Light Illuminating Shadows
by John Dellis (January / February 2008 — Volume 24, Number 1)
What started with a cup of hot chocolate offered in Christ’s name to homeless men and women living under a bridge has grown into Camino Real’s Under the Bridge ministry in San Antonio.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1:5
Under the Commerce Street bridge on the west side of downtown San Antonio can be a dark place, even in the daytime. There frequently are signs of drug trafficking, with many empty beer and wine bottles left on the filthy pavement.
Two persons were stabbed nearby recently. It is a dangerous area, yet it is home for many of San Antonio’s citizens who are homeless.
Each Friday evening, the light of Christ shines in the darkness under the Commerce Street bridge. Members of Camino Real Christian Fellowship, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in San Antonio, share God’s word, love, and grace with those for whom this area is their only home.
Camino Real, which was formed as a satellite congregation of MacArthur Park Lutheran Church in San Antonio in 2001, began its ministry with the homeless four years ago. The people of the congregation were inspired by the request of a former homeless man and drug addict who came to Camino Real for worship and asked if hot chocolate could be taken to those whose home is under the Commerce Street bridge. While he was homeless, the Commerce Street bridge was his home.
Around 8 p.m. each Friday, members of Camino Real — joined by members from a Baptist and a nondenominational congregation — set up tables in a space under the bridge. The evening begins with Scripture readings, a sermon, sometimes a testimony from one of the participants, and prayers with the homeless who gather there.
A pot of soup is provided each week, along with bread, cold water, and sodas.
A Word from God
Ralph Gibson, who heads the Friday night ministry for Camino Real, stated that he felt called by God to this ministry while reading the first chapter of the Gospel of John.
“I was reading the Bible one day and read that the light had come for all, that the light shines in the darkness,” he said. “It was a very powerful experience. I felt God called me to take the light to the darkness.”
|“I was reading the Bible one day and read that the light had come for all. It was a very powerful experience. I felt God called me to take the light to the darkness.”|
The area under the bridge is located two blocks from the Bexar County Jail, where those who have been jailed are typically released between 10 and 11 p.m. on Friday evenings. Gibson said that those involved in the homeless ministry also have opportunities to talk with those leaving the jail.
The tables for the ministry are set up in exactly the same spot each Friday. Gibson stated that during the last few months the area is being kept much cleaner by the homeless persons who are living there.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the best approximation of the number of homeless persons comes from a study done by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. The study states that approximately 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, are likely to experience homeless-ness in a given year (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2007).
As a congregation, Camino Real has yet to own its own home. Its first worship services were held in a movie theatre and later moved to a middle school. The congregation now worships in the gymnasium of Zion Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation on Cincinnati Street in San Antonio.
Camino Real later expanded its ministry with the homeless to include another location in San Antonio. On the third Saturday of each month, the Under the Bridge Ministry brings Holy Communion, praise and worship music, and a sack meal to those who are homeless near Nolan Street on the east side of downtown San Antonio.
Jill Eckl, who leads the Saturday morning ministry on behalf of Camino Real, said that other congregations were serving hot meals to the homeless and that Camino Real wanted to modify its ministry to meet a different need.
“We adjusted to what they needed, and one member suggested offering Holy Communion,” she said. “We pray with homeless friends on a one-to-one basis, finding out what their prayer needs are. It has been very well received.”
Eckl stated that after praying with those who gather, the members of Camino Real feel they have also been ministered to, that they have received blessings by sharing, listening to what they have to say, and how they have experienced Christ.
“We have other people who may not pray with individuals, but they pray for the location, praying over the property so that God will protect those that stay under the bridge and keep evil away,” she said.
“I think we were called [to this ministry],” she said. “Camino Real embraces those calls very seriously, and if we believe the congregation is called to do something, we act on it.
“The things that we provide physically are not unique, but spiritually, we’ve been able to experience something very special, both for the homeless and ourselves.”
Whether in the daylight on a Saturday near Nolan Street, or on a Friday night under the Commerce Street bridge, the light of Christ comes to shine brightly in the lives of all present. The light of Christ is breaking through the darkness of homelessness in San Antonio, as the Holy Spirit continues to call and empower the people of Camino Real and other congregations to reach out in Jesus’ name.
John Dellis, an associate in ministry, is the synodically authorized minister at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church of Ander near Goliad, Texas, and edits The Vista, the every-home newspaper of the Southwestern Texas Synod. He is a former member of the Publication Committee for Lutheran Partners.
The Discomfort of Homelessness
Writing this article about ministry with homeless persons has not been easy. Receiving a request to write this particular story about the homeless ministry conducted by a San Antonio congregation is a stark reminder that there are people — created in the image of God — who this day may go without a decent meal and will not sleep in safety this night.
I do quite a bit of writing for my congregation, where it’s much easier and more comfortable to write about our new Bible study on the Acts of the Apostles or the building stewardship campaign. As editor of a synodical newspaper, I also have the opportunity to write about many other ministries, such as new mission congregations or the upcoming senior high youth gathering.
Bible studies and new congregations: these are examples of stories that most people are comfortable reading and that don’t cause any distress. Being reminded of the reality that there are persons who are very vulnerable to malnutrition and injury and death because they do not have a place to call home: that’s another story.
My work on this article has been bookended by two Gospel readings for this season. The first is Luke 16:19-31, the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
When first reading this story, we can comfort ourselves that at least Lazarus’ agony has ended and he is now in the bosom of Abraham. But when we read about the fate of the rich man, we get very uncomfortable. It can be a similar feeling and reaction when we allow ourselves to admit that there are brothers and sisters in Christ who do not have a home.
The other Gospel text is Luke 17:11-19, the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the ten lepers. Leviticus 13:45-46 required that those with "the leprous disease" live alone, outside of the community.
Those that can make us uncomfortable and uneasy — those who are afflicted in some way or are in great need — are many times kept out of sight and out of mind. Are there homeless persons in my community? I don’t see them on my street. Out of sight, out of mind.
In the story of the ten lepers, Jesus reaches out to those who were required by the law to yell out that they are "unclean, unclean!" He breaks through all kinds of boundaries to reach out in love to those who are in need. And he calls us to do the same.
Will I ever be comfortable with homelessness? I hope not. Will I ever find it easy to be directly involved in ministry to those who are homeless? I don’t know.
Every person cannot be everywhere, all the time. That’s why God gives each of us different gifts. Whether or not we are directly involved in ministry with the homeless, we can pray: for those who this night are alone and sleep in danger, and for those who bear the light of Christ to them. Our stewardship can include ministries such as Camino Real that work directly with homeless persons and other community organizations and shelters that provide care and hope.
God calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves: our neighbors who have homes, and those who do not. — John Dellis