What Happened When I Went To Church With the Homeless

The first announcement at the pulpit in the little San Francisco church we had chosen to attend while on vacation was this:

“Do not leave any of your belongings in the pew. Keep everything on your person at all times.”

This was the first Sunday during our travels when we were not boarding a plane, getting off a plane, or just checking into a hotel room. My family and I had been traveling all over the American Northwest, enjoying sites in San Francisco, Portland, Denver, and Washington.

Little did I know, this would be the most diverse and interesting church service I would ever attend.

When the announcement about belongings was made, I took a closer look at everyone around me in the church. There were people of all backgrounds, including Asian, African American, Mexican, Filipino, and mixed heritage. The priest himself was from Tanzania, and in his sermon he discussed what it was like to study in the seminary in a small African village. As the service continued, I began to notice some of the colorful personalities around us.

A man to our left kneeled for the whole service, his arms completely wrapped in about ten rainbow-colored rosaries. The rosaries were bound up and across both of his arms, and came together like one piece of jewelry whenever he pressed his hands together in prayer. During key parts of the service, he would shout the words along with the priest.

My curiosity moved with my eyes as I took in the man directly in the pew in front of us. He was very large and in a wheelchair. He had a broken ipad with dirt on it by his knee and an old cellphone on the other side, but he paid no attention to the devices; he had his eyes squeezed shut, his lips murmuring fast throughout the service. His arms were extended and his chest open wide, as if to welcome the spirit into his heart like a flying bullet.

The most profound character of this experience came at the end of the service. A homeless man stumbled into the front of the church, one eye swollen and permanently looking to his left. He was dressed in a brown torn shirt and raggedy pants to match, his bare feet pressing into the cold tile church floor, each step unsteady. He did not seem to be aware of his surroundings until he reached the life-size painted picture of Jesus on the first step of the altar. He stepped right up to the painting, staring at the face of Jesus and the halo of golden light depicted behind his head. And then he started talking.

The church fell silent and eyes followed the man as he began to gesture wildly with his hands, his mouth forming sounds and words no one could understand, his eyes never leaving Jesus’s painted blue ones. I only realized a few seconds into the strange conversation that he was not making any real sounds; he didn’t seem to be able to use his voice or form any understandable sentences, but he continued the conversation with zeal, as if he was truly talking to Jesus right then and there.

The service continued on and no one blinked an eye. When the closing prayer ended, I watched the three homeless men scatter. The man with the colorful rosaries gently slipped each one off his arms and packed them into a pink rucksack, proceeding to dash out of the church doors. The man in the wheelchair took his time loading up his bags full of what looked like trash and old tech items, adjusting himself in his seat before wheeling out the back doors. The man who had been having the lively yet wordless conversation with the painting was heading back to the street, now mumbling to himself as if Jesus had responded to him and he was mulling over the message heaven.

The mass was over, and my family returned to our hotel, each of us lost in thought as we reflected upon the service and its characters.

Now, what’s the moral of this story?  One is to keep an open door policy with your life, just as this church did: they welcomed everyone, including the homeless on the street and my traveling family. Another, if you’re religious, would be that God and worship is for everyone, especially the poor, the sick, and the homeless. And if you don’t believe in religion, then the message of love, service, and care for the poorest in our world is the main message you could take away.

What was most meaningful to me was to walk into an unknown church and learn invaluable lessons from those living on the streets near it.


Mary Claire is a 17 year old student and writer who loves politics, campfire smores, traveling, classic movies, and new music.

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