By Nancy Blue

My heart for people living without permanent shelter was always instinctual. God’s timing, and my introduction through volunteering, has nurtured my compassion and commitment and taken me from city streets to the woods.

My initial exposure was through IDignity, which helps to provide IDs and other documentation critical to help the poor. Homeless men and women – and particularly those just out of jail – can be overwhelmed trying to negotiate the complicated system, and to afford documents such drivers licenses, birth certificates and Social Security cards, which many of us take for granted.

Once I realized the importance of basic identification for a person to function in society, I also began to volunteer at Compassion Corner, a Christian drop-in center in downtown Orlando. It is often described as a “listening ministry.”

Nancy Blue and a friend who lives in the woods.

Nancy Blue and a friend who lives in the woods.

If IDignity had opened my eyes, Compassion Corner opened my heart.

I became acquainted with individuals on the street. I heard their stories and learned their names, and my heart stirred with desire to know more about them. I wanted to serve these vulnerable men and women more.

Two years with IDignity and Compassion Corner had planted seeds in my heart. I felt he Holy Spirit tugging to begin a ministry to the homeless. You could say God even provided a MapQuest destination: I was guided to minister to people living in the woods west of Orlando.

I gathered together pastors and deputy sheriffs, learning as much as I could about where and how these men and women live.

Some live in tents or under tarps. Many sleep on the ground. Water moccasins and spiders are abundant. Like those without shelter elsewhere, some camp residents are tormented by addictions, mental-health problems and other issues.

Although the homeless are very visible on the streets of downtown Orlando, these people are generally out of sight, under cover of the woods.

After several months, I took steps to meet them in person and learn about their needs.

The overriding principle in my mind was to answer the questions they were asking, not provide what I assumed they needed. (This is a central tenet of Dignity Serves, and I’d gone through training from the Polis Institute.) I knew in my heart that this was to be a ministry based on personal relations. I was not to be just a person to provide them with “stuff.” I wanted to hear their stories and to let them know that someone cares about them. I wanted to earn their trust.

I offer several brief accounts – not to boast that I am a special person or need credit for entering into these situations – but only that I have followed the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (I have changed the names of the people, although the stories are true.)

ONLY LOVE CAN WIN MARY

Mary was beaten regularly as a child, but her mother faithfully attended church. As a Christian, I have no argument for her. Only love can win this one, acts of kindness that heal Mary’s perceptions of God.

She has lived most of her life on the streets or in the woods. An adult son stays with her.

Mary is very intelligent and loves to read. She has a library at her campsite of more than 1,000 books. She delights in sharing them with me.

Once Mary got an ID, she obtained her first library card. Her quality of life is greatly enhanced.

Mary and I have formed a great relationship. If the day comes when she wants to discuss “eternal subjects,” I will be there.

TEARS FROM TOUGH GUY BOB

Bob has an amazing story, and we had many conversations. Then one day this tattooed, bearded, rough guy mentioned his daughter. After some gentle prompting from me, he shared that he had left his wife 22 years before – and when they parted, he had left behind a 2-year-old daughter. How he wept. What an opening into his heart!

It was not easy to find his wife and daughter. I played detective, and found them on Facebook. Bob and his daughter spoke by phone. Within two months, his daughter and wife came from Missouri to get reacquainted. I was privileged to be there at the reunion – a great blessing. Today, Bob, his wife and his daughter regularly keep in touch. (And he still cries.)

A WHOLE NEW WORLD FOR JOHNNY

Johnny was a deaf-mute who lived in the woods. He sold scrap metal and dove in dumpsters to survive. I offered to help him get documentation and food stamps. Little did I know that the process would consume countless weeks, with many frustrations. If it were difficult for me to deal with the system, imagine how impossible it would be for Johnny to navigate the maze.

The first step was getting an ID and food stamps for Johnny. Then he could receive SSI Disability, and move to a small duplex. I became his payee (a person designated by Social Security to manage money for one who is not able to).

As Johnny settled in, we dared to think all was well. Then he began complaining of leg pain. I drove him to the doctor. His leg was white, and his arteries had collapsed. I immediately took him to ORMC, where doctors amputated Johnny’s leg. Suddenly it was a whole new world for both of us. Had gangrene set in, he would have died. Johnny’s story is far from over.

■ ■ ■

My interactions with some begin with a need: providing extra food, helping with applications for food stamps, or providing blankets, tents and mosquito spray. There are many people, though, I have helped by not trying to fix what’s wrong, but by recognizing their importance as God’s people – we are equal in His eyes despite our circumstances in life.

I believe God is glorified when we listen and enter into relationships with those who are scorned or often forgotten.

I could never have anticipated all of the difficulties or the amazing blessings that have accompanied my call to serve men and women in the woods.

Nancy Blue can be reached at fiddler10@msn.com. When she isn’t working with homeless men and women in the woods, Nancy Blue and her husband, Randy, are musicians (www.stringsandthingsorlando.com).

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.