By David Killingsworth
Who are the “invisibles” in your life? Who has been overlooked, pushed aside or held back in your community? Chances are, when you think about who “the invisibles” are in our society and in your community, your mind conjures up images that have become familiar and somewhat predictable in our world; a homeless man on the side of the road begging for food or money, a single mom working multiple jobs and enduring tremendous personal sacrifice to provide for her family, an immigrant family struggling to find sustainable work and a sense of place in the community.
These are just a few examples of people groups and individuals who have been treated as outsiders because of their social status, circumstances, or lifestyle. I am certain that at some point every single one of us, as well as every student in our youth groups has, at one time or another, felt abandoned and unimportant. We didn’t make the team, or make the highest grade. We feel like we don’t matter. We feel….invisible.
But Jesus offers grace to everyone. Scripture is clear that Jesus spent much of his earthly ministry amongst the prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, and other “outcasts” that the religious leaders of the day were likely to walk right by on their way into the temple. So if Jesus made such a big deal about noticing the unnoticed, what implications does that have for us? How do we respond to a God who has offered grace and hope to us? How do we respond to a God who has challenged us, as his people, to be uncomfortably aware of those around us who, despite our world’s opinion of them, are just as undeserving and unworthy of God’s grace as we all are. When grace can’t be earned by anyone, who are we to decide who makes the cut?
This past Fall, as our youth group ventured into “The Invisibles” XP3 series, we were left with this very challenge.
So now what?
What can we do about it?
It’s not like one church can end world hunger, or solve the homelessness issue, so why even try?
My wife has worked Covenant House for the last 5 years. Covenant House is a shelter for homeless youth with locations all throughout the U.S., Canada and Central America. I am continually amazed at the mission of Covenant House to advocate for those in extraordinary situations; teens who find themselves on the streets.
Recently, Covenant House created a program called the Solidarity Sleepout. The concept is simple and is captured in the program’s tagline: “Sleep outside so other kids don’t have to.”
Our youth group decided to accept this simple challenge, and we partnered with two other churches in our community.
This Solidarity Sleepout simulation experience used real world statistics to shed light on the daunting reality of how many people in our world live with next to nothing, seemingly trapped in poverty’s vicious cycle. Our evening culminated with 60 kids, 10 adults, and one very supportive senior pastor unfurling their sleeping bags, receiving a piece of cardboard, and making camp in the courtyard right outside our sanctuary. Morning came and we stretched our sore and stiff bodies, packed up and went right to work. Our students helped clean up and set up for our Sunday morning services, prepared and served at our fellowship coffee time, and helped serve communion in each of our three church services that morning.
As a part of this Sleepout event, our students were challenged to raise funds and awareness on behalf of Covenant House.
Our students created personal web pages explaining why they thought it was important to sleep outside to fight youth homelessness. As a result of gaining support from friends and family, our students raised over $3,000. The money will benefit Covenant House and allow the vital services that they offer to continue to be available for those who need it the most.
The experience for our students was a powerful one, and brought to life the message that we had been trying to communicate throughout our series “The Invisibles.” Did we change the world? No. Did we single handedly end the issue of youth homelessness? No. But I would hardly say that our effort was in vain. In a very simple gesture — sleeping outside on the cold hard ground, our students and leaders shared an experience and began to understand the harsh realities that face so many in our community. The person sleeping on the streets downtown is no longer a distant, removed statistic. By knowing what that experience feels like, sounds like, and smells like, we are one step closer towards empathy, and towards beginning to “see” this person as Jesus called us to do. We begin to recognize their experience in a world where it is so easy to keep on walking, acting as if they are invisible and unimportant. And what is it that we begin to see when we truly look? We find a beloved child of God full of hopes and dreams, faults and failures; a child of God who might not be as different as we once thought.
For more information on the Solidarity Sleepout, and how you can do one for your group, visit www.solidaritysleepout.org for more information.
David Killingsworth Bio:
David Killingsworth is the Director of Student Ministries at First United Methodist Church of Winter Park in Winter Park, FL. He lives in Orlando with his wife, Meghan, who serves as the Pastoral Minister at Covenant House Florida. He would love to connect with you! If you have any questions about this blog, or want to get in touch with David, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org