Recently I had the privilege of enjoying an hour of conversation with Luke Sumner, Outreach Coordinator at HomePDX in downtown Portland. In early 2011, I had opportunity to visit HomePDX when Ken Lloyd still provided leadership for it. I posted about the experience here. During my visit with Luke I asked him if I could email some basic questions to which he could respond with the resulting interview being posted on this blog. He graciously agreed. I hope this interview will be the first of several with frontline leaders in the Portland metropolitan area who engage in intentional community with their friends who live outdoors. This post is an important opportunity for evangelicals to gain a better understanding of not only what some Christian advocates for the homeless are doing, but why.
Glen: Please tell us a bit about your personal background and what got you started working with people living in poverty?
Luke: My first experience getting to know those living in poverty was back in college. I was involved with a college ministry group in Eugene, OR, and there were a few folks that would head out after service in the evening with backpacks full of socks and cookies to hand out to those living outside. The goal was to bring a little joy into someone’s evening. We were not there to “save” anyone, or try and get them to follow Jesus. We were there to talk and to listen, and if someone wanted to talk about God, great. God was why we were there. But we came with no agenda. While I had been a part of various service projects and meals, serving those in poverty, this was my first experience with people whose goal was relationship and learning, not just serving. It had quite the impact on me.
Glen: What is HomePDX all about?
Luke: HOMEpdx is all about people. Our mission is to love people face to face. We do what we can to be present with our friends on the streets of Portland, walking with them, learning from them, and laughing with them. We believe all people are made in the image of God, and therefore our community should reflect that from the ground up. We are a community of equals, not a service organization. We do not serve “the homeless.” We walk together with our friends who live outside. We are not a “feed,” though we do gather with old and new friends to share a meal. We do not do things “for” those living outside, we do things with them. From this core of relationship and community, we do what we can to help our friends. In the last month, we have spent time at the DMV helping folks get licenses. We also have made numerous hospital visits, connected our friends with housing and treatment organizations, and have done our best to get our limited resources into the hands of those who need them.
Glen: At this writing we are in the midst of a particularly cold winter in Portland, Oregon. What are the greatest challenges you face as you minister to the homeless in these conditions? What about the remainder of the year, such as the summer?
Luke: The cold is obviously a problem for our friends outside, especially when it moves toward freezing. One of our biggest challenges is not having enough resources to help all of our friends. We try and have sleeping bags and other stuff to help our friends stay warm, but we don’t have enough for everyone. And while more shelters open up in the freezing temperatures, there are still not enough for everyone outside in Portland. That is one of the hardest things, knowing that in spite of us and other organizations, there will still be people sleeping outside in the freezing cold.
Glen: What encouragement can you offer to churches and people wanting to serve the poor and homeless, but aren’t sure about the best way to get to started?
Luke: I would start by finding out about your community. How many folks live outside in your area, and what are the organizations that are serving them? There is always more poverty and houselessness than people realize in their community. Then volunteer with one of them. But don’t just volunteer to check off a few hours. Take this time to get to know people who are experiencing poverty and houselessness. Learn from them. Remember that when you go our on the street and talk with someone who lives there, you are a guest in their home. If you get to know folks in poverty or living outside, you will learn the best ways that you can serve them.
I think one of the biggest obstacles to the church serving the poor is that the church often doesn’t know the poor. For many churches the poor are simply objects of service, not people they should get to know, or potential friends. The church is not called to simply do charity, it is called to be present with those society pushes to the margins, and to practice life and justice WITH people, not just for them.
Glen: How can interested people and groups learn how to get involved in your ministry?
Luke: The best way to see what we are doing is to check out our website, homePDX.net. Then check out both our wish list and our get involved page to see various ways you can help us out. We are always looking for regular volunteers, who are willing to help us be friends to our friends outside. We also are seeking a few new churches that would be willing to bring a meal for our Sunday gathering, and eat together with our community. Plus, we host a number of groups each year, who want to spend a day or a week learning from those living outside, and about the reality of living outside. Always feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or for more information.