Anthony Warren and his son were in the middle of a contracting job at a San Diego-area church when the homeless man approached. To the man, it was the logical place to go for help. But Warren watched as the church turned him away, empty-handed. “My son and I talked to him, but we did nothing as far as his needs were concerned,” Warren recalled, the lingering guilt creeping into his voice.
It was modern-day example of the Good Samaritan story, comparable to the priest and Levite who took pains to pass on the other side of the road to avoid the man who had been beaten, robbed and left for dead (Luke 10:25-37.)
Years later, Warren decided to take action by joining the Rock’s Homeless Ministry, bringing light to a population who are invisible to most. “I kind of fell into this ministry,” explained Warren, who works as an electrician at the San Diego State University Foundation.
His curiosity was piqued three years ago by Sleepless in San Diego, an annual event at Liberty Station that educates the public about homelessness with a campout under the stars. He began inquiring about starting a homeless outreach at his church - Church of Christ – until he was invited to get plugged into the Rock’s existing ministry.
Now, at 59, Warren is one of the ministry’s leaders. On Tuesday evenings, when he isn’t in a ministry class, he is walking the streets with the Bread of Life ministry, serving up encouragement and God’s Word to the homeless.
On Saturdays, he can be found at a grassy niche on the edge of Balboa Park with the Rock-sponsored Church Without Walls ministry.– Dozens of homeless gather there for a free meal, toiletries, clothing and a church service. It is Warren’s responsibility to line up the speaker and food once each month. But he sees his main job as a protector and encourager.
“I see myself as more of a shepherd,” he says. “My job is to encourage the volunteers, make sure they have a good experience.” Every so often, things can get dicey when dealing with such a vulnerable, troubled population. Drug abuse, alcoholism and mental illness frequently go hand-in-hand with homelessness.
Challenges also arise when a group of volunteers that is largely female is tasked with serving a homeless population of mostly males. There are more than 9,000 homeless people in San Diego County, with more than half living on the streets rather than shelters, according to the most recent count by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.
To gain a better understanding of the community he is serving, Warren set out to learn firsthand what it feels like to be homeless. One winter night, he and a few other volunteers set up camp at a downtown street corner, only to be roused at 1:30 AM by a security guard ordering them to move. They settled on another block, near a homeless encampment at Third and Ash streets, and tried to get some sleep.
Warren took off his boots, placed them by his pillow and folded his 6-foot-2-inch frame inside a sleeping bag on the cold pavement. When he awoke hours later, his boots were gone.
“I’d forgotten where I was,” he said. It turned out someone in his group was only playing a prank on him, but the memory continues to serve as a reminder of the harsh realities of survival these men and women face. “It was terrible,” he said of the experience. “I was so worn out, I had to go home and go to bed.”
His newfound compassion for the homeless has continued to spill over into his personal life. For the past several months, he and his wife of 26 years, Pam, have welcomed into their home a man who has been struggling to make ends meet.
Warren met Phillip, 47, at the Rock and realized that the simple act of giving him a place to stay could be the one thing he needed to get his life together. Phillip, who lost his job following an injury, could no longer afford the room at the downtown motel he was calling home. So Warren offered him the garage of their southeast San Diego home as an alternative to living back on the streets.
Warren is in the process of developing a new branch of the ministry to help people just like Phillip. Dubbed the Bestow a Wish ministry, Warren is working on identifying special cases in which people have overcome addiction and other issues at the root of their homelessness, but they need that extra push of encouragement and finances to set out on their own.
In its first case, the ministry raised enough money to send a pregnant woman and her boyfriend to Jackson, Tenn., to live with his sister in a healthy environment. Warren saw the couple off at the bus stop, and even though he hasn’t heard from them in several weeks, he trusts that God will continue to work in their lives.
(Author’s note: This case in particular shows the true power of prayer! A friend and I prayed alongside this couple in April, asking God specifically to find a way to get them to Jackson and closer to family and a support system. And I was so encouraged to learn through my conversation with Warren about how God provided!)
While there are successes to be celebrated, serving in the homeless ministry can be discouraging as the volunteers watch people fall back into old, destructive habits. “The attrition rate in the homeless ministry is about 90 percent,” Warren said. “It really wears on you and really burns people out.”
“A lot of times, you might not see the results happen until 20 or 30 years la
ter. We don’t get to see it.” Whenever the ministry gets tough, Warren reminds himself of Matthew 16:24: “Then Jesus said to his disciples: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The verse is so special to Warren that he had it emblazoned on the back of the T-shirts for his contracting business.
“A lot of the things I used to think are important are not,” Warren explained. “You have to make Christ first, and sometimes you have to give stuff up to make that happen. You have to do one or the other. “I’m not really there yet,” he said with a grin, “but give me time.”
For more information about the Church Without Walls Ministry, click here »
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