We arrive at the bridge after a church board meeting. It’s 10 pm on a cold Toowoomba evening. I get out of the car with the other pastor and an elder of my church. We walk down a long gutter until we are underneath the bridge. Here, every night, many people will sleep. Tonight our group of about 90 will join them, leaving our comfortable beds and warm homes behind. Our group is made up of pastors, teachers, make-up artists, health professionals and many others.
We are not there long before we’re forced to move. A fight has broken out and a group of homeless people have started a fire and warned our group to stay away. It’s unsafe to stay.
We find our way to an old flour mill and set up our sleeping gear in the loading bay. It isn’t fully covered but it’s better than being in the open. The ground is neither welcoming nor comforting. All through the night I toss and turn as I feel the cold cement underneath me. As morning comes closer I feel the cold dew inside my sleeping bag. Every minute gets colder and colder. No protection from pests, strangers or the weather. By the time morning arrives I sure am glad to get up, pack up and leave that street and I hope to never end up there again.
I learned a few things through this small experience. I realised that my cynicism about life and what it throws at me is irrelevant as I sit in front of my computer, in the warmth of my house with my wife sleeping in our room and my fridge full of food. I had assurance of a home and comforts waiting for me. Many don’t.
I now realise that what I do have I will appreciate. When I forget this I will grab my bag and sleep out in the cold again.
I have also realised it’s easy to think that people need to just try harder or pick up their act. To empathise means to know what another person is going through because of a mutual experience you both have. I’ve never slept on a street before. I’ve never been forced from my bed because I’m encroaching on someone else’s territory. I’ve never wondered if my bed will be a safe place for the night. Many do have to think about these things every night.
Jesus was once told by a would-be disciple, “I’ll follow you wherever you go.” Jesus knows what this truly means. Preparing to go to Jerusalem, to a cross, He tells him, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head” (Luke 9:57,58). God is not disconnected and in His comfortable bed at home. He’s sitting with the broken, sleeping on the cold cement of this world. I know God cares because Jesus has experienced what it’s like to have nothing.
And then I realise that God doesn’t call me to be aloof and distant, but to empathise with the plight of the poor, the widow and the orphan. Devotion to uplifting the most vulnerable in society is considered a greater religious devotion than fasting (Isaiah 58:6-11). Why? Because in those moments we are in closest affinity with the God who is “A Father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Psalm 68:5).
Jacob Ugljesa is a follower of Jesus, lover of books and pastor serving in Toowoomba, Queensland.