Hanging Out with the Homeless
Sleeping through a sermon one Sunday led Mike Yankoski '05 to take a critical look at his faith. The pastor had urged the congregation, "Be the Christian you say you are," and Mike suddenly wondered if people could tell who he worshiped by looking at his life.
“I felt convicted that my belief in Christ was based more on my surroundings — my church youth group and my Christian college — than on him,” Mike recalls. “I wanted to know what it meant to lean fully on Christ, to ‘Be content in all circumstances’ as Paul says in Philippians.”
To put himself in a situation of complete dependence on God, Mike decided to live on the streets. “I developed a desire to experience homelessness, to see how the church interacted with the homeless,” he says. “The idea originated in my disatis-faction with myself and grew into something much more.”
Not only did Mike end up spending five months among the homeless in six American cities, but he wrote a book about his experiences, “Under the Overpass.”
Through a montage of stories, Mike pulls the reader into the world of the homeless. Poignant vignettes describe people, experiences and spiritual struggles. As he searched for food and shelter each day, Mike encountered strange alliances, disappointments and blessings.
“I experienced dehumanization on the streets,” he says. “I got to the point where I couldn’t look someone in the eye. That is why the Westmont student ministry Bread of Life is so vital. If you are a homeless person, having someone look you in the eye and hold a true conversation means that you matter as a human being. It is so important to show compassion on a personal level.”
Christians responded to Mike in different ways. “One man bought us groceries and gave us money to get to the next city,” he says. “Others kicked us off church property when we asked for food and a place to stay.”
When he set out for the streets in May 2003 with his friend, Sam, Mike had no thought of publishing anything. But an editor at Multnomah heard about him and asked for a book. Fortunately, Mike filled seven journals full of his activities and reflections and the detailed, daily entries helped him produce “Under the Overpass.”
“The streets are a dangerous environment. Homelessness is not a youth group activity.”
Mike approached his homelessness seriously, making careful preparations. Taking note of Proverbs 15:22,“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed,” he set up a steering committee of advisers. These Christian men agreed to mentor him through the 18-month planning stage and to serve as emergency contacts and prayer warriors while he lived on the streets. The group included two people from Westmont, Campus Pastor Ben Patterson and New Testament Professor Bruce Fisk as well as a youth pastor, two Rescue Mission presidents and a friend.
The advisers helped Mike fine-tune his purpose: to better understand the life of the homeless and see how the church responds to their needs; to encourage others to “live out loud” for Christ in whatever ways God asks; and to learn personally what it means to depend on Christ for daily physical needs, experiencing content-ment and confidence in Him.
Becoming homeless required Mike to interrupt his studies as a computer science major and religious studies minor. In fact, his decision to embrace the challenge of life on the streets grew out of his college experience.
“Westmont shaped me by not letting me have simple answers,” he says. “My professors were strong in their faith and they weren’t afraid to ask impossible questions. Sometimes they answered my questions with other questions. It was frustrating at times, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. That progression from question to question really challenged my thinking. It helped me look at all perspectives and build a new foundation for my faith and my life.”
“I experienced dehumanization on the streets. I got to the point where I couldn’t look someone in the eye.”
A newly published author and recent college graduate, Mike plans to marry Danae Jacobson ’06 in August. For the next year, he intends to work at the software company he has started with a friend. Their first project is developing a program that tracks maintenance records.
When Danae graduates, the couple may spend up to a year on short-term missions, possibly in Africa. Then Mike dreams of returning to school for a master’s degree in divinity and a doctorate in theology, maybe from Oxford University. “I would love to teach at a place like Westmont,” he says.
Mike doesn’t recommend that others follow his example. “The streets are a dangerous environment,” he says. “Being homeless is not a youth group activity. Doing something like this should not be about an experience, but about meeting a need, about being a light in a dark place.”
Listen to Mike discuss the life-changing, faith-building experiences surrounding his choice to live on the streets as a homeless man for five months.
Bridges of Understanding
Students travel to Northern Ireland to learn about reconciliation
The rope bridge sways quietly from side to side as they cross, precariously suspended between two towering cliffs. Far below the foamy blue sea laps the rocky coast of Northern Ireland. Westmont students had come to this troubled country to study conflict resolution. The natural chasm symbolized the gulf between Protestants and Catholics. They had five weeks to discover if any bridges existed between the two sides.
