I have been thinking lately about serving the homeless in my city—I feel that this would be an awesome thing to do with my time, but to be honest, I’m afraid of homeless people. I’m a petite, young female student, and I have been hit on, badgered, and conned by the homeless in the past. I don’t know how to handle being taken advantage of, and the few bad encounters I’ve had make me afraid to love on desperate people who might hurt me. I want to be strong for Jesus, but be smart about it…help?
First of all, it is fantastic that you have a desire to serve the least of these and that you are listening to the Lord on that leading. You have absolutely the right attitude, even though you may not realize it.
Your question is very sharp and shows an excellent mindset for doing this kind of work. Being a passionate Christian does not mean being dumb about things. You want to be smart and safe. A lot of Christians seem to have this idea that the more dangerous something is, the more extreme it is for Jesus. That is just stupid. There is plenty of danger in this kind of situation. If you want to do effective ministry, you should do everything you can to minimize that risk.
If you were to come to The Bridge in Chicago, you would see a lot of caution. The church where we have our service is in a bad neighborhood, like gang members actively selling drugs on the corner and one week we had to take another route because the normal road was police taped off because of a shooting a block away bad. So that means no one wanders away from the area immediately in front of the church and when the service is over and it is dark, you walk directly to your car as quickly as you can and leave. Would it be crazy love and super extreme faithful to have a midnight service outside in that neighborhood? I guess, but it would also be dumb. And if you are doing obviously dumb things, why is anyone going to listen to you about Jesus? Where is your credibility?
It is very honest and brave to admit to being afraid of people on the street. It doesn’t sound very churchy, but it makes total sense. The sad fact is that a lot of homeless people are mentally ill or have an addiction. That doesn’t make them bad people, but it does make their behavior potentially unpredictable. You have to be honest about those kind of things in order to prepare yourself.
The good news is that there are plenty of smart ways to serve the homeless in your area. You should never be going to do anything alone, or at night. The best idea is probably to find out if someone is currently doing work with the homeless in your town, a shelter or soup kitchen, or homeless ministry, and try to hook up with them. It is safer to have a group of people to serve with, it is safer to have people coming to a building (like a shelter) rather than going out on the streets, and that way you can learn from someone who has been doing it for a while.
Caution is not cowardice. You are right to want to keep yourself safe while serving, and it is totally possible to do.
-Matt from The Bridge