Saturday, January 1, 2011

Book Review: Under the Overpass

So a few weeks ago, Kathryn and I signed up with Blogging for Books by Waterbrook Multnomah. Essentially, they send us free books so we can read and post reviews on them. My first book to review is Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski. (Check it out on Waterbrook's site here.)

The book tells the tale of a couple of guys on a journey that started with Mike, in a moment of conviction during a sermon where the pastor was urging believers to "be the Christian you say you are", asking himself this challenging question: "What if I stepped out of my comfortable life with nothing but God and put my faith to the test alongside of those who live with nothing every day?" The answer to that question led him and his traveling companion, Sam, to live life on the streets for five months, in six big U.S. cities - Denver, Washington D.C., Portland, San Francisco, Phoenix and San Diego.

But you can gather that much from the back cover. I'll get straight to what I think is the real beauty of this book. First, these guys demonstrate an admirable courage to dive right into the middle of a harsh reality that many of us probably avoid, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I know I at least have tended to stare straight ahead when I pull up to big city stoplights where a homeless person is asking for money. Mike offers very helpful, though surprising, advice for such situations.

He recommends that if you buy a homeless person food, or volunteer at a shelter, you should take the extra time to stay with them and have a conversation over the meal, or while they're waiting in line at the shelter. What's surprising about this, to me at least, is the reasoning behind it. Mike says that the most difficult thing about being on the streets isn't digging your food out of dumpsters, or sleeping under overpasses, or even enduring nights of stomach sickness where your makeshift bathroom is the bushes in a city park: instead, it's the loneliness. The dehumanizing and undignifying effects of homelessness took their toll, even despite having a traveling companion and knowledge that in five months, his difficult journey would end in a warm shower and clean bed.

Mike and Sam meet some inspiring people of faith in unlikely places and circumstances. My favorite was Rings, a Christian homeless man in San Diego. Not only had he gotten out of jail and beaten drug and alcohol addiction (how often do you think homeless alcoholics beat their alcoholism?), but he took it upon himself to spend his entire government checks buying food to feed the local homeless. When asked by Mike and Sam about more of his story, Rings replied, "It's been a crazy road, that's for sure, [but] come on - the road up ahead is always better than the road behind." As someone who has also struggled with addiction, those are words that can only be spoken through faith. Stuck in vicious cycles, it's the hardest thing in the world to imagine your life defined by something other than that struggle.

The book is a compelling read, though it starts out a bit slow. I found myself a bit confused at the beginning, and finding it hard to be drawn in to the story, though after a few chapters I found myself intrigued at what they would encounter in each new city.

The book's target audience seems to be perhaps a caricature of the suburban American Christian: someone fairly comfortable in coffee shops and sparkly church buildings, who doesn't use profanity or spend much time around those who do. I point that last bit out because the book has edited out all the profanity Mike and Sam were used to hearing as a normal part of their daily conversations. While I wouldn't necessarily say I'm sad to not read those words as part of the speech of the homeless people they encountered, I think it does make it a bit harder for them to communicate the grittiness one would expect from a life on the streets. At times they made this perfectly clear; at other times, I found myself thinking they didn't have it terribly difficult.

All in all, I recommend the book as helpful for bringing the world and plight of the homeless into perspective, and for offering insight into what the church can do to minister to the homeless in their communities. I especially recommend it if you've found ways to ignore the homeless people who ask you for money or position themselves in areas you walk or drive by. A fairly quick read, this book challenges all of us who follow Jesus to take seriously his words to clothe and feed the naked and hungry.

Official-esque FTC Disclaimer, like I mentioned above, but just so it's absolutely clear:
I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

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