The communication studies department has designed this Mayterm trip to broaden and deepen student understanding of communicating, negoti-ating and reconciling with others. “It is one thing to read a text, hear a lecture and apply conflict resolu-tion and reconciliation principles in your own life,” says Professor Deborah Dunn. “It is another thing entirely to see it happen in some of the unlikeliest places between individuals who have good reason to hate each other, in contexts where we might think peace is impossible.”
Dunn expects the experience to transform lives. “We want our students to realize that people and positions can change,” she says. “We want them to see first-hand the dedication and commitment of peacemakers as well as the complex resistance and turmoil that accompany peacemaking efforts. We want them to understand the surface and deep structures of language and communication that both enable and constrain dialogue. We want to inspire our students to become global citizens striving for peace.”
While the group visits various scenic areas, they’re not typical tourists. They are learning how the natural landscape shaped Irish history. “We want to avoid the tourism of so many off-campus programs,” Dunn says. “A visit to a center devoted to reconciliation should be more than just an item in a travel diary or a photo in a scrapbook.”
As much as possible, students stay in small residences providing bed and breakfast. Seeing inside private homes and interacting with the owners gives them a revealing glimpse of everyday life.
Meeting people affected by the conflict, hearing their stories and seeing the setting where “the troubles” have occurred makes a deep impact on the students. “They discover they actually have a lot in common with the people they encounter,” Dunn says. “They no longer think the process of peacemaking is some kind of mystical, abstract, divine intervention.”
For Nate Williams ’05, the biggest challenge was understanding the sectarian nature of the conflict. “It wasn’t about black and white,” he says. “For the most part Catholics and Protestants were indistinguishable when put in the same room, except perhaps differences in accents.”
But Nate saw the differences in their environment. “Neighborhoods are split up the middle by colossal, so-called ‘peace’ walls,” he says. “Protestant areas paint curbs red, white and blue, and fly the Union Jack on every corner. Catholics have curbs with the Irish tricolor. Whether proclaimed through painted curbs and flags or through events such as Bloody Sunday and random sectarian beatings, the demonization of the ‘other’ prowled around, devouring families, streets and communities.
“While parts of the trip painted a picture bleaker than the multiple paramilitary wall murals, the hope and faith of the Irish people and the methods of reconciliation we read about, discussed and saw implemented pointed to a future of possibilities. Through grace we saw the possibility of peace, reconciliation, and community despite differences, or perhaps ultimately because of them. ”
After listening to the story of one father whose son was brutally beaten, Brittinee Barrett began to appreciate the importance of understanding other positions. “Every argument or conflict may not be justifiable, but it should be understood,” she says. “These people can’t see change occurring in their lifetime because there is too much deep-seated hatred. It has to start with the children.”
But, as Mark Oehlman points out, “I realized that the children have to walk by those murals everyday. They grow up with those images in their heads. It was hard to see children living like that.”
The student group Emmaus Road is sending five teams of Westmont students overseas this summer to participate in short-term service projects. This longstanding practice has a new element this year: team blogs. To read about the experiences of these students, go the Westmont Web site (www.westmont.edu), click on Current Students, then on Emmaus Road (on the right) and on Team Blogs. Or go to: blogs.westmont.edu/emmaus_road/.
Guatemala: This team of nine works and serves with Don Solomon and Dona Mera Hernandez and Westmont alumnus Jovanni Tricerri at the Westmont-Bethel Hospital (www.westmontbethel.org) and in the village of Uspantan to meet physical needs.
Indonesia: Students assist the Jonswolds, long-term workers and local believers to build relationships with the Sea Tribe people. Eight students stay in homes and join the Jonswolds in community development efforts. The Web site, www.islandconnections-intl.com, highlights the business platform of their organization.
Russia: A team of eight works with Children’s Hope Chest in Kostroma, Russia, as staff for a summer camp that provides training for orphans (ages 15-20s). They will support the local staff in preparing and helping American groups serving at the camp as well as being camp counselors. The Web site is www.gospelcom.net/chc.
Rwanda: With a commitment to continued education about the AIDS pandemic in Africa, a team of six does field and administrative work in Rwanda with YWCA staff. They assist the NGO in activities such as computer training, home visits to families, a soccer camp and tutoring orphans. They also learn about the 1994 genocide and its impact on people as they serve at the Imbambazi Orphanage. The Web site is www.worldywca.org/aids.
Tanzania: After a semester in Tanzania, the team leader wanted to bring a group of her peers to experience the nation and its people. Seven students assist long-term workers through Grace Ministries International. They support longstanding projects and ministries such as AWANA and a summer camp for youth. Their Web site is www.gracem.org/GMItanzania.html.