I’m not a bookmark kind of girl. I try to be, but the tendency to dog-ear pages to mark my place or to mark a particular page of interest is just too strong. Because of this, you can often tell how much I am getting out of a book by how many dog-ears there are. Typically speaking, the more dog-ears, the more invested I am in the book.
As I look down at my copy of Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America, it is quite evident by the accordian-like corners that I got a great deal out of this book. I hesitate to say I enjoyed it, because somehow, the word “enjoyed” in combination with the heartbreak of America’s homeless doesn’t sound quite right. But I did look forward to picking it up each day to see what the Lord was going to do next in the lives of college students Mike Yankoski and his traveling companion, Sam Purvis.
Mike Yankoski leaves church one day after hearing a sermon that leaves him wondering if he is really the Christian he says he is. In fact, that was the title of the sermon, “Be the Christian you say you are”. Could he really be content in all circumstances (Philippians 4:11-12)? Tired of the hypocrisy in his life, Mike started to question whether or not he would be able to profess his faith if he lost everything. This led him to embark on a journey in which he lived as though he had.
He began this journey with prayer and when he felt that God had given him the “green light”, Mike talked with his parents and assembled an advisory group, consisting of his youth pastor, his campus pastor, a close friend, a professor, and two rescue mission presidents. Two rescue mission presidents? Oh yes, that is because the journey Mike chooses to set out on is to become homeless for five months, living in six different US cities.
Armed with only what they could carry (books, journals, a couple of battered guitars and a $3 sleeping bag) plus a pair of boxers, a pair of shorts, a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, and a sweatshirt, both Mike and Sam understood that they were never really homeless. As Mike put it, “We’d only be travelers through this underworld of need- privileged visitors, really, because any time we wished, we could leave the streets and go home. Most people on the streets have no such option.” With the help of his team of advisors, Mike boiled the purpose of the journey down to three objectives: 1) “to better understand the life of the homeless in America, and to see firsthand how the church is responding to their needs”; 2) “to encourage others to ‘live out loud’ for Christ in whatever ways God is asking them to”; and 3) “to learn personally what it means to depend on Christ for my daily physical needs, and to experience contentment and confidence in Him.”
Wow. That is still what comes to mind when I think about his choice to walk away from everything, including family and friends, for five months to live on the streets. Mike and Sam share some amazing encounters as well as some heart-rending ones, but one of the accounts that really challenged me was the story about Sugar Man. Sugar Man is a homeless guy who Mike and Sam share some food with one day, and when he learns they are Christians (he asked them why they shared their food), he enthusiastically asks them to share their story. He then shares his, acting out the scene from the Bible of David and the giant Goliath. Sugar Man goes on to say that he is a Christian as well and asks how he can serve them. As he asks this question, he proceeds to light up a glass pipe with marijuana and is surprised when Sam and Mike don’t take him up on his offer for a smoke. Mike shares that as he sat there with Sugar Man, he felt his “carefully established definitions of a Christian crack and expand.” Mike goes on to ask, “What do you do when a good tree bears bad fruit or a bad tree bears good fruit? Look harder.” He encourages the reader to think about their definition of a Christian. He asks “why do we reject the loving, self-sacrificing, giving, encouraging, Jesus-pursuing drug addict but recruit the clean, self-interested, gossiping, loveless church-goer?” After all, both are messed up, both need Christ. Both struggle with sin.
Mike examines himself and the Church on his journey, and his scrutinization caused me to examine myself as well. He shares numerous experiences with friends he makes on the streets, as well as experiences with the various churches, some good, some bad. The response of some churches to the homeless is horrifying and not Biblical, while other churches, and many youth groups, respond with love and action. Of all the accounts of his interactions as a homeless person with fellow believers, my favorite is the one in which he and Sam note that a church is preparing for a big event, and both men watch as food is carried in and prepared, excited for the opportunity to worship and eat (especially since their last meal had been a 99 cent hamburger the day before). One of the men from the church basically tells them they are not welcome and that they need to leave. The next day, they decide to go to this church for Sunday worship. After the service, the man that told them to leave rushes up to them, with tears streaming down his face. Why? Because after he had rudely demanded that they leave, he felt convicted by the Holy Spirit and drove around trying to find them so he could apologize and bring them back to the church event. He apologizes then and gives them hugs in gratitude as they forgive him. And I love what Mike says after this incident…”I wonder what would have happened if Sam and I had decided not to return to that church Sunday morning. Love can’t cover wrongs if we let frustrations and failures keep us apart.”
To try to share everything that spoke to me in this book would take much longer than either of us want, but above all, what Mike did in sharing his experience being homeless for 5 months was to give me a glimpse into life on the streets through the eyes of Christ. He is practical in advising us not to just give money, because many times it will go right towards the next fix or drink. He emphasizes not only trying instead to buy a homeless man or woman a meal, but on taking the time to look them in the eyes and treat them as they are, a human being. To show them love, to smile, to be kind. Not to avoid their eyes, look away, or mock them. Not to write them off as “bums” or “lazy”. To get involved. To love them as Christ does.
It’s a powerful message.
*I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.