Intro: This week I am featuring an interview with Dalla O’Day on outreach to homeless people. I’ve known Dalla for over a decade and her contagious love for people exemplifies the type of love Christ calls the church to uphold.
Dalla graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Discipleship in 2005 and has served with several church and parachurch homeless ministries. Currently, she volunteers in her church band and missions committee, and is about to embark on leadership for her church in the areas of education/training for evangelism in practical life circumstances. In addition, she corresponds with prison inmates who have spiritual questions. (Read Part 1: "Homeless Ministry: Flowers for Jesus") and Part 2: "Homeless Ministry: Mutual Encouragement")
Share with me a little about some of the times you’ve shared the gospel with a homeless person. Was there anything you specifically did to “bridge the gap” between your world and theirs?
This might sound simplistic, but the primary tools I found that helped bridge the gap were smiles, never ignoring anyone when they speak to me, even if I have nothing to offer and am in a huge hurry, and the willingness to listen. Most people, be they homeless women or business men in high rises, yearn for connection with other human beings who care about them.
The simple act of listening to anything anyone has to say without judgment has probably been my best way to bridge gaps in the various cultures in which I've found myself. People know you're different from them, but it doesn't matter too much if you treat everyone as your equal, and simply listen. Listening also can give you clues to what you do have in common. Out there, I met several former pastors, church leaders and others who had been seeking God with all of their hearts before tragedy and abandonment by those who should have loved and supported them most. I couldn't relate to the phase of life they were in, but I could relate to the feeling of being abandoned, unwanted and ignored. And I could listen to the stories of those men and women who had spent their lives as criminals and runaways, prostitutes and gang members. "I'm too bad for God to forgive" was often heard.
I remember one man, Raul, in particular that repeated this over and over again. It was hard, knowing how much God loves him and how much forgiveness God offers, to hear this man's grave despair over the sin in his past, and inability to accept God's love in the present. But I told him the stories of men and women from the Bible who had lived lives similar to his, or friends or family members I knew who had also once been criminals, and through my love for the people I knew personally and the truth of the Word of God, I could show him the love that Jesus has for all. I never heard Raul had come to Christ, but I shared the Gospel with him on more than one occasion, and as time passed, he protested less and less of his vile sin, and hope started entering his speech.
What do you think is one of the hardest aspects of homeless ministry?
Probably the hardest aspects for me have been twofold: 1.) creating necessary boundaries for safety and health, and 2.) having honest conversation. Let me expand on both.
Boundaries are necessary for multiple reasons. Your convictions, for example, on giving money, have to be in stone. If I gave to everyone who asked for money, I would personally be on the streets myself. My personal hard and fast rule is to only give clothing, flowers, etc., unless distinctly the Holy Spirit instructs otherwise.
Boundaries also include things like not going alone to certain parts of town, when and how often I go out, not going alone somewhere with someone I meet, or telling anyone my address. While I want to love people as Christ loves them, I'm also responsible to use wisdom.
The second (honest conversation) can be much harder. People have often tried to talk religious talk in hopes of manipulating me (sometimes hoping that by claiming to have “come to Jesus” I'll change my boundaries, etc.), or insist on arguing faith/religion with me. Arguing accomplishes as much as fake conversion. Christ is glorified, no one's heart has changed, and both parties walk away frustrated or angry.
If someone wanted to show love to the homeless in their area, but didn’t know where to start, what would you recommend?
The best tips I can give are first to drown your intentions, activities and resources in prayer. Get someone to step out with you, even if only for another presence. Get friends and family to pray with and for you. Acknowledge God is the one who changes hearts. Start simple. Don't try to change the world. Ask and then trust the Holy Spirit to lead you. And remember that lady panhandler you see on the corner of Broadway and Granville is a person, and she needs Jesus. She is not a project. Say hello. Give her some food, if she'll take it. Learn her name. Never ignore her. Hug her, call her by name, and build a relationship. Over time, you'll have a relationship, and you'll be able to tell her about Jesus.