I learned of Lazarus and knew that I wanted to hear more of their story and heart behind meeting the homeless community right where they are with humble hugs and hot chocolate. Ben and I met at Lazarus' annual Christmas Dinner below the skyline of the city to discuss the mission of Lazarus, his heart toward the homeless and how being open to conversations can create change in all of us.
Lazarus was founded in 2000. How long have you been a part of the project?
I volunteered with the first health day which was nine years ago. We do three big events every year, and I was a volunteer leader at those events. Starting in the winter of 2013, I came on staff. Allison McGill, who founded Lazarus, was moving to D.C. Leading up to that, she asked me and a number of other folks to consider taking over for her. I went through the hiring process, and now I'm here.
So Lazarus is your full-time job?
Yep. This is my full-time job.
What's the story behind the name, Lazarus?
Funny you should ask, I wanted to know the same thing when I first came on staff. Most people know the story of Lazarus who was raised from the dead, but our name is taken from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus that’s told in the Gospel of Luke. Essentially, in the parable, Lazarus is a man who is poor and is lying at the entrance to the rich man's home. He asks for help, and the rich man denies him. As the story goes on both men die. Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man finds himself in hell. The rich man then asks Abraham to send Lazarus to just dip the tip of his finger in water and to come and quench his thirst. He then asks that Lazarus go to his family and warn them. It’s a pretty intense story. One of the reasons we say “We are Lazarus" is not that we're saying that we aren't rich or affluent, but it's that we are willing to stand with the folks that are on the margins. We’ve heard the warning if you will. No matter where someone is, we are going to meet them where they are. (Luke 16:19-31)
Lazarus is built on the idea of kinship. What does that mean to you? And how do you show that to the men and women that you interact with?
These big events are great, and it's a fun way to invite people into what we're already doing. But really the heart of what we do is outreach. So we send teams to the area around the city jail and the Gateway Center, which is a program for folks who are experiencing homelessness downtown. We send folks there three days a week on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays with no agenda other than to get to know them, to befriend them and to hang out. When it's cold, we'll take hot chocolate. When it's warm, we'll take lemonade. That's literally just a way to start a conversation. This idea of kinship that comes into that is influenced by a Catholic Priest named Greg Boyle, who started an organization called Homeboy Industries. In his book, there's a whole chapter on the idea of kinship. That's where it influences us. The idea that we're going to locate ourselves with folks that are poor and recognize that we have a calling. Just as we have a responsibility to our own family, that we're saying we're all a part of a larger family and have a calling to be with each other. You can think of it in terms of friendship or companionship, but it's a step more than that. The word kinship implies a duty or responsibility to your fellow kin. That's why we use that word a lot.
What's one of the most impactful things that you've experienced since you've come on staff at Lazarus?
So many stories come to mind. In this type of work our first instinct is to justify ourselves and to point to success stories. To say, “We met this person in this location, and then because of us they ended up somewhere else." We have stories like that, but honestly what I love about Allison’s heart and what she established in Lazarus is that we don't necessarily chase the most likely to succeed. Let me be clear, outcomes are certainly important, but we are going to be friends with folks who are never going to set foot inside a shelter or enter a program. Or at the very least it's going to take a long time knowing them before they're going to want to do anything different. Of course the goal is to see people move and transition out of homelessness - to choose help, but we're going to befriend them regardless of where they're at. There are folks that we've known for a long time who still stay in the same parking lots that we met them in years and years ago. Of course we want them to choose help, to be healthy in order to make better choices long-term. But we're still going to befriend them, and they still understand that we love them regardless. There are folks here today, like Gino, who are that success story. We originally met Gino at our biggest event of the year, Health Day several years ago. He needed a pair of shoes for his huge feet and we were thankfully able to provide him with some. When we met him, he was just entering the program at the Gateway Center, we befriended him and were able to encourage him through many ups and downs. Not only during his time at the Gateway Center, but when he left Gateway he actually lived with one of our volunteers for a while. Since then, he has finished school, gotten a job, has his own place and now volunteers with us. He's here at the Christmas Dinner today to volunteer. It's certainly fun to point to folks that we've seen a dramatic change in, but we’re going to seek to love those that aren’t likely to change just as much.
What would you say breaks your heart about Atlanta?
