2016-06-30
Mike on the streets... ...and off

In 2003, college students Mike Yankoski and Sam Purvis voluntarily became homeless in order to experience what life is like for the poor in America. For five months, both men traveled through five different cities with bare essentials and two acoustic guitars. Singing worship songs while panhandling, Mike and Sam got to know homeless people and saw firsthand whether churches respond to their needs. Below are excerpts from "Under the Overpass," Mike's book about his travels.



Washington D.C. * San Francisco * Phoenix

WASHINGTON D.C.

Communion on an Empty Stomach


Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially when you didn’t eat the night before.

Sam on the steps
of a church
In D.C., the only place we found to get breakfast on Sundays was at an Episcopal church in the heart of the city. The old church’s oak pews were at least softer than concrete, and seemed almost welcoming after a night on the sidewalk.

Each morning, a female priest spoke briefly on the passage of the day while more than a hundred homeless men and women sat scattered through the sanctuary, enduring the mandatory service. Some rocked slowly back and forth. Others talked to themselves, or coughed incessantly. Some slept quietly, others snored loudly. Some escaped to the sounds of heavy metal in their headphones. Some actually listened, and you’d hear an occasional “Amen” ringing out through the expansive sanctuary, usually well after the priest had begun her next sentence.

One Sunday, the priest offered communion, and about 40 of us ragged souls walked up and kneeled down around the pulpit. I knelt next to a huge man who had been seated in front of me. His broad shoulders and large, rough hands told of a lifetime of hard labor. The wrinkles in his weathered face were thrown into dark relief by the dirt that had collected in them. His long graying hair and beard were stained and thick with debris.


As I knelt beside him, he started coughing violently, a thick gurgle rising from his lungs between convulsions. He braced himself against the floor with both hands until he could regain his composure, then he wiped his eyes, shifted back to a kneeling position, and waited.

The priest moved quietly around the circle, leaning down to each person. “This is the body of Christ, which was broken for you,” she said, looking each in the eye. Then she came around again with the cup. “This is the blood of Christ, which was shed for you.” The white of her cloak shone brilliantly against our filth.

Mike's sandal, held
together with tape
By the time she brought the cup to the big guy next to me, he was back on his hands again, struggling for breath. She stopped directly in front of him and waited for him to rise. When he could look up at her, she held the shining silver cup as he put it to his lips. I heard him swallow, and as he handed the cup back to the priest, two drops of wine ran down his mustache and disappeared into his beard.

The priest wiped the cup where he had received and stepped in front of me. "This is the blood of Christ..."

I’d never taken communion on an empty stomach before. The cup burns when you’re hungry. It goes deeper, quicker, when there’s nothing to stop it.

The priest moved on, and with a deep sigh, the big man next to me crossed his chest and pushed himself to his feet. I rose too, and before we walked back to our seats, we caught each other’s gaze and nodded.

SAN FRANCISCO

The Grace of Pizza

It was a busy Saturday night in Berkeley, throngs of students everywhere. We’d come here on BART (the Bay Area Rapid Transit system) earlier in the day in a search of better panhandling. So far, we were doing okay on the donations, not so great on the requests. We just never seemed to know the songs others wanted to hear.

Mike playing
songs on his guitar
My fingers were getting sore from hours of playing. I stood to stretch, then yawned and laughed.

“What?” Sam asked.

“You know, before we came out here, a part of me was excited to have all this time to play the guitar. I figured I’d get a lot better. Six months on the street and I’d be the next Dave Matthews.”

Sam confessed to having similar thoughts.

I examined the calluses on my left hand. “We’ve gotten a little better, but not much. Out here, you don’t play to get better, you play to eat.”

“Yup, and that means being heard above the traffic.”
“So we’re not really playing and singing, right?” I said. “We’re strumming and yelling. We’re getting better at strumming and yelling.”

We both laughed, and I sat down to begin again. Just then three guys walked past, the lead guy carrying a pizza box.

“Hey bro!” I called. “You going to eat the rest of that pizza?”

The guy stopped, looked from Sam and me to his box of pizza, then said, “Nope.” Shaking his head, he walked over. “You want it?” he asked.

“Sure!” I said, and he handed it down to us.

We thanked him profusely. “No problem,” he said, walking away. “Enjoy.”

Opening the box we found half a pepperoni pizza. “Unbelievable!” Sam yelled.

“This is the good stuff!” I said, grabbing a piece. “Father, thank you for this food!”

