Friday, January 14, 2011

A New Experience

The January book for the book club I belong to was Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski. It's a memoir of two college guys who, with the support of their families and churches, became homeless for five months--in various cities--in order to get a close-up view of that world.

I began Under the Overpass one evening and put it down before I went to sleep; however, I woke up around 2 a.m. and knew I still had an appointment with that book. I went downstairs to the couch to read until I fell asleep again--I didn't until I had finished the entire book.

Before the book even begins, the forward is written by Francis Chan, author of Crazy Love, a book that swept the evangelical world a year or two ago. Darren just read it and said, "This is one of those books that I need to reread every month or so."

I wasn't too sure what to expect when I began Under the Overpass, but what I didn't expect was the quality writing, the humor, and the depth of spiritual insight these college kids had. Yankoski takes us through their world--the fear, discomfort, humiliation, anger, frustration, helplessness, yet peace and even joy that they experienced on the streets.

He dealt with the nitty-gritty (very gritty) details of how they found food and water, where they slept, how they went to the bathroom, and how they handled physical ailments. In the midst of all of it, he journaled their experience: all that they felt and thought, how they fought with each other, and what God was teaching them through all of this.

There were too many anecdotes and moments that staggered me in this book to write even a fraction of them here. Reading it was a powerful wake-up call to me personally that I have completely ignored this important people group, people who are image-bearers of God Himself: the homeless.

One of my favorite moments in the book was when Mike and his partner in this journey, Sam, went into a breakfast place to sit and rest. They sat on a couch while a couple at a table nearby received their breakfast: pancakes heaped with butter, syrup, Nutella, bananas, the works. The customers were so disturbed and disgusted that two homeless guys were sitting near them, that they took a bite or two of their food, then got up and left. Mike and Sam politely asked the restaurant server if they could have the abandoned food, which they did. As Mike said, they were the best pancakes they had ever eaten, and he immediately thought of Psalm 23:5 "You prepare a table [of pancakes!] before me in the presence of my enemies."

There were a couple of moments in the book where I felt the guys' passion got in the way of their clarity, and I don't feel that they dealt enough (they did discuss it some) with the fact that a high percentage of homeless people are mentally ill--and all of the additional complications that factor brings. There was also a time or two when they were a bit disingenuous--they were pretty hard on church people, and rightly so, but he pointed out at least once when they came to church, people left a pretty wide berth around them rather than sitting by them. Dude. It's because you hadn't showered for five weeks.

Overall though, it is an incredible memoir.

There's a song I currently hear on the radio a lot, by Matthew West called "My Own Little World." Each time it comes on, especially after reading this book, I listen carefully to the words.

In my own little world it hardly ever rains
I’ve never gone hungry, always felt safe
I got some money in my pocket, shoes on my feet
In my own little world
Population: me

There were two key things that stuck out to me from the book, and that is the first one--how population: Me I can be most of the time. As I spent that night reading the book, I became acutely aware of soft my couch is. How at regular intervals, the heat kicked on. How, if I were thirsty, I could walk into the kitchen and pick from an array of beverages and not have to walk for two miles just to get some lukewarm water.

That is something I will change in my life. Instead of grumbling about my car, which each day seems to have some new malfunction light come on (Darren and I now joke about it--"Let's count all the things that are wrong with our car!"), I will appreciate that I have a (semi) reliable vehicle that gets me where I need to go, has heat, (even heated seats!), airbags, etc. Instead of inwardly groaning about the expense of taking Elaine to the doctor again--Lucy asked this morning, "Is every Friday now Elaine's ear doctor day?" Well, yes. It kind of is.--I will give thanks for medical insurance and good doctors who are trying to help us.

I will also stop praying the basic "rub-a-dub-dub-thanks-for-the-grub-yay-God" rattle-through prayers before I eat, and truly thank Him for the good food He's given me and that I haven't had to either a) dumpster dive for it, b) eat some stranger's leftovers, or c) stood for 2 hours outside a shelter only to be told they've run out of food.

As Mike Yankoski says in the one line that grabbed me more than all the others in the book (and there were many) "Be ever-suspicious of your comfortable lifestyle."

The other main takeaway from the book for me was: what does God want me to do about this?

I love these lines from the Matthew West song:

Father, break my heart for what breaks Yours
Give me open hands and open doors
and put Your Light in my eyes and let me see
That my own little world is not about me

So, last night, for the first time, I had the opportunity to go with a group from our church and serve dinner at the homeless women and children's shelter here in our city.

As I stood behind a long table, serving salad, I kept thinking about what Mike said in the book: "Look at people in the eye. Smile at them. Remind them (and you) that they are worth something in God's eyes." Looking at people in the eye and smiling at them is not always easy for this introvert to do. Some of the ladies looked back at me and smiled, but some hung their heads and never met my eyes. I prayed for them--that they would see their worth to Him; and I prayed for myself and my girls--that God will break our heart for what breaks His.

If you choose to read this book, no doubt it will change you, too, though maybe not in the same ways it has changed me. God doesn't aspire for all of us to be identical and do the same work. But both of these--the book and the song--have brought me to the verse that I'll be memorizing this second half of January:

Ephesians 5:10 "Figure out what will please Christ, and then do it."


Cindy Swanson said...

Alice, excuse me for being off-topic, but I wanted to respond to your comment on my blog. I keep finding out about more things we have in common! I love British mysteries; in fact, I love British anything, for the most part. :)

Alysa said...

great post on this book, Al. As always, I love reading your take on things ... Love you!