By Dan Crain
ATLANTA – When Daniel left home six years ago, addiction guided his path, and he might as well have walked off the face of the Earth.
His parents’ parting words to him: “Don’t ever come back here.”
He left everything behind: his home, his job and, most important, his kids. His destination was addiction, bouncing between prison and the streets.
About a year ago, Daniel left prison for a third and final time.
Daniel’s testimony last week riveted each of us: He was going home.
Soon after getting out of prison, Daniel visited Church on the Street’s ministry, Retreat from the Street. Its members strive to live in community with Atlanta's most vulnerable men and women -- those who live on the streets -- and welcome them into fellowship.
Daniel began to show up for a simple breakfast, Bible study, prayer and lunch on weekdays. After awhile he decided it was time to get serious. Daniel gave his life to Christ.
This was just the beginning of his journey. Church on the Street continually held its arms open, welcoming Daniel into community.
He felt God’s Spirit say to him, “If you stay apart of this community, there are some wonderful things I want you to receive from them.” Daniel did not want to stand in the way of God’s blessing by thinking he was OK. He was not OK. He knew he needed help. Once he admitted this, blessings came.
In the Church on the Street community, everyone plays a role -- everyone is asked to contribute. One of the first opportunities Daniel was offered was to clean the bathroom to serve the community. Albert Schweitzer is quoted as saying, “I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know -- the only ones among you who will be really happy are those that have sought and found how to serve.” God has given everyone a gift to serve community – even if it is as small as cleaning toilets.
Daniel remarked that he immediately felt the love of the Church on the Street leaders. They were not interested in just giving him food and clothes and sending him on his way. They took time to get involved in his life. To have such love extended unconditionally, instead of with judgment, was absolutely crucial to Daniel’s journey.
He shared that one of his struggles is a predisposition to look down on people on the streets. Despite being an addict, he had taken solace in the fact that he was not as bad as someone who has a stronger addiction to crack cocaine. Truth is, we all find ways to judge others in order to escape the reality of our own pain, regardless of where we find ourselves.
Since he has been a part of this community, he has felt his impulse to be judgmental disappear. His conversation and spirit are also different. Just simply by being apart of this community, he has experienced change. This place and its people have become his family.
After a few months of spending time with this community, he was offered an opportunity to get off the street. What sets Church on the Street apart from many houses of worship is its dedication to actively and intentionally embrace the homeless, welcoming them into community. This is particularly true for Daniel. Elders in the church invited Daniel into their homes, and they have benefited greatly from his friendship.
Daniel commented at one point that, “This place is the best thing that has ever happened to me.” Through being a part of community, he has sensed God’s Spirit say to him, “You are my son, with whom I am well pleased.” After 20 years of struggling with addiction, he is at last beginning to experience healing.
And in community, his gift of cooking was discovered. He was named the chief chef of the Church on the Street's kitchen. (Oh, and Daniel already had his culinary degree.)
He is now on his way home to a small town in Ohio. Through God’s grace, he now has custody of his three youngest children. These kids are special because they never gave up on their daddy even though he had given up on himself.
He also has a solid support system through a church in the hometown. Interestingly, the small town in Ohio has a huge methamphetamine problem. Daniel’s church has reached out to him to know how to best reach out to people who struggle with addictions to meth.
These are the kinds of ministries that Polis is trying to encourage people to emulate. A ministry that is purely focused on giving and receiving with the most vulnerable in the context of community. It is in this context that people’s talents are engaged for the betterment of the city.
The myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is just that, a myth.
What is the best way to experience change in our lives? It is in the realm of community. No one is self-sufficient. We all need each other.
What I love about this story is that Daniel spoke of personal responsibility. He spoke of realizing his need to change. But, he spoke of it all within the context of community. No one changes alone.
Dan Crain is a liaison/trainer in South Atlanta for Polis Institute. He can be reached at email@example.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.