For me what breaks my heart is other hearts that are broken. That's one of the things that I love about this organization is this relational aspect. We're going to be with folks that aren't having a good day, but we're also going to try and be their friend in the high times and the low times. Allison has this incredibly fun attitude and brings fun to everything she does. Like our Health Day for instance, we try and meet real needs with health screenings and providing different things. But we have a dunk tank, DJs, face painting and art and lots of things to actually have fun. When you ask what breaks my heart, it's brokenness in general. But what I love to see is the hope and happiness and joy that comes out of being with someone in their brokenness and being ok with that. To be real with them. If they want a change, and choose help, then we are able to bring in all the wonderful service providers we collaborate with – organizations like Atlanta Mission, City of Refuge, Gateway Center, and others.
What excites you most about the future of Atlanta and the role that Lazarus will play in that?
My hometown is Dahlonega, GA about an hour north of Atlanta, but I’ve lived in the city since the late 90s when I came to Georgia Tech. When I started school here, my classmates couldn't wait to leave when they graduated. I honestly feel like that has changed. I feel like this generation is embracing Atlanta in a new way. People are coming here. People are wanting to live in-town. That's exciting to see. On top of that, there are so many people that do want to get involved in their city and make it better. There are tons of groups doing really good stuff, and Atlanta is benefitting from that. It's been fun to see folks recognize what we're doing through Lazarus and want to be a part of it. And they get to know folks that they wouldn't have occasion to otherwise. To see kinship develop out of that is a huge win.
How does it make you feel to know that you're helping people in Atlanta one by one?
Humbled. Doing work like this has been on my heart for some time. But, I don’t really enjoy public speaking. I didn't think I'd be a pastor leading a church. I'm not a singer. So, to end up here leading this organization has just been an incredible, crazy journey. It's exciting. I feel a lot of fulfillment in it, and it's a joy to create environments for folks where they meet people that they wouldn't meet or otherwise get to know. Not only to see the folks that we serve get to benefit, but the volunteers have a mutual benefit too. They get to know one another and be exposed to each other's world. I love seeing kinship happen and being a part of change like that.
What would you say to someone who may be apprehensive or unsure of how to start a conversation with someone who is experiencing homelessness, because they've never been in that situation?
We are not all monolithic in our beliefs. We all have different stories and backgrounds, whether you’re a volunteer who’s going home to your own bed tonight, or a guest that’s going back to a shelter. Because of this, the first step is simply realizing we all have commonalities. Starting a conversation doesn’t require much. Just because the needs of a person who is homeless might seem to be more evident, we shouldn’t let that create a barrier to engaging them. But just like you would say hello to your neighbor, officemate or someone at school, I think it's the same thing. They’re needs may not be as obvious, but we are all in need. If you're willing to say hello to somebody and start a conversation, you may be surprised where it can go. There's no magic in it. There's no mystery. It's just being open to being open. There is a time and place for everything. It’s ok if you're busy. It's ok to not want to give someone money. That's the question we get asked the most - "Should I give the guy on the street money?" And I love the response that Allison gives to that question, "Well, do you know their name?" Because the idea is if you know their name, then you know their needs and know how to possibly help meet their needs. If you don't know their name, then get to know their name and get to know their needs. I think there's a lot of wisdom in that. If you don't know somebody at all, who's to say what they might or might not need? But if you are to take five minutes and ask them what's going on, you may find out that there's a need that you can meet or there's not. Either way, it's ok. We can't do everything for everybody, but we can be present.
If you could challenge Atlanta to step up and help their homeless neighbors in need, what would you say?
Respond to the call of kinship. I think it's easy to see a need and to see something that's broken and be so burdened that you don't even know where to begin, so you put it off. It's also easy to just pretend like it doesn't exist. So I think the challenge for all of us, myself included, is to be willing to see the burden and to see if there's something that you can do about it. We would love to have more volunteers, but there are plenty of groups all over town that are doing good things. It doesn't have to be, "I'm going to go save the world." It's being present to where you are and being aware of needs around you. Being willing to use what you have – your own interests, your own gifts, your own resources to do something about the brokenness you may see.
If you had to sum up your experience with Lazarus thus far in one word or phrase, what would it be?
As told to Kristen Green on December 6, 2015.
Kristen Green Consulting is the digital consultant for Atlanta creatives. Kristen helps cultivate ideas into a meaningful business through workshops, consulting and 1-on-1 coaching.