Reflections from a Homeless Man’s Funeral

Dr. Randy White

This week I officiated a funeral for a homeless man. It was a sociologists dream. Every “misfit” you could imagine was in the small crowd. Several of the men I had met previously just because I’m the pastor of the church on the “main drag,” so I was somewhat familiar with a few of them. Others I had never seen.

It was a very “free flowing” service, to say the least. Since homeless people like to talk, and since I didn’t know the man, I let people share (dangerous in most circumstances, but since nobody but the homeless was present, I thought, “what is there to lose!”)

What I found is that the men who spoke were actually quite well-spoken. The men who spoke had a strong stage presence, a booming voice, and were very confident in what they said. They didn’t really care whether they were politically correct, they just said what was on their mind. And, while there were a few things said that I would have preferred just stayed on their mind rather than on their tongue, they were, for the most part, reasoned and encouraging in their words.

Without an exception, every man who spoke thanked me for opening the church and allowing them to have a service to honor their friend. One man said, speaking of me, “I’ve learned in the past few days that this man isn’t a preacher…he’s a human.”

I had planned to go through the 23rd Psalm as an encouraging message, but instead, at the last minute, gave my “Genesis to Jesus” talk and told of the struggles of mankind living under sin from Adam, and the promise of a Redeemer. You would have thought I was in an African American church with all the “Amen’s,” hand-raising, “Oh yea’s” and such during the message. At one point (and pardon the strong language), one of the men stood up at his seat, mid-sermon, and said, “Pastor, you’re doing a hell of a job on this sermon!” —responded by a room full of hearty amens.

After the service, we gave the small crowd some cake and iced tea, and they were grateful, happy, and then went on their way.

All-in-all, it was just another reminder that, while some people are harder to deal with than others and harder to understand, and seem to have made a bunch of bad decisions, they are still people, and often people who love their friends and love the Lord (albeit with some theology that needs much refining). There are probably fewer atheists in the homeless crowd than among the rich, white intellectuals.

How do you minister to the homeless? I don’t really know. We have a few that come to our church pretty regularly. First, they came because we had coffee, now they come back because I preach the Word. I never offer money (and they never ask). I don’t go out of my way to help them with their financial needs. About the most I ever do is take the few dollars they might put in the Wednesday night supper basket and hand it back to them. But, I do try to treat them just like the next guy, and they appreciate that. I have found that a good number of them are incredibly intelligent and well-read. Almost all of them are “philosophers.”

I’m not any great example of dealing with the homeless problem. I don’t give money to those begging on the streets. I haven’t opened a ministry to the homeless. I don’t even know how to address the problem. All I do is treat them with respect, and I think that is really all they want.

I recorded the song that one of the men played on the piano during the service (scroll down for the recording). He’s amazingly skilled on the piano. He is one of the homeless men. He stops by every now and then for our Wednesday supper, and a few times he will come to Sunday School. He had no idea what to play for a funeral, so he chose Beethoven’s Funeral march – a bit somber, but very well done. (Sorry the video isn’t better…I didn’t have a great angle where I was sitting).

After Alex played, I led the small congregation in Amazing GraceAs I was announcing that we would sing, one of the participants said, “Can we make a circle?” Soon all of us gathered in a circle, joined hands, and sang–

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!

That saved a wretch, like me.

I once was lost, but now am found!

Was blind, but now can see.

And I was, once again, reminded of grace.