We sat there, happily devouring the still-warm pizza. By the time we were down to the crumbs, we were ready for more conversation.

“‘Father, thank you for this food’ means something different out here, doesn’t it?” I said.

“Sure does,” said Sam. “I don’t know if I’ll ever say it so sincerely again after we get back.”

“I hope I don’t change,” I said.

Mike (left) and Sam (right)
We sat watching people walk by, thinking about pizza and thankfulness. “What do you think would have happened if the Israelites hadn’t gone out and picked up the manna God sent,” I asked.

“And your meaning is?” said Sam.

“I mean, don’t you think they would have starved if they never actually went out and picked the manna off the ground?”

Sam looked at me as if I had pepperoni poisoning. Finally, he responded. “Yeah, probably. They had to eat, and God was providing, but—yes—they had to go out and pick it up.”

“Exactly!” I said enthusiastically. “They had to pick it up! How dumb would it have been if some had starved because they refused to take what God was providing.”

Sam sounded thoughtful. “I’d be a lot more hungry right now if we hadn’t asked those guys for their leftover pizza.”

“Right,” I said, nodding. “We prayed for God’s provision, right? We prayed that He would bless us and give us what we need. But then when it walked by, we had to make our move. Asking and receiving means different things out here on the streets than back home. But the idea is the same.”

Sam didn’t look nearly impressed enough by my line of logic. So I kept at it.

“Just like you said,” I continued, “we’d be a lot more hungry if we hadn’t asked for that pizza. God answered our prayers for provision, but we still had to ask these guys for it. We still had to ‘pick up the manna.’”

Now Sam was nodding. “I wonder how much we miss because we’re unwilling to pick it up. That verse in Matthew, ‘Knock and the door will be opened,’ why have the door opened if you don’t walk through?”

“I know,” I said. “Kinda scary.”

“It’s like asking God to bless your day, then when He puts a needy, smelly person in front of you that you could really help, you wonder what you did to deserve such rotten luck.”

“Yep!” I agreed.

We both felt insightful, mature, brilliant to the point of genius. Manna does that to you.

In no time at all, we were back to strumming and yelling.

PHOENIX

Sleeping on the Church Steps

Sam, sleeping on a metal grate
Although Sam and I had spent every Sunday morning at church somewhere on our travels, the lack of community was taking a toll on us. Even at church, we felt isolated because of how we looked, how we smelled, and who people perceived us to be. In fact, walking into a church where we hoped to find genuine fellowship only to be met by condescension or suspicion or disingenuous flattery was the worst kind of rejection.

One night in Phoenix we stretched out our sleeping bags in front of a church’s main doors hoping that early the next morning we would be awakened by a kindhearted churchgoer wondering if he could help us in some way. A simple, obvious plan, we thought, but it didn’t work.

At about 7 the next morning, while a dream of wintertime in the Rockies cooled my sweating body, a far away voice pulled me back to reality. “And before we read from Romans 8, let us pray together...”

Sam and I were still on the steps of the church and already baking in the morning sun. I rolled over to look through the sanctuary windows. A small gathering was standing while the pastor led in prayer. The early service was just getting under way inside, but for us, the voice came from a speaker just above where we slept.

“Sam,” I said, nudging him awake.

“Yeah?” He sat up and shaking his head.

“Did anybody wake you up?” I said pointing into the sanctuary.

"No way,” he said. We both realized what had happened. Every person inside had gone through a side door. “Nobody woke me up. You?”

“Nope.”

The pastor was ending his prayer. “Lord, teach us to look not unto ourselves but unto you and unto others...” With a loud Amen that came metallically through the speaker above, the congregation took its seat and he began his sermon.

Already soaked with sweat, we decided to pack up and move on. “Wow,” said Sam, “I thought we were making it easy for them!”

Mike, writing in his journal
But were we? I’m not so sure now. I think two sleeping transients on the church steps early one morning would make most people uneasy, Christian or not. The need is unexpected, out of place, and a little disturbing. Yet it is in exactly here, in the difficult circumstances, that Christ’s love should take risks to meet needs. In A Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning describes what that kind of love looks like: “To evangelize a person is to say to him or her: you too are loved by God and the Lord Jesus. And not only to say it but to really think it, and relate it to them so they can sense it. But that becomes possible only by offering the person your friendship, a friendship that is real, unselfish, without condescension, full of confidence and profound esteem.”