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


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.