3 Things I Learned From the Homeless

“Keep an eye out for watermelon boxes. They’re the thickest ones out there,” Fridge instructed as we headed for that night’s cardboard run.

It was only my second night sleeping on the streets, but I already knew exactly what Fridge—one of our guides for the weekend who has spent many years homeless—was talking about.

It was raining that late winter’s night in Melbourne, Australia and the temperature was expected to drop close to freezing. A thick piece of cardboard from a watermelon box would provide that extra few centimeters of distance from the cold, wet concrete sidewalk that I would try to sleep on as city trains, traffic, street lights, and noisy pedestrians did their best to keep me awake.


Waking up sore and tired, the way many rough sleepers have to do on a regular basis.


When I got the email a few weeks earlier inviting my wife and I to join a group becoming rough sleepers* for a weekend, I instantly felt nervous. I knew my wife would jump at the opportunity, since helping the disadvantaged and marginalized in society has a special place in her heart. But to be honest, I was a little scared.

We had both recently started leading a team from an organization called Many Rooms that provide meals and other services to the homeless and disadvantaged of Melbourne. Even though I was hesitant to give up the comforts of my home to sleep rough for two nights, I knew that the experience would give me a glimpse into what the homeless of my city and around the world face every day.

And so my wife and I joined a group of eight people associated with Many Rooms who would meet up with three men from Melbourne Rough Sleepers (MRS): Fridge, PJ, and John. These men have lived or still live as rough sleepers themselves, and they would act as our guides throughout the weekend.


Our first night rough sleeping. We would not get much sleep that cold, windy night.


Little did I know that the experience would be one that not only changed my perspective about the homeless community, but also made me realize things about myself that I had never known. Here are three lessons I learned that weekend:


1. Be Wary of Stereotypes

Whether consciously or subconsciously, we tend to generalize any group of society that we are not familiar with. When I started the weekend on the street, I realized that I had done the same with rough sleepers. The stereotype of those who are homeless being drunks, drug addicts, mentally ill, or just plain lazy, was not the reality of many that we met.

Instead, we heard stories of rough sleepers fleeing domestic violence, and learned that the best place for them to hide was sleeping on the street. Another common story was of middle-aged men caught up in messy divorces who would lose their houses and their savings on legal fees trying to get their kids back. One person we met had grown up in foster homes his entire childhood and ran away at 16 to literally join the circus. Eventually, he found his way to the street and has been a part of the community ever since. Another memorable person we talked to said he had “concrete in his blood” due to the decades living on the street. He shared about the anger and violence issues he has dealt with stemming from his childhood when he was sexually abused.

I learned that everyone has a unique story and is dealing with their own issues. It is so important that we do not let our pre-conceived notions about a group in society prevent us from seeing others as God sees them—as people created in His image and loved by Him. The experience also made me reflect on what other hidden or subconscious stereotypes I have and how that may be preventing me from serving and loving others in society as Jesus would want me to.

As I reflected on the weekend, I kept going back to Genesis 1:27—the assurance that God created all of us in His image. May we look at all of our fellow human beings in the same light, regardless of the stereotypes we may have.


2. The Gift of Time and Respect

One of the toughest moments of the weekend started with a challenge given by our guides: to ask people for a dollar coin or a cigarette. Two successes were required for you to “pass” the challenge.

Being asked for spare change from people on the street is not an uncommon experience for many who live in a city. But being on “the other side” was an eye-opening experience. I suddenly became aware of how I appeared (and probably how I smelled) after a couple days on the street. I would search the faces of pedestrians passing by, wondering who would be the kind soul that would say yes to a stranger asking for money.

As I did so, I realized it wasn’t the rejections to my pleas that hurt the most. It was the shake of a head without even a word to acknowledge my existence. It was the quickening of their steps to walk away from me after they had said no. It was the way they paid more attention to their phone than they did to me.

On the flip side, when people said yes, it wasn’t the coin or cigarette that meant the most. It was the acknowledgement of me as a person and the time they took to help out a fellow human being.

While talking with other rough sleepers and trying to discern how I could serve them better in my role with Many Rooms, the common theme that came up was their desire to be respected and treated as any other person.

When I asked what were some ways people could show respect for them, the answer was time. Time going out of your way to share a meal with them. Time acknowledging them as human beings who are in a tough spot right now. Time spent sitting down and chatting about stuff, even if it’s about your favorite sports teams or debating the relevance of Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars.

