John Henson, a Starlight volunteer since 2007, shares his reflections on his time with Starlight as he says goodbye to Boston.
John volunteering at 2010 Starlight Walkathon
How long have you volunteered with Starlight? What was your favorite outreach venue? I started volunteering in August 2007 on the Thursday night Harvard Square outreach team with Sara Mitchell. In the fall of 2009 we passed it off to Hope Fellowship Church and then started a Bible study at the Long Island Shelter in Boston Harbor. In late 2010, I went with Sara to start a Bible study at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. They’ve all been good outreaches to be a part of, different and good in their own ways. The relationships I formed in Harvard Square were the strongest, and I still keep up with some of the folks we met.
What drew you to serving with Starlight? Starlight is very relational and seeks to convey care for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of folks. I loved going to “church” on Thursday nights and being with folks who pray throughout the time.
What motivated you to spend your time serving people who are homeless? It’s pretty much because Jesus calls us to this work—plain and simple. It’s also incredibly good for my own soul, reminding me of my privilege, blind spots, preconceptions, and place in the world. As a researcher in grad school, I know there’s more to life than just work in the lab, so I am drawn to experiencing life with those in a different place than me.
Describe an experience through your volunteering with Starlight that you will take with you. It was helping to lead a Bible study at the Long Island Shelter right before Easter. It was a (not atypical) night where the conversation seemed to slip away from us leading, with heartfelt and authentic comments, though not on topic. We were studying John 13, when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, and how Jesus loved his disciples that night around the table. Towards the end of the study, when the conversation got back to the passage, we talked about how we can directly serve one another by practicing servant love. We surprised folks by doing our own “foot washing,” which actually was a “shoe tying” (foot washing might have been a stretch). After some initial protest, what commenced was quite a scene: untying and taking off our shoes, getting down on our knees and retying our neighbors’ shoes. By the end, I think the message was clearly conveyed and smirks of surprise were converted to smiles. Afterwards, we closed with communion, taking the bread and juice together. My understanding of “breaking bread” with my brothers and sisters was profoundly expanded that night.
Do you feel that you built relationships with people by volunteering with Starlight? Definitely! Though the homeless population is in flux and we’d always get a lot of new people on the outreaches, there were several folks we got to know just by showing up week after week. It takes time to learn people’s stories but over the weeks I felt like I got to learn a lot of the details of people’s stories. Since I currently live near Harvard Square, I still periodically check up on a few folks and get to share a meal or some prayer.
What is your approach to people who ask you for money on the streets? I don’t really have one—it’s situational. Some people do just want booz money and some people genuinely need food and help with expenses. I’ve been blessed with more than enough for my needs so it’s ok to give, though I’d prefer to give to reputable organizations. I try to engage people if I can (though I don’t always) and hear their story and recommend other services. There are a few folks I’ve gotten to know and will give to when I see them. At the end of the day, we’ll never for sure what people will do with the money but I’d rather err on the side of charity instead of cynicism.
Any other thoughts for people who want to get involved in homeless ministry, but feel scared or unprepared? Just go out as a learner, wanting to love people.
Where are you headed? My wife, Tina, and I are moving out to San Jose for a research job (I’m hopefully finishing my Ph.D. in a few weeks!).
We will miss you, John! You have been such a blessing to us at Starlight and we know God has used you in mighty ways—ways you aren’t even aware of—to bless the lives of your friends who are homeless. We pray peace and joy in your transition!