy of thinking we have everything figured out perfectly, and it constantly prods us to keep thinking, keep praying, keep experimenting. And I think it’s there that the people of God are the most potent agents of good in the world around us. Uncomfortable and seeking for better answers.