I started working with the homeless in Cardiff city centre in August 2021. I had returned home from Brazil, where I had been working with street children and teens in prison for ten years. Whilst home on furlough in 2018, my pastor had told me that he and another guy from my church had started going out once a week in the evenings to talk to those sleeping on the streets of Cardiff and, knowing that my next term in Brazil would be my last, I knew that this was one of the things I wanted to do when I returned back home for good.
Expectations versus reality
Six months on, how has it been? Well it hasn’t been what I expected in many ways. I had visions of being out in the evening with a group from my church, chatting over a coffee or hot soup to those sleeping rough and at some point holding a short Bible study on the street for those who were interested. The reality is that myself and Jemma, a young woman from church who is so excited by the ministry, go out once a week during the day and talk to anyone we come across; mostly those who are homeless but sometimes others as well. From time to time, others from our church have joined us including one mother and her two children who made Christmas parcels and biscuits for us to give out and a young man waiting for his university semester to start.
I expected there to be a real hostility and hardness in those we talk to. Where I lived and served in the north of Brazil, talking about God and ‘churchy’ things is very common. Just about everyone believes in God, many of the youngsters I worked with had some past connection with church and even knew hymns and parts of the Bible. One teenage girl told me she was never taught about evolution, and most Brazilians believe the Genesis creation account. Even in the prisons there was a respect for missionaries and for the Word of God, so much so that the group in one cell listening to our message would tell others in the surrounding cells to be quiet if they were making noise.
In Brazil, the difficulty with evangelism is that many think they are okay with God, but in the United Kingdom, I was anticipating evangelism to be difficult as there are almost as many beliefs as there are individuals. Of course, we have spoken to a number who don’t believe in God or who aren’t sure. There are all sorts of strange beliefs and some who have no interest in talking to us and even get angry, but most who don’t want to listen or don’t believe have been polite about it. It’s been a pleasant surprise to see how many actually do listen, thank us and tell us that they recognise we are different.
Stories from the streets
We have got to know a number of ‘regulars’ whom we go and look for as they are usually sat in the same places. Kyle* sits at the side of a church right in the centre, is always happy to see us, and tells us he loves us. Joanna told us right from the word go that she hated Christians and later on complained to someone that all we talk about is ‘Jesus this and Jesus that’. Rachel is always laughing and likes to see us as long as we don’t stop her begging. She tells us from time to time of the conversations she’s had with Hitler. Daniel is an intelligent man who has written books and believes some strange things but is willing to chat to us if we see him. These are just some of the people we know.
Reactions to us differ, but we try to show love and kindness even when it’s not easy. One lady had been hostile towards us and it was clear she didn’t want to hear about Jesus and it wasn’t easy to keep visiting her. My human reaction was to seek those who were interested. Yet, how wonderful it was when, just before Christmas, I found her and she told me to sit on her blanket, telling me she had recently let someone pray with her. I then spent about half an hour with her, gave her a gift bag and we had a talk about God of sorts with her actually listening and then letting me pray for her baby son. How amazing! I really enjoyed being with her.
The Lord has reminded us and taught us practically to ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?’ (Matt. 5:44, 46). Many have mental health issues and clearly need care and compassion, not mockery or condemnation for their strange ideas. We demonstrate his love and leave the results to him.
What we do
Before going out Jemma and I pray in the car and seek the Lord’s guidance for that day. Each day differs and we are constantly evaluating what we are doing. We started the work by giving out gift cards to one of the café’s so they could buy food and coffee. Many are hungry, some haven’t eaten properly for days and we want to show the compassion of Christ by meeting their physical needs too. However, certain people saw us as an easy target, asking straight away for a gift card. The homeless know each other and what is going on, and they often talk to us about who not to trust and what dangers to be aware of. We were told that some were selling the cards to buy drugs. We now buy a snack there and then for the individual or group.
At times we avoid approaching groups and do not go to those who are clearly very drunk or high on drugs. Spice is very common at the moment, but other drugs are rife and we have even been given an emergency kit by a group working against overdoses so that we are equipped to administer help if needed. We have met a large number who prefer to sleep on the street, keeping themselves to themselves as many of the hostels allow drugs and are too dangerous.
We don’t have a set approach apart from smiling, introducing ourselves and asking if we can talk to them. Sometimes we’ll offer to buy a coffee first, other times we’ll sit with them and listen to them telling their stories. We often tell them that Jesus has changed our lives and ask if we can tell them about him as he can change their lives too. We respect their wishes if they don’t want to talk but try to leave some sort of literature and offer to pray with them. Many are happy to talk and will let us pray with them. Sometimes we explain a gospel verse written on a piece of paper so they can keep it. At times, we have taught gospel parables using images on my phone and also the EvangeCube, a brilliant tactile tool which starts with man’s separation from God and ends with the convert’s responsibility to share the gospel.
What’s it like working with the homeless? There are challenges; we never know what we will encounter; we need to be adaptable and thick skinned at times; but I have to say, more often than not, we come away after a few hours feeling very encouraged and thanking and praising God for what he has done.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those referred to.