Jesus People USA: A Heart for the Homeless

Jesus People USA: A Heart for the Homeless

Born and raised in New Zealand and affiliated with Titirangi Baptist Church, Jeremy now lives in the Uptown neighbourhood of Chicago with his wife Beth and two children, Cyrus and Muriwai. They are part of Jesus People USA, an intentional community caring for the poor and homeless of Chicago. After a long battle with anxiety and depression as a teenager, Jeremy surrenderd his life to Christ near the end of his teenage years. We caught up with him to hear a little of his story and ask him some questions about the life he lives. He explains:

My childhood consisted of living in a good, stable and loving Christian family; my young years featured nothing spectacular and nothing horrifying. As far back as I can remember, I was always considered a shy kid, who turned as bright red as a beetroot whenever embarrassed or attention focused on me. People pointed out this obvious fact and I became a very self-conscious teenager. I entered a new phase of life and quickly became extremely depressed and suicidal. Nothing bad happened to me or my family, I just retreated into my deep dark places and couldn't get out. I believe it stemmed from starting to realize how unjust, unfair and unequal this world is and from this reality, I questioned the fairness and love of God, while battling my own inability to fight for the rights of the weak; I didn't have the courage to raise my voice or my fist in protest, and that reality ate me up!

In those days, music played an essential part in speaking to my ‘inner woe,’ having both a positive and negative affect. I would often pray or scream out to God, while loudly listening to heavy metal, but it was at this time that my prayer life became real and sincere. I put aside all superficiality, I was desperate, and following the lyrics, I would cry out, “God help me!” Near the end of my teenage life, in the quietness of my room, after months of agonizing internal questioning and grave suicidal tendencies, I fell face down and surrendered myself to the One who sets us free. 

After my re-commitment to Jesus, I still struggled with social anxiety and seeing God primarily as a judge. My re-dedication stemmed more out of fear than love and I still struggled with injustice running rampant. I read the words of Jesus, and I questioned why his words aren't always taken seriously. But over the next few years, through prayer, church, many theological discussions with friends and going to Bible College, I started seeing God as one who deeply cares and loves the poor, who wants to liberate those in bondage and doesn't always focus on rules and regulations. A new relationship was beginning to form and it was beautiful.

Upon graduating, I was unemployed for a few months until I got a job driving taxis. Bible College helped me learn how to study the Bible and glue a lot of my thoughts together. But it was taxi driving that opened my eyes to what's really happening in the world. I was robbed twice; the first was with a knife to my throat and I ended up in the boot of the car. The second time, I was hit about fifty times in the face – all for less than $20. Actually, throughout those two incidences, I remained surprisingly calm and peaceful, but there were times I was scared for my life. Being a victim, or the more terrifying prospect of thinking I was going to be violently attacked, took a host of ideals out of my naive mind and helped me see how people can quickly resort to violence and trickery to satisfy their needs and wishes. I worked the graveyard shift, and got to meet people from every sphere of society doing the same things; cheating on their partners, acting violently, doing drugs, getting drunk, paying for prostitutes…I could go on. This insight helped me realize that the poor often get blamed, condemned and imprisoned for things that people from all walks of life regularly do in secret! Finally, taxi-driving helped me realize my own weaknesses and the power of the mob. As passenger after passenger entered my car, nearly everyone expressed the same generalized passions of drunkenness, getting high and meeting their sexual fantasies. They may have met, or not met, these desires in different ways, but it's all my ears constantly heard, my eyes constantly saw and nose constantly smelt. They would draw me into their relentless glorification of these things. Temptation rose and rose, making me think these things were what life was all about. I was alone, I was weak, but this was a time I can be thankful to God I had social anxiety, because I didn't succumb to the enormous weight of temptation that was relentlessly hitting me. Driving cabs taught me that we cannot exist on our own; we need others who are on the same path, have the same vision and convictions. If we don't have this, we can quickly succumb to the power of the mob!

During the time I was a taxi-driver, I first visited Jesus People USA, to work with the poor and I was placed at Cornerstone Community Outreach, the homeless shelter there. I wanted to learn how to put what I had learned and believed into practice. At this point, it was not my desire to remain in Chicago, but really to just learn and bring back gems to Auckland to work amongst the poor and disenfranchised in my home city.

After driving cabs for well over a year, I had paid off my Bible College debts. I knew I was too weak and too socially anxious to start my own social justice thing in Auckland. I knew I needed others, so I returned to the USA indefinitely and began working at Cornerstone Community Outreach again.

Can you tell us about Jesus People USA and Cornerstone Community Outreach?

Jeremy: Jesus People USA is an intentional community that started in 1972. After travelling in a bus, it has now settled in the Uptown neighbourhood of Chicago and we live in a converted ten storey hotel, sharing meals, cars and resources. The top three floors are occupied by rent-paying senior citizens (who have often been homeless). Jesus People USA is self-supporting, with a number of businesses including roofing supplies, a coffee shop, a T-Shirt printing company and others. We have four main ministries; the seniors low income housing, music bands such as REZ, Glenn Kaiser, Leper and The Crossing, Project Twelve (an intensive discipleship programme) and our homeless shelter, Cornerstone Community Outreach.

