Give it a pass...

Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America - Mike Yankoski

I would probably never have read this book had not some very sweet and well-intentioned people given it to me. Reading it was an unpleasant experience. "Under the Overpass" somehow manages to be condescending, arrogant, misinformed, and hypocritical all at the same time. Here are just a few of the many problems I had with this book:

1. On page 114 he mentions walking with a friend past a church on a Friday evening. The church is closed, locked, chained, and padlocked. The two took offense to this and then went on to compare it to a convenience store which is open and selling cigarettes, beer, and porn. The unspoken conclusion is that the worldly convenience store is more welcoming than the spiritual church. Apparently they did not consider that:
   a. If a church is going to open its doors, someone needs to be there to help protect it from those who would do it harm?
   b. That in order to have someone in the church, someone needs to volunteer or be paid?
   c. The convenience store probably had a security system including cameras and an alarm, both of which would deter theft and vandalism. These systems cost money; money that not every church can afford.
I want to know if the churches they attend now leave their doors open 24/7 and allow any and all to come and do what they want, when they want?

2. On page 148 he mentions a church service he attended during which the pastor delivered a sermon on how women will be saved through childbearing. He then remarks on how it was Berkeley and 2003. What do the two have to do with each other? Is not all Scripture God-breathed and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and for training in righteousness? Why then should a pastor in Berkeley in 2003, let alone 2010, not teach on that passage?

3. In the "Cowbell Door Chime" section beginning on page 76, he tells the story of walking with his friend into a sandwich shop and beginning a friendly game of one-upping each other on how bad they smell. Five other people come in, notice them, and then sit far away. It turns out that they are Christians. It is obvious that they can smell the two as much as they smell each other and they wind up avoiding them. There is an implied criticism of them for doing so. Is this fair? I may see two ratty-looking, smelly young men with guitars in a sandwich shop, but my first thought is not necessarily going to be that they are homeless and in need of help.

4. On page 141, they are engaged in a conversation with George, the Christian-pizza-guy. During that conversation he states " But you know what? I've never once come down here and preached. At least not in the typical fashion - you know; with yelling and Bible thumping." I have been going to church since I was born, attending services in Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican/Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Nazarene, and even Roman Catholic services, depending on the circumstances in which I found myself. In over 40 years and dozens of churches I have, apparently, never seen one of George's "typical" sermons with "yelling and Bible thumping". Is his critique valid? If not, why does Mr. Yankoski give it his tacit support?

From the beginning there was something that bothered me about the entire project. Theirs was an intentional and almost belligerent homeless. They flaunt their willing homelessness in the face of the Church, asking the Christians they met for a handout, with no intention of giving up their homeless lifestyle, and then criticize them when they choose not to help them live the life they chose. They put them to the test, daring them to fail, castigating them for failing, but the test itself is unfair as the preconditions are disingenuous. Does a Christian have an obligation to aid and abet someone in their self-destruction? He, himself, gives the answer to that question in the book, and the answer is an unqualified no.

I say this having worked with the homeless through a good portion of my college career. I learned that there were different types of homeless people. Nearly all were on the streets due to a series of crushing circumstances that destroyed their livelihoods. Some were mentally ill and caught between a cycle of living on meds, losing their ability to buy their medication, thus losing touch with reality, and then losing their homes, only to regain them once they could obtain medication again through a charitable source. Some hated life on the streets and were working hard to get back into a productive life. Others were caught in the grip of terrible addictions and could not yet find the will to leave the streets. As another reviewer points out, Yankoski barely touches on these distinctions, preferring to gripe about how much he stank, or how uncomfortable he was.

All in all, "Under the Overpass" is a self-indulgent voyage of spiritual self-discovery. I gained almost nothing from it, and would not encourage anyone to read it. Your time would be much better spent reading Mother Teresa's "A Simple Path". She not only lived with the homeless, she spent her life caring for them, easing their pain, comforting them in the time of their death. That is a story worth reading.