Westmont Magazine 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 disatisfaction 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.”
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 contentment 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.”
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.”