Time and respect. Just like we all want.

This practice can also be applied to other aspects of our lives. Taking the time to chat with that elderly person even though we’re in a rush. Taking the time to patiently counsel a friend in need, even though we’d rather be bundled up on the couch watching Netflix. Taking the time to really learn about the needs and concerns of family members so we can serve and help them in a way that points them to the light of Jesus inside of us.


3. The Power of Light Over Darkness

When searching for a place to sleep each night, there were a few criteria that we were looking out for. One of the key ones was whether the area was well lit. We learned that there was less chances of danger in the light. And because of that, you could sleep with a bit more ease in the light.

At one point during the weekend, PJ, one of our guides, shared with me his favorite verse: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

“I’ve been through a lot of low points in my life, a lot of dark times,” PJ shared. “This verse helped me a lot during those times. To head towards the light even in the darkness.”

During that weekend, I heard many stories of those who have lived through dark times. And just like every human on earth, there is a light that we are searching for, that we all need. My prayer is that just as we strive to fill the physical and practical needs of the homeless in our cities, that they would also come to know the light that shines in the darkness. And that no matter how dark their pasts have been or how low they feel right now, the darkness will not overcome the light we find in Jesus. Because even in the darkest of times when there seems to be no way out, Jesus has promised us that He will be there, that He came to “seek and to save the lost.”


*A more friendly term for those who are homeless and sleeping on the street.


The last day of our weekend experience. Despite being tired, dirty and cold, we grew close as a team with our shared experiences.


Stewardship Is Not Just About Money

My daughter will turn two this summer, and she has a new favorite word. “Mine!” seems to work its way into her limited vocabulary at a pretty regular rate.

I find myself wondering where she picked up this need to stake her claim on her toys and possessions. And then I realized that I have the tendency to do the same, and that perhaps this desire to cling to and hold on to what we have, is innate in all of us.

What does Scripture have to say about this? Prevalent as a theme in Scripture, stewardship seems to be the resounding answer to that topic.

Stewardship means to take care of something. The Bible tells us that this first involves a mindset—an understanding that everything we have has been given to us. The psalmist reminds us: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). All my “possessions” aren’t really mine to begin with—they are on loan to me from a gracious God who gives us more than we could ever deserve.

A second thing stewardship involves is action. Knowing that all I have is a gift, I need to ask myself what I’m going to do with it. Remember the parable of the bags of gold? Jesus tells his disciples a story in Matthew 25: Before a man goes away on a journey, he gives one servant five bags of gold, another two bags, and yet another servant just one bag. The first two men use what was given to them to make something more, while the third servant hides away his one bag of gold.

When the master returns, the first two show the master all that they earned during his absence. They’d used their time and resources well; they had been good stewards of the gold given them. But the third servant has only the original bag of gold to offer back. He had been stingy and ungenerous; he’d protected his resources instead of using them.

Let me be clear. God’s pleasure is not based on how much we can produce or earn. We all know that no amount of good works can earn God’s approval (Ephesians 2:8-9). But this parable leads us to ask an important question: if everything we have is a gift, how can we use what we’ve been given to further the announcement of God’s kingdom? How can we value all He’s given us by making much of Him?

When we hear of stewardship these days, it is usually connected to the idea of money. But I have learned that stewardship is about much more than our finances—but every aspect of our lives. Here are some personal ways that God has taught me more about what it means to be a steward.


Stewarding My Resources

Growing up, our neighbor Lee had a pick-up truck. Lee would offer this truck to our family anytime someone was moving. There were four kids in my family, and come college-time, it felt like someone was always moving in or out of a dorm. So we borrowed this truck from Lee a lot over the years. I remember that he wasn’t stingy or overprotective of his car, or even annoyed with the time it took to help us. Once when I thanked him for letting us borrow his truck, he said, “Oh, it’s not my truck. This is the Lord’s pick-up truck, and it is for His people whenever they may need it.”

This happened years ago, and I still think about his kindness. How easy it is for us to hoard our possessions in the name of “taking care of them.” How ungenerous I have been with things like my car, home, or my computer.

After that conversation with Lee, I began reframing my thinking and asking myself how I could use what I have to bless God’s people, and thus bless Him. I remember when my husband and I bought our first car. He had heard Lee’s story before, and so we had the same mindset that day.