What are you able to do practically?

Jeremy: The shelter came about because Jesus People USA wanted to meet the need of impoverished neighbours; in the 1980s, homelessness was on the rise in America and folks began seeking shelter and sleeping on the Jesus People USA dining room floor. The City of Chicago started dropping off those experiencing homelessness to us and from there, they helped us get our own building to provide a shelter. We sheltered women and children and continued our meal programmes and food bags, and from there, we now shelter fathers with children, single women, single men and intact families. We bought another building in 2001 and the men sleep on a church gym floor. We provide safe shelter, nutritious meals and compassionate case management to over four hundred people nightly. We have a massive free clothing store which is open to those who need it, a food pantry for the poorer people in our neighbourhood and we go out to the streets to meet those there.

Homelessness is not black and white. People from all walks can struggle; maybe they got made redundant, it might be because of mental illness or through not being able to read and write. Even those who have become homeless through drug addiction might do less drugs than some rich people! So you have to look at each individual and the solution isn’t an easy formula. It might not be a case of someone just getting a job. They might need more support than that. They might not be able to hold down a job. They might need to be on disability support and it takes a long time to get on disability support. We have a saying, “Hurry up and wait,” because if you go out on the street and get caught up in something you shouldn’t be doing…so there is a lot of time waiting.

We have moved past being an emergency shelter because we collaborate with other agencies and we know where the resources are. So we’ve seen a lot of people who were once homeless get housed and we hire a lot of people who were once homeless. We know how to get hold of birth certificates and IDs. It’s about knowing where to go and understanding some of the simplest things – like where the money comes from. Because we’ve been learning to navigate the system more and more, we know we can’t do this on our own.

Are you able to speak about God and share his heart?

Jeremy: Yes. Everyone knows ‘Jesus People’ is a Christian organisation and we have a chaplain and we pray. There’s a lot of faith in the homeless community. They have their struggles but if we offer to pray for someone, 99% will say yes. Often people who are homeless or who have been in prison know that they need something or someone. They know they need help. When people think they have it all sorted, they don’t think they need Jesus. I’ve had people in my office who have been big in gangs, just breaking down crying because they don’t think they’re worthy. They just pray the prayer, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It’s a lot harder when you don’t realise you need God’s love.

A lot of shelters have a policy that if you make a mistake, then you’re out. We try and promote the peace and love of God. If I know someone is doing something wrong, whatever it might be, I’m not going to ignore the fact that they could hurt themselves or someone else. I’m going to tell them the truth and sometimes there may be consequences. But they need to know that I’m still going to love them anyway and I’m not going to reject them. I’m still going to try and help them.

Jesus People has a church service on Sunday that all the residents and homeless folk are more than welcome to attend. Ideally anybody could go to any church and feel accepted and loved, and every church would see the Parables lived out, with those who are down placed at the head of the banquet table. But that isn’t reality so one of the networks that people can come to is The Bridge. Different people from different churches will come and speak and answer questions, for example, “My friend ripped me off and I’m really mad. What does the Bible say that I should do?” Then they meet different people from different churches and this can give them access to a church. The Bridge pick up people from shelters and treatment centres and halfway houses, and they keep on emphasising how loved they are.

How do you rest?

Jeremy: It can be hard to get rest because we live in the same neighbourhood as the shelter. You walk up the street and you might bump into people from the shelter, some of them have needs, some of them are just saying “Hi!” It’s harder in the winter, when temperatures outside are -30 degrees. If I turn someone away in that temperature, they could die. That weighs heavy on me.

We are trying to get more people to take on difficult cases, with the conflict and stress that go with this. This in itself can be hard though, as we have to trust others to make good decisions. Sometimes I want to be able to fix a situation and “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) is a phrase I think about; to realise that I cannot control everything and sometimes I have to leave it in the Lord’s hands and not micro-manage. That’s never easy!

We have time out with the kids though and this gives me perspective.

Is the life that you’re living the life that every Christian should be living?

Jeremy: No. I think Jesus wants us to love our neighbours, whether that be someone who is homeless, or a super-rich person on Wall Street, or someone in prison. But I know people who have amazing hearts for the poor, but are gifted in different ways. So working at the shelter wouldn’t be their best fit. One guy works for a roofing business and runs marathons and that brings money that supports the shelter. One guy runs the accounts and I’m so glad that’s not my job! God has gifted people in different ways and the important thing is that in whatever you do, you see your neighbours and love them. Don’t just go along with the popular people, the rich people. Stand up for your neighbour.

To read more about Jesus People USA or Cornerstone Community Outreach, see the websites at jpusa.org/about-us/ and ccolife.org. You can also check out Jeremy’s great blog at freeingprisoners.blogspot.co.nz.

Story: Sarah Vaine and Jeremy Nicholls

Photo Credit: Nathan Hopkins

Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

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