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“Walking the walk” among those on the fringes of society

A couple years ago, we led a group of 14 youth and a few adults to downtown Nashville to experience what it is like to be homeless for a day. The group was given very few details about what was in store for them that day. We instructed everyone to meet at the church and to bring only a sleeping bag and what they could fit into a small plastic bag. We boarded the bus, and like most youth trips begin, the mood consisted of a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I can assure you that the excitement was greatly diminished upon our arrival at the Greyhound bus station in downtown Nashville. At this time, the youth were instructed to exit the bus with their belongings and were then given a tip as to where they may be able to find assistance. They started the walk toward McKendree UMC. This would mark their first mile and, by the end of the day, they would cover over 14 miles on foot.
We presented the group with challenges throughout the day to help them experience first-hand what it takes to meet one’s daily needs as a homeless person. They were given minimal amounts of money to purchase food, generally less than $1.50 per person. This led to community building. The group realized that they could not make it alone; however, if they pooled their resources, they could purchase what they needed to survive.
Rev. Stephen Handy at McKendree UMC spoke with the group about services that the church offers and discussed homelessness in Nashville.  He offered us a place to stay and a place to leave our minimal belongings. Unbeknownst to the youth, we conspired with Rev. Handy to have all of our belongings “stolen.” This proved to be the emotional tipping point for our youth as reality set in that the very few things they had were gone. Later that day, we did arrange for all items to be returned to the youth, but made it clear to them that this is rarely the case for the homeless.
By the end of the day the group was exhausted and ready to sleep. We spent time reflecting on our day and what we had experienced. We slept on the roof of the church, and I will admit, it was one of the worst nights of sleep, or lack thereof, I have ever experienced. It was cold, windy, loud, and very uncomfortable, as concrete isn’t the best surface on which to sleep. We realized the following morning that each of us had lain awake most of the night and were thankful to be going home.
During spring break, we will assemble a group of youth on March 25,to spend time at Open Table, a non-profit, interfaith community that disrupts cycles of poverty, journeys with the marginalized and provides education about issues of homelessness. We plan to learn more about homelessness and spend a day “walking the walk” among those on the fringes of society in hopes of being in relationship with God’s hurting world and to discover ways we can serve “the least of these.”

Peace and Grace,
Doug