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By Dan Crain

ATLANTA – What happens when you share a meal with someone?

You are equals. Each person brings something to the table.

There’s a danger associated with soup kitchens and “drive-by” ministries that feed the homeless. They can divide us.

I observed something interesting with a friend one day at Retreat from the Street, a ministry of Church on the Street, a non-profit in Atlanta devoted to being with and for our most vulnerable neighbors who are homeless.

Our typical schedule is to gather at 9:30 for Bible study and prayer, then to break for lunch around 11:30. Lunch is catered, and always very delicious. After the study, I waited in line with everyone else, grabbed a meal and sat down.

As I ate, a friend named Tycone approached. He said he was glad that I was sharing a meal, but his tone hinted at surprise. I asked, “Why?”

Tycone’s reply: Most volunteers who serve the poor and homeless do just that: They serve. Volunteers usually offer something to someone. Although they do this with pure motives, in the name of Jesus, such “serving” can often create barriers of trust. What people need is not another handout. What they desire is that someone sit with them and speak their names.

People on the streets have a deep desire to be treated with dignity.  They appreciate it when we treat them as we would family or friends, spending time with them, taking an interest in their lives. They crave what you and I do: For us to care about them as individuals, to open our hearts to them – to show them love.

When I ate at Retreat from the Street, did it mean that I was lowering myself to the position of someone on the street? Absolutely not. I was trying to communicate that I value Tycone as a person, and what he has to say.

I once asked a friend living on the streets what would be the best way to help someone in his position.  He pondered my question about a week before he answered.

He said it was time. It wasn’t food. It wasn’t clothes. It wasn’t even a job.

Nothing is as important as time in a committed relationship. Many people on the streets are there because of failed relationships. I would argue that many of us are where we are in life because of failed relationships.

About a month ago, I ran into some friends at the Wendy’s in our neighborhood. They live on the streets and immediately asked me for money to eat.

When someone asks for food, I always try to suggest that we eat together. I tell them that I will buy if they will give me some of their time.

As I stepped up to the counter to order, it hit me why this felt so good:

This is precisely is what Jesus did. He shared meals with people – tax collectors, prostitutes, and outsiders and sinners. No one else wanted to hang out with them. He did. By no means do I compare myself with Jesus, but maybe in that moment, through God’s grace, I was demonstrating to the most vulnerable people in Atlanta that God loved them.

Sharing a meal with people levels the playing field. There are no helpers or people being helped. This is hugely significant: When we “break bread,” one with another, we partake of the same food. More important, we share a bit of ourselves, a bit of our lives, in friendship and in love.

When panhandlers who say they’re hungry approach you, create some space. Take these neighbors to dinner, grab a bite to eat and get to know them.

When you learn their stories, you won’t think of them as homeless people. You’ll consider them as neighbors. Welcome them into your life.

It’s your life that will be greatly changed.

Dan Crain and his family.

Dan Crain is a liaison/trainer in South Atlanta for Polis Institute. He can be reached at dan@polisinstitute.org.

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.