Picture this: You’re driving to work. You pass the familiar intersection where the same man stands every morning with his cardboard sign. You look around the car for something to give him but come up empty handed. You shyly smile as you pass, finish your commute, and continue on with your day. Sound familiar?
Duane Mansveld is very familiar with this scenario. It was 27 years ago that Duane lived on the streets in Canada. And it was there he came to Christ. Because of his own experience, Duane and his family now minister to the homeless/street community with a more holistic approach, offering physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aid.
Those 27 years ago, Duane was homeless and dealing drugs with his friend, Jake, a runaway pastor’s son. The two worked together and helped each other survive, that is until Jake became a Christian and left the streets. Soon after, Duane and some other friends from the street community were desperate to get out, but they had no idea how. So they thought about the only person they knew who had made it out—his friend, Jake. They called Jake and asked him to come share with them about how he had made it off the streets. The fact that Jake was a Christian didn’t even cross their minds. Duane’s only goal was to follow Jake in leaving the streets behind for a better life.
When Jake came to speak to them, he also brought a pastor friend, and together, they started talking about Jesus. Duane said it was the first time in his life that the mention of Jesus didn’t also accompany a long list of rules he would have to follow and habits he would have to break. Instead, the two shared about how Jesus was real in their lives—how Jesus accepted each of them, right where they were.
Duane itched to have that sort of relationship with God, one where he didn’t have to clean himself up before approaching Him. So, for the first time, he said, “Look, God, if you can do that for me, I’ll do anything for you.”
While that prayer changed Duane’s heart, it didn’t change his circumstances. It didn’t heal all of his family issues. It didn’t bring him a house or a car or a job—it didn’t get him off of the streets. But it did create an opportunity for Duane to pray for his friends. And it was there in the streets that he saw the potential of his friends, of what they could be if they knew God and what He could do for them. Duane pleaded with God, “Send somebody. You need to send somebody to tell them.” And as God so often answers prayers like that, His response was, “Well, what about you?” Soon after that, Duane sought training on how to minister to his friends in the street community.
“Street community” might not be a term many are familiar with, but Duane explains that, we, as a society, don’t necessarily see the street community as a valid community. We see them as people who need to change, who, if they’re going to be helped, need to clean themselves up first, then we’ll address them and help them find Jesus.
Duane often references the example of the woman who entered the house of a Pharisee to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and her hair (Luke 7:36-50). One cannot know by reading this passage what the woman understood of Jesus. We don’t know if she could dictate all of the theological truths about Jesus. We don’t know what kind of “sinful life” she lived. But she saw something in Jesus and wanted to worship Him. Being an outcast in society, she didn’t know the traditional or acceptable ways to worship God. So she did it in the way that came naturally to her—by weeping and wiping His feet. The Pharisees, the religious leaders of the time, saw this as vulgar, profane and immoral, but Jesus saw it as true worship.
Often, it’s the same thing within our churches when it comes to the street community. We may have people come in with different difficulties or different pasts, who had a taste of who Jesus is and want to worship Him. But as Duane says, “They have no idea that in our churches “worship” means singing three songs before an hour-long service.” So they start worshipping Jesus in their own way, just like the woman in Luke, and the church may reject them simply for trying to genuinely worship.
Duane wants to help the street community know that their way of expressing what Jesus has done in their lives and how He calls them to worship is valid—it’s as valid as any other expression. “After all,” Duane says, “Jesus was homeless too.”
So what does that mean for the rest of us—those of us who aren’t in full-time ministry, but have a homeless community nearby? SPOILER ALERT: It doesn’t mean we need to open our checkbooks!
First, we need to recognize the work God is already doing in these communities and in the hearts of these people. God loves this community, and if his Son were here today, He would most likely be hanging around similar crowds. Find an organization or missionary near you that offers this type of support, including spiritual, physical, mental and emotional aid for the street community.
Second, churches should make sure they are safe and welcoming spaces for people to grow. Through the years, Duane and his wife, Miriam, have realized that each and every person who ends up on the streets was brought there by entirely unique and individual circumstances. However, one commonality emerges in every story. The reason they are on the street and not anywhere else in society is because they do not have a social network around them. Most of us have a social network around us. Whether that be our friends, our family, our church—when things go badly, they are there to support, encourage, and walk with us. Those on the streets, however, have either had their social networks taken away from them or have burned the bridges to those relationships. Regardless, something has happened that they no longer have that social network surrounding and supporting them.
The church has an amazing opportunity to be a new and healthy social network around these people. Duane urges people to look at the “one-another” verses of the Bible. Each of these passages, he says, shows how to build a healthy social network and calls us to do so by following the examples of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
With tears in his eyes, Duane shared the goal of his ministry. “I hope that people really start to think of the homeless community as a valid, valued community—to see them through God’s eyes, and not through our Western, middle-class, society’s eyes. God accepts them, God loves them for who they are, and God wants to make them more of who they are—more of who He made them to be.”
Thank you for supporting Duane’s ministry and welcoming everyone into the Kingdom of God!