We sat in that car and thanked God for entrusting it to us, all the while recognizing that it wasn’t really ours at all. We prayed that we would be faithful in our stewardship of that vehicle, that it would be used, whenever and however, to love and serve the people around us.

That car was borrowed here and there while we had it, but after a few years of driving it, we lost it in a terrible accident. This is definitely not what we had hoped for this car—we wanted it to be a car that we could continue to steward for a long time. But even so, buying that car and praying that prayer was a sincere and humbling experience. It was not our own; it was the Lord’s car. And then, when we lost it, we were reminded again just how temporary all our possessions really are.


Stewarding My Health

The last few years, I have become more and more convicted that we need to be good stewards in taking care of our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:20). And I’ve worked hard toward a healthy weight by exercising consistently, eating right, and drinking enough water every day. Only when I am healthy can I pick up my ever-growing kid, work the ground in my yard, or carry wooden pallets to the dumpster at a volunteer project.

Learning to take care of my body has not been easy—it has been a long journey and a lot of hard work, and maintaining it sometimes feels like the hardest part. But it is worth it, because the body that God has given me is a gift, and I believe He has work for me to do with it.


Stewarding My Life

In Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus talks about being salt and light in the world. Eugene Peterson paraphrases verse 16 this way in The Message translation, “Keep open house; be generous with your lives.” I love this.

I am a teacher, and sometimes I get a class that I find difficult to connect with. A few years ago, I took on a class like this, which was probably the most difficult of my teaching career. The students and I simply couldn’t get along, and as a result, I was very closed off with them. But when I read Peterson’s paraphrase about “being generous with my life,” I was immediately convicted—I was not being generous with these students. I was holding them at arm’s length. I was not letting them in.

I don’t even really remember what I said that next day in class, but I made an effort to tell them an anecdote and connect with the students on a personal level. I’ll never forget a student saying, “What’s going on with you? You’re so much happier today!”

I am embarrassed to even write that, and my heart still breaks a little when I think about it. I was not keeping open house with my students, and they could tell. I regret that I was not generous in the way that mattered most—with my very life. How was I to mirror a gift-giving God to my students if I myself was not being generous? When we live out His generosity, we bear His image and allow others to see Him more clearly.


Stewarding My Time

I was recently at the funeral of my cousin’s husband. He was just a few years older than us, with two young children. It was sobering to realize how quickly this temporary life can come to an end. People often say “time is precious” and “time is money.” Time is viewed as a commodity, and we are cautioned to guard it closely. So, if time is so special, we need to start moving, friends. We need to realize that each day we’ve been given is a gift.

Even as I write this, I recognize that time is probably one of my weakest areas as a steward. At the end of my life, will my time have simply passed, or will I have used the time to make much of God and love His people? How are we using those hours in which God has kept us alive? I encourage you, friend, if God has sparked an idea in you, make it happen. Don’t let another month or year go by without acting on what He’s ignited in you.

On my birthday this year, I went to lunch by myself and mapped out the year ahead and some of the dreams and ideas God has given me. I set a specific plan for prioritizing what He has kindled in me, to be proactive in obeying His calling in my life. I’m doing my best (and asking for His help all along the way) to make good use of the time He’s given me.


Friends, I hope and pray that we will continue to recognize God as the Gift-Giver, and that we would endeavor, with great anticipation and pleasure, to make much of Him by employing the many resources He’s granted us.

Having Unproductive Weekends? You’re Not Alone

If you glanced at my list of intended accomplishments for this weekend, you might think that I’m superwoman. According to my checklist, I am a Social Queen who balances fitness goals, academics, and extracurricular hobbies like a champ.

In reality, I often groggily tumble into the weekend with an ambitious list of things to check off, but am quickly distracted by more primal demands: food, shower, sleep. So, Friday night vanishes, but hark!—Saturday is here, promising to be the productive day I’ve been waiting for!

Amid a coffee-filled morning and near starts to tackling “the checklist,” something unforeseen occurs. Maybe the dishwasher makes a growling noise, or maybe my car won’t start. Saturday is then absorbed in crisis control and, before I know it, Sunday evening arrives. Yikes—time to start another week?

Does this sound at all familiar? Weekends, as well as life itself, seem to pass by at an alarming pace—sometimes made worse by sudden crises that drop in uninvited.

Perhaps it’s against this backdrop that Proverbs 19:21 states that, “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” It’s comforting to be reminded that the apparent twists and turns in my life do not thwart the intentions of the Master Planner.


