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Homeless central to seminarian’s Christmas (and year-round) ministry

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–As department stores beckon shoppers to come see their “merry side,” don’t expect John Matala to celebrate this Christmas basking in the light of the local mall’s electronic reindeer display.
Instead, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary student will probably be found somewhere on the streets of Louisville, Ky., with the abused, the homeless and the desperately lonely.
“I expect to be out on the streets for the rest of my life,” he says.
A successful Chicago-area advertising and communications executive, Matala grappled with the claims of the gospel and came to faith in Christ at the age of 30. Three and a half years ago, after struggling for 15 years with a deepening call to pastoral ministry, Matala arrived at Southern’s Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth.
After sending out 50 resumes to local churches, Matala found only one response: Louisville’s Wayside Christian Mission, an evangelical interdenominational rescue center for the city’s urban homeless, addicted and poverty-stricken populations.
“So believing in the providence of God, that’s where I went and that’s where I am,” he recalls.
Matala serves as volunteer coordinator for Wayside, Louisville’s oldest rescue mission. Founded in 1957 by Presbyterian minister Dick Anderson with 12 beds, the mission now provides emergency shelters, crisis child care, job training, counseling, chapel services, a thrift store and a feeding center which serves up to 1,000 meals per day. The mission ministers to an average of 300 hundred people on any given night.
Matala winces when fellow seminarians refer to his work as “social ministry.”
“I see my ministry as a pastoral ministry. I see it as Jesus-centered ministry,” he counters.
With an overarching priority on evangelism, last year the mission chapel baptized 59 converts. “That is better than 65 percent of the Southern Baptist churches in Kentucky,” Matala says. “And we’re not a church. We’re a chapel.”
Homeless converts are referred to local evangelical churches who often learn that a new believer still living on the streets faces a unique hurdle of challenges in his or her sanctification as a Christian. “Sometimes their mouth is not going to be what we want to hear,” Matala explains. “That’s where the teaching and the discipleship and the grace needs to come in from God’s people.”
Matala was convicted by the need for evangelical witness to the poor after hearing an acquaintance’s off-hand comment — “Well, after all, Jesus said the poor will be with you always.” Sparking interest in why Jesus would make such a seemingly callous statement, Matala searched the Scriptures and found the source of Jesus’ quote in Deuteronomy 15:11: “For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor and to the needy in thy land.” He began to find similar commands of responsibility to the poor throughout the Bible.
“Professors tell you here in seminary, if you see something once (in Scripture), it’s critical. If you see it two or three times it is extremely critical that God wants you to understand,” he says. “So it clicked in my mind, if he talks about this over 200 times, it must be on his heart. If it is on his heart, it has to be on my heart.”
At Christmas, believers should be particularly sensitive to their responsibility to the poor around them, Matala reminds.
“The incarnation was the most expensive gift ever given,” he asserts. “God didn’t have to send his Son. He chose to give out of his own love. We must give, not just to give, but to give with the right motivation.” That motivation Matala identifies as a life of sacrifice with a continual focus away from self.
The third-year master of divinity student is mobilizing for the holiday season, which he says can be an emotional and spiritual minefield for the dwellers of the streets. “This time of year people who are not with family really struggle mentally,” Matala notes. “They may have had to leave an abusive relationship or a family where they have so many holiday memories and suddenly that’s all ripped away. They may spend the entire holiday season reflecting back and wondering, ‘What went wrong? What’s wrong with me?'”
The seasonal marketplace frenzy of idealized advertisements also pounces upon the already anxious plight of the urban poor, Matala says. “The ads are all full of happy people busy spending money,” he sighs. “When you have nothing but $280 worth of food stamps, you just know that’s not going to happen.”
Matala has observed the sting of heartbreak in children who hear classmates excitedly chattering about the extravagant wonderland which awaits them Christmas morning. “They know it’s not going to happen for them,” he says.
The chilling air also calls Wayside to action on behalf of the homeless. Matala has seen the mission bulging with those seeking to escape the potentially fatal winter temperatures of the streets. At times, men and women sleep sitting up in chairs in overflow rooms, prohibited by fire code regulations from allowing individuals to lie down.
When confronted with the seeming hopelessness of the urban wanderer convulsing under the tyranny of alcoholism, drug addiction or other moral minefields of the urban poor, Matala seeks answers in biblical counseling.
“I prefer to work through the Scriptures specifically and purposefully because that’s what has changed my life,” he says.
“I’m convinced that the Scriptures are the only way to go in counseling” such situations, he continues. The mission offers both traditional therapeutic alcoholism counseling as well as “Alcoholics for Christ,” an explicitly evangelical, Scripture-based program. “We have had 20 conversions in that program, none in the other,” he says.
“Until the heart is changed, converted by the message of the gospel of the love of God, that individual is going to continue in different paths of trying to seek fulfillment.”
Matala finds widespread ignorance among the middle- class American population regarding the precarious nature of their own prosperity.
“Most people are two paychecks away from being as homeless as these people are,” he states. “Over 10 percent of the people in homeless shelters have four-year degrees.” The problems he combats on the streets of Louisville, he says, stem from the sinfulness of the human heart. “We tend to focus on it there,” he asserts. “We don’t realize the same things that happen to the people in the shelter happen on Wall Street or in corporate America. They just make more money.”
Coming to faith in Christ at the age of 30 has assisted Matala in relating to the homeless with whom he ministers. “The average age of people in the shelters runs from age 38 to 45,” he explains. “Coming to faith at a later age has meant that it’s something very fresh to me, not something I’ve just grown accustomed to.”
Although interdenominational and open to all groups, Wayside Mission is careful to maintain evangelical doctrinal parameters. “A Mormon group can come down there and serve a meal,” he elaborates. “They will not teach Sunday school or chapel or any of our Bible studies.” On Christmas day, for instance, a local Jewish congregation usually assists in serving food in the shelter.
Matala’s work is not a seasonal guilt-induced preoccupation. Following his expected graduation in December 1998, Matala sees his calling as “working with the down-and- outers for the rest of my ministry.”
In fact, if one is looking to a seminary degree as a “meal ticket” to a prosperous, comfortable ministry, Matala doesn’t mince words with his recommendation: “Go into the business world. If that’s what you’re looking for, you can do it in business and you’re not going to hurt as many people. You bring that into the church and you bring a mind- set that doesn’t lend itself to the servant mind-set of Christ.”

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  • Russell D. Moore