Bench Bugs: Homeless in New York – Excerpt 6 – I must tell Jesus

Alan Emmins is the author of Bench Bugs: Portraits of Homeless New York

Follow the Homeless in New York Blog here.

Homeless in New YorkThere’s a steady flow of human traffic entering the Bowery Mission as Jerome and I arrive. Some head sternly to the front, others sit on packed benches at the back. Some wear headphones. Others fall asleep with the ease of snakes, coiled on the end of benches and resting their heads on the backrests. Somebody starts playing the piano. Under the hushed hymn of the homeless who turn up to sing, although not for their supper, the voice of the piano “is soft. It’s nearing 8am and the people here want breakfast.

Some people get up and leave.

More arrive.

And just when I start to feel as if I am in a bus station rather than a church, a man appears. He is in a suit – a clean suit. His clean face is trimmed and neat. He is sculpted, dust-free, buffed for the morning service, then wheeled out – though not in a chair.

Standing securely on his own, still youthful legs he says, ‘Good morning, everybody…’

It’s hard to say whether it is the word “good”, “morning” or “everybody” that carries the most weight, but two-thirds of the people sitting in the pews slouch further down.

The suit says, ‘Thank you, Lord, for the air in our lungs …’ A man in the third row starts a fit of coughing. It is not for comedy, and for this reason nobody laughs – except Jerome:

‘Tee hee hee.’

The suit says, ‘Thank you, Lord, for the little details in life… the little details that, more often than not, we take for granted…’

The noise from the headphones on the man sitting in front of Jerome gets louder.

The suit says, ‘I pray, Lord, that you will encourage them to listen up…”

And, ‘I pray, Lord, that you will show yourself …’

And, ‘I pray that you will prove yourself to each person who is here today, God…’

And, ‘Bring miracles, Father…’

Outside a large lorry can be heard speeding through the empty early-morning streets.

The suit says, ‘Amen!’

And now we are going to sing. But first the suit says, ‘Are you ready?’ He looks around at the many faces.

The suit sings, ‘I must tell Jesus …’ his voice rings around the chapel, loud, confident and alone.

He continues to sing, ‘…all of my trials, I cannot bear these burdens alone. In my distress he kindly will help me. He ever loves and cares for his own…’

One by one the homeless start to join in.

They sing:

I must tell Jeeesus! I must tell Jeeesus!
I cannot bear these burdens alone
I must tell Jeeesus! I must tell Jeeesus!
Jesus can help me, Jesus alone!

Then more people join in, infecting others, who follow them:

I must tell Jesus all of my troubles
He is a kind, compassionate friend
If I but ask him, he will deliver
Make of my troubles quickly an end!

As soon as they stop ‘telling Jesus’, they start being ‘lifted by love’.

They sing:

I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more
But the master of the sea, heard my despairing cry
From the waters lifted me, now safe am I
Love lifted me! Love lifted me!
When nothing else could help
Love lifted meeee!

The suit asks, ‘Any requests?’

‘Number 37!’ a deep baritone calls out.

‘37! At our church up in the Bronx, we sing a lot of current songs. You know, fast songs, with fast beats and all that stuff. This song, and I love this song… ’cause there’s something about these hymns, because they’re all written out of, out of turmoil, out of pride, out of circumstance, out of painful situations… and, you know, sometimes you need to just forget the rhythm and, you know, just read through these and you can discover how these words came out of broken people. People that were hurting or were weak or something… But what amazes me is how no matter what we go through, if we support our alliance to the Lord, God will give us a new song. Amen! God will give us a song that will identify him, that will glorify him and, er, encourage us and encourage one another. Amen! People ask why others come forth with songs, with hymns and spirits of songs and so forth, and why, and it’s because it comes out of hearts that are grateful and plentiful for what God has done for us in our lives. Amen! And then, I don’t know about you, but when I look around and I see things happening all I can say is, ‘Oh Lord, my God Almighty, I am at a loss of wonder to consider all the worlds that thy hands have made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder.’ And by the power of God the universe is explained.’

‘Powerful words, you know. You think about the power of the galaxy, the rotation of the earth, the moon and stars and the holy planets… they are precisely tuned to be one… whatever, or whatever scientific word. You might know someone who knows the word, but, you know, God who created heaven and earth has everything to just perfect timing… All the rotation and time and the seasons and he… All of it. All these things. And think how great God is, amen!’

Without much warning the preacher breaks into song 37:

Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works thy hand hath made,
I see the stars. I hear the mighty thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed;
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to thee,
How great thou art, how great thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to thee,
How great thou art, how great thou art!

He says, ‘Lord, in such a city, such a city with almost 10 million people, this city of people who are surrounded by each other day in and day out. Lord, sin unfortunately has disguised the beauty of your creation. But Lord, mankind, human beings or those that are in this chapel this morning are the top of your list, for each and every person that’s here is not here by accident or by mistake… please, God, open their hearts to the seed that you have for them today… With a double-edged sword, God, we could cut through our lives, through the sin and carnality and flesh.’

***

As always, these thoughts are my own and are by no means the rule. I would love to hear from people with experience around homelessness, especially about being homeless in New York. Please comment below and I will reply.

Homeless in New York

“Digging beneath the statistics and poverty, Emmins’ is a more than human portrait,” Dazed and Confused

“An absolutely fascinating book, a portrait of life on the streets of New York,” Robert Elms, the BBC

“A book that captured, without drama and urban myth, the reality of life on the streets,” Time Out

“Cutting edge reportage – Alan Emmins sees the world with such a fresh eye,” William Shaw

“Emmins’ portraits are tender and often shake his self-confidence to its core.” the Metro

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