The Twist in My Life

Long story short, I was involved in a horrific car accident five years ago, which crushed whatever long-anticipated, nearly accomplished goals I had at my fingertips, including expecting to earn the clinical credentials I had been working toward for the past six years, completing my first intense, obstacles race I had trained for, and accepting a role as deacon in my church.

Instead, the remaining years in my 20’s were a blur. Time slipped past as I focused on regaining basic abilities, like walking and trying to remember people’s names.

In the first year of my recovery, I felt like my years on earth were being unfairly taken from me. But then, a friend told me that that he believed the accident allowed me to touch more lives than I probably could have otherwise, and the truth of his words really impacted me. If God was willing to work through the most unlikely of circumstances and make use of my “changed plans”, then it’d be an honor to let Him do so. True enough, I have been given opportunities to share my observations as a brain-injury survivor, for example, in several prestigious locations, like the National Institutes of Health. I have also been able to include in my presentations how my belief in God has given me security, regardless of the circumstances.


Tips for a Meaningful Weekend

When things go differently than planned, we are given a chance to appreciate the bigger picture. Cancelled plans over a weekend, for instance, provide the gifts of much-needed respite and re-prioritizing. I’m still keen on productivity, but the last five years have shaped my idea of how to best pursue it.

So from my recent experiences, I have some pointers for any fellow checklist-followers out there:

  • Be realistic. If you’re like me and you find satisfaction from crossing something off a list, make the goals challenging while still attainable. Take into account other commitments that will impact your availability, so that the list is achievable, not just idealistic.
  • Think ahead. Starting with the end goal, work backwards, creating a list of sub-tasks that you can accomplish in a hierarchical order. I have found that working backwards to form tasks helps me achieve goals in the most practical and time-effective manner.
  • Don’t dismiss the mundane. If things aren’t going as expected, don’t write-off the potential worth of the circumstance. Seemingly “boring” seasons, for instance, may provide you with the vital growth and restoration you will rely upon in upcoming occasions.
  • Demonstrate gratitude. Even during a busy day, reserve intermittent moments to appreciate your journey. Don’t allow your tasks to distract you from acknowledging and celebrating the joys currently in front of you.
  • Trust in God. “We know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). Even when something doesn’t go according to plan, we can take comfort that God has a purpose, and He knows what He’s doing.

A challenging season is much easier to accept when I recognize that it may be used by God to have an eternity-altering effect on another soul. You may not get to see the impact you have on this side of heaven, however, so don’t let disappointment slow you down (1 Corinthians 3:6). This means that when your car breaks down or you have what feels to be an unproductive weekend, don’t give much weight to any discouraged feelings.  Every day is a gift, possessing great potential, regardless of the thoughts or feelings it brings about.

James 4:13-15 makes the humbling but accurate comparison of our earthly journey to that of a mist, which is here today, gone tomorrow. All we can do is try to be faithful in whatever circumstances come our way, then leave the intended productivity and end results up to God. That’s His job.

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15).

Life is like a Jenga Set

Written By Chia Poh Fang

Life is like a Jenga set.
There is a fixed number of time blocks to each day.
24 hours to be exact, 1440 minutes in detail.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
It is a fixed asset that we have to juggle daily.
We all play the game. Every hour. Every day.

We divide our day into fixed time blocks.
30 seconds for us to cross the roads.
5 minutes for the train to arrive.
1 hour to grab a quick bite, and chitchat with colleagues.
9 hours of work, 7 hours of sleep.

We move time blocks around and put them in new places.
But once a time block is shifted, another part of our life is affected.
This adds pressure on some time blocks, but loosens up others.
No time block stands solitary on its own; each will inevitably affect the others.

There’s an inherent problem in managing time like a Jenga game.
The game deludes us into thinking that we are building,
When it is actually about destroying.
It is a game that undermines the foundation,
And as the game proceeds, time becomes a tougher balancing act to keep.

Let’s change the rules of the game.
Instead of taking out time blocks and stacking them back on the top,
We should take them out to build a new set.
In this way, the game will continue and not end.
So for each time block that I take out, I can ask myself:
Is it for constructive purposes or is it destructive in nature?
Am I using time wisely or am I wasting time?



“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise,
making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”
—Ephesians 5:15-16

Photo credit: Claus Rebler / Foter / CC BY-SA