Last week I flew to New Jersey to serve with City Relief, a homeless outreach organization serving many in NJ and NYC. It’s one of the highlights of my year, and I’m so thankful to be serving with a team this year, small as it was.
Those of us that have served before feel a sense of awe and wonder and privilege when we go. Last year due to quarantine rules I went by myself. I quarantined in a VRBO in NJ for two weeks, then was able to serve on the streets with City Relief. I was still recovering from rotator cuff surgery, so I was off work and able to take the time to go. And it was a huge blessing like always, but it was very different than previous years.
Covid made the whole process of serving our friends in the streets look and feel less personal. I truly felt the distance part of social distancing. We typically prayed for people one-on-one and had sometimes lengthy conversations with them, but in 2020 it was more transactional, more of a meeting of immediate needs and moving onto the next person. And I understood it, but it was still a challenge.
This year, on the other hand, was more like it used to be in many ways. Most everyone was still wearing masks, and there was more distance than there used to be, but the love and connection, and time in prayer, was there again.
Part of my time was spent making soup and doing dishes before loading up the bus and heading into the city to set up. Then I walked down the line of those waiting for socks, carrying an iPad to get names and prayer requests. Not only do we pray for the people who request it there, but the names (first name and last initial) go to local churches, where they continue to pray. The guests generally receive socks (donated by Bombas) and 2 masks. Occasionally there are other items like hygiene kits. Soup, hot chocolate, and locally baked fresh bread are on the menu and are amazingly good! I can’t eat the bread myself due to a gluten sensitivity, but everyone says it’s great. The soup is a vegan vegetable, bean, and rice combo that is delicious! The hot chocolate is Swiss Miss and is just the right thing for a winter day.
I had the pleasure of working with outreach leaders that I have come to know and love, as well as new ones on staff. I enjoy getting to know them and their stories and hearing about what has led them to this work. While their stories are different, their love for God and all of his children, regardless of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, health issues, status, addictions, political affiliations, or any number of other differences, remains the same.
In real, practical, tangible ways.
Compassion in action.
And the people I came to serve gave me so much in return. So many of them start our conversation by saying, “First, thanks so much for coming and helping us.” Here are a few more glimpses into the men and women I got to know just a bit about:
There was also a lot of sightseeing - we go a day early so that we have time to spend in the city, and we also have Thursday afternoon and evening free. I love the combination and contradiction of the tourist treks and the service aspects. And the beauty is that sometimes the people we are serving, our friends on the streets, seem to have more joy than others who appear wealthy by traditional standards.
We go right before Christmas because that’s when it worked out best years ago when a farmer named Daryl started taking teams, but I love the city at Christmastime. It’s sometimes cold and snowy, like last year when a snowstorm brought more snow than the previous year’s season total. But it’s beautiful and humbling and so encouraging.
I come back changed every year. The little things don’t matter as much. My heart is full of gratitude. I am calmer, quieter, more reflective. And I am in awe that a God who can move mountains, who can calm raging seas, allows someone like me to play a part in His story.
If you want to find out more about serving with us, reach out to me on Instagram.
Here is the verse that prompted the start of City Relief:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness[a] will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.”
— ISAIAH 58:6-8, NIV