Kelly Norman, who calls both South Africa and Australia home, is interning for three months with OM Lifehope in the UK. Here she shares her personal insights about why she and others with OM Lifehope reach out to the homeless in Birmingham.
It’s dark when we pull up, the bitter cold fighting to slip through the gaps of our old minibus. Blurred figures huddle in doorways, and the discarded embers of their cigarettes drift to the damp ground. A few come forward immediately, some clutching worn backpacks, others with pockets full of numb fingers. I hear the faint hum of unfamiliar language, and those who hang back watch with cautious curiosity.
A team member begins to read out names—there are only 12 spots available, only 12 men we can give a warm bed. Each name is met with a breathless “yes,” and one by one the men retreat into the darkness of the bus, relieved. They are not what I expect. Some sit with quiet dignity, their hands clasped and their eyes downcast. Many are coarse and unkempt, the stench of tobacco and alcohol clinging to their clothes. One man gives a toothless grin and kisses my hand; another stares out the window. One is young, handsome and neatly dressed—I am surprised to see him there. Most of the men are Polish, a couple are Lithuanian, and there is a young German—few can speak English, so they chatter amongst themselves, anxious to go.
We drive a few cramped miles to the church, where beds have been set up and a hot meal will be served. We have barely parked when they clamber out, eager for the light and warmth of shelter. Volunteers usher them out of the cold, and each man seems to know what to do. Beds are claimed and I get the sense that this is a fortress for them, a place where they can be safe, even if just for the night. Soon dinner is ready and we sit down to share a meal together—they eat quickly and quietly, only talking after their plates are clean.
I try to move around the room to talk to everyone and find myself sitting with my friend Chris Burton and the two Lithuanian men. Our conversation is limited, as only one of them can speak a little English.
“My English is catastrophic,” he says, his eyes laughing. We talk using a combination of hand gestures and Google translate—we scarcely understand each other, but we laugh together. He tells us about his daughter and the circumstances that brought him here, his expression betraying his pain.
“If there is one thing we could pray for you,” Chris asks, “what would it be?” It takes a moment to explain the word “pray”. He looks at me, and his smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes, “Pray? No, I am not a good man,” he laughs quietly. “I am not a good man.” There is a deep sadness in him, a brokenness that I can’t grasp.
After dinner the men disperse. Some smoke, others play chess, and some are already in bed with the blankets pulled over their heads. I take a moment to watch them and reflect. These men are so far from their homes and their families. They live on the streets, but food and shelter isn’t all they lack—they are starved of affection and regard. They live on the outskirts, in the darkness—discarded humanity. I watch them and I feel their hopelessness. They need to know that their worth is not defined by their homelessness. They need to know Who died for them, and who can set them free.
This is why we do homeless ministry. They are why we do homeless ministry.
“If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” – James 2:16