Reflections From the Street

by Lori Arnold — 20 December 2021

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Pastor Ruben Durant was handing out turkey dinner invitations in a homeless encampment under a railroad underpass when he came face to face with his past. It was pre-COVID and the evangelistic leader was enjoying community outreach.

Pastor Ruben and family"This guy popped up," Pastor Ruben said.

Although familiar, Robbie's face bore evidence of a life held captive by addiction. Decades had lapsed since they lived across the street from each other and shared high school exploits. While the pair lost contact over the years, word of Robbie's troubles reached Pastor Ruben, who had no indication his former classmate had been living on the streets.

"I felt bad, you know," Pastor Ruben said of the chance encounter. "I felt sorry, but I was able to witness to him and pray for him."

Seeing Robbie may have been a window into his past, but it was also an uncomfortable mirror into his own soul.

"I used to be on drugs myself," he said. "I was never homeless but I was a drug addict for a number of years. So I know that feeling. I know that bondage."

The memory of his former bondage propelled Ruben, assistant pastor at New Harvest Church, a congregation of about 800 in Norwalk, California, to reach out to those living in the streets.

There are many people to reach.

A farming community in its early years, Norwalk, about 17 miles southeast of Los Angeles, has evolved into a family suburb where the median age is 30. It is dissected by four major freeways and has two commuter rail systems. The suburb is racially diverse, with nearly 63 percent of its residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino. About 12 percent of its 100,000 residents live at or below the poverty line.

"I've always been an evangelist, doing street evangelism," Pastor Ruben said. "I've been doing it for quite a while and that's always been my heartbeat — for street outreach."

The ministry leader likes to employ drama, music, prayer walks and other creative approaches to draw attention to the gospel message. After meeting Tom Norris, co-team director for Cru® Inner City, Pastor Ruben was able to add another tool to his street-side arsenal.

Through his partnership with Norris and Cru, Pastor Ruben was provided with Homeless Care Kits to incorporate into his outreaches. Each Care Kit is packed with a blanket, warm gloves, a scarf, socks, toothbrush, soap and spiritual materials.

"When I got those Care Kits it inspired me to continue to do these homeless outreaches," he said.

Pastor Ruben and his New Harvest team were in the process of handing out flyers announcing a community holiday meal and Homeless Care Kit distribution when he found himself in an impromptu reunion with Robbie.

During their conversation Pastor Ruben invited Robbie to the upcoming gathering.

"He says, 'Give me some flyers and I'm gonna start letting other people know about it.' So he did."

Filling More Than Stomachs

A week later, about 30 members of Ruben's team showed up with home-cooked food, including turkeys. They also brought music, tables, canopies and chairs. About two dozen street residents showed up, including Robbie.

Bringing the tables and chairs was part of the pastor's desire to create worth among society's most isolated and neglected while building community — a once-routine practice temporarily considered taboo in the midst of a pandemic.

"During the process, we were able to just eat with them and also to just take time to witness and pray," he said.

In addition to the food and Care Kits, the guests were gifted with Bibles and snack bags.

"There were some other people that came to the church, gave their lives to the Lord," Pastor Ruben said. "But I haven't seen them again."

Among those he hasn't seen again is Robbie.

“You’re letting them know they are not forgotten and to always remember that. Just to be like Jesus with skin on.” As many as 100 people have given their life to the Lord through the Homeless Care Kit distributions over the past three or four years and several have visited New Harvest Church, although their presence ebbs and flows with the rhythm of the street.

"Talking to the people, and hearing their stories, it just stirred up more compassion," he said.

"I think just being out there and caring for them they sense that love and respect. I think it really makes a great impact because I'm sure they get looked down (upon) a lot — and rejected."

Seeking Robbie

Whenever Pastor Ruben is working in the area, he continues to look out for Robbie, who disappeared as quickly as he appeared. In the meantime, he prays for his friend's salvation.

"You're letting them know they are not forgotten and to always remember that," the pastor said. "Just to be like Jesus with skin on and let them know that God hasn't forgotten about you. That motivates me."

When not distributing Homeless Care Kits, Pastor Ruben and his team do ongoing outreaches, bringing sandwiches and pizza into riverbed encampments, about 15 minutes from the church.

"You know, God doesn't change his love for people. God has the people and the resources to make a difference — if we're able to network and step out of our comfort zone."

He admits it's difficult to get volunteers from the church since many are fearful of the sometimes-erratic behavior resulting from mental illness or addiction.

"It is a physically dirty job but I think if people would come out and see the results and pray for people I think it'll urge them and stir their hearts to do more," Pastor Ruben said.


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Lori ArnoldLori Arnold serves as senior writer for Cru's inner-city ministry.

 

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