Matthew’s Gospel shares in Chapter 25 verse 36 (New International Version) “I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you visited Me.” The English Standard Version states “I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Depending on how the Greek is translated, Jesus tells us twice that he was “visited” both as a sick and as an incarcerated person.
What does it mean to visit? Bible translators tell us that it means “to look on in order to help or benefit” “to look out for” and “to relieve.” The word comes alive if you a spend any amount of time with Covenant Community Care’s Homeless Outreach Team. A visit even if for a moment is at the heart of what God is doing through this team.
On a trip out with the team this past fall, I observed and experienced the power of visiting. The Day started with a series of phone calls. Jeff’s phone never really stops ringing and this morning was no different. The team got word that a newer patient in very poor health was likely in the hospital for breathing issues, but the admission was finally confirmed by a call from the hospital. “You can always find them, then you can’t” Jeff explained to me as we discussed Thomas*. Thomas is in the early stages of heart failure and has severe COPD. The team first encountered him hobbling down the street gasping for air. Since that time they had been checking in on him regularly. The was the first time they just couldn’t find him.
Our brothers and sisters who live on the street often stick to the area they know; these specific intersections, environments, grassy urban patches are where they feel most comfortable. It is their home inasmuch as you can call it that. On our way to the hospital we stopped to visit several patients at St. Peter’s Episcopal on Michigan Avenue, right across the street from old Tiger Stadium. The church “provides free, hot meals five days a week to some 200 people who are not able to provide for themselves” through Manna Community Meals. As the program puts it, “Many of the guests are homeless and out of work…Many suffer from mental illness.”
Covenant’s homeless patients frequent the church, and this morning the team was looking for three men. They found one: Elijah*. Elijah served in the Vietnam and suffers from severe mental health issues. His speech is nearly unintelligible, but Jeff has gotten to know him well enough to translate. Because of his mental state he is often disheveled in appearance and lacks hygiene. Jeff’s visit today included clean socks and underwear for Elijah. Even though an overwhelming odor surrounds Elijah, Jeff in the very form of the incarnate God who became flesh for us, sat, prayed, and cared for him.
I had a sad revelation about Elijah and about people that day. Because of how his brain works, because of who is, because he lives in a world that doesn’t make sense, Elijah will probably die on the street. Even though he is a veteran and entitled to the benefits of military service, Elijah wants to be on the street. He chooses to live in a world that he understands even if no one else does. Our systems and metrics and scales for understanding success all point to “before and after” scenarios regarding the people who are served by the programs. “So and so used to live on the street, now they have a job and an apartment and they are six months sober.” This scenario and this conception of success runs contrary to what we know about Jesus and what is stated in Matthew 25:36. The visit in and of itself is the success metric. I was sick you visited me, I was in jail you visited. The text does not say you healed me or you freed me. It simply states you visited me.
The Team has success in very tangible and measurable ways, such as the number of people screened for medical or dental issues in a given week, and correspondingly the number of homeless patients who connect with a doctor or dentist in a Covenant clinic; however, the work is incredibly difficult and not conducive to easy forms of success. Many patients on the street have no other relational connections to people other than Jeff, Stanley, Mark, Angie, Sarah, and the team of volunteers who so freely and sacrificially offer their time. This is truly a program that shows and shares the love of God with those who need it most: the hopeless, downtrodden, cast-off, and broken-hearted. It is also a reminder that while we are still sinning and in sin, Jesus visits us.