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The Other America:  Life on the Streets
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Mike Yankoski
Under the Overpass:  A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America (Sisters, Oregon:  Multnomah Publishers, 2005.  224p.)

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This was a fascinating book, by two guys who hit the streets to experience the life of the homeless.  They went to five American cities and lived on the streets off their wits for 5 months.  This provides some valuable and detailed insights on the lives of those who literally live on the streets of America.

These two twenties men, the author and his best friend, travelled with only their backpacks and guitars, panhandling, and playing music on the streets to get some money for food.  They tell of going hungry often, and relate the privations of living in the elements, being mistreated or ignored by passersby, residents, business people and even churches.

They had to deal with the lack of facilities for bathing, and even the difficulty of buying a cup of coffee in a coffee shop, run off by the management because of the visual difficulty their presence presented for "normal" customers.  And, of course, their smell was also often a source of the anti-social reaction they often received.

On the dark side of the street, they narrate how they themselves were accosted, attacked and robbed by street thugs.  They did manage not to lose their guitars during the whole experience.  On occasion, however, they were also able to rescue others so attacked or even foil mugging attempts.

They describe examples of the real and serious drug problem they encountered on the streets.  They were often objects of curiosity since they never drank alcohol or took any drugs, whether smoked or injected.  This gave them some meaningful opportunities to explaining their relationship to Jesus, and the alternatives they had found in the life of faith – wherever it took them.

Christian Alternatives
They had opportunities to propose Christian alternatives to victims and even malefactors.  They likewise became aware of problems in their own understanding of Christianity or the person of Jesus in the ideas of life context of some of the street people they encountered.

They also encountered other Christians who were either street people or worked to help street people in various ways.  They would ally themselves with these efforts during the time they were in some of the cities.

Street Code
These guys learned that is a very strict code of honour among the street people.  No one ever encroaches on someone else's panhandling territory or sleeping area.  The homeless give each other tips on where the mission meals or sympathetic handouts are, and even where work can be obtained.  The locals also look out for newcomers till they get oriented to the situation in a new city.

Our street trekkers  would at times share their music spot on the street with other musicians who had no instrument.  They shared their earnings with others who had not obtained any money for supper.  They also accepted generosity of other street people when they also found themselves destitute at the end of the day.  They lived at the level of subsistence, which most Americans cannot even imagine.  This was an actual challenge of survival, and they stuck it out, knowing the people they met in the streets did not have an option.  This was their life.

Ambiguous Christians
The most intriguing aspect of this story is their stories of encounters with avowed Christians and churches.  These two men are avid and devout Christians, who maintained their daily Bible study and prayer time, and gave their stories of faith as they had an opportunity.  It is at once heartbreaking and encouraging to enter into their experiences through this vivid articulate and moving story based on the journals of these two young men.

They discovered how disconnected most Americans are from those less fortunate than themselves.  They document the hypocrisy or neglect of Christians who espouse – in their hearing – the need to be "about the Holy Spirit's business" that day, then studiously or obliviously ignore them as they pass by.  People cross the street to avoid encountering them on the sidewalk.

They, of course, also express to us the changes in awareness and attitude they experienced, as well as the insights they gained about the churches they encountered and the views of the street people toward the average church.

They developed, as you would expect, a strong empathy for and understanding of the people who find themselves, for a variety of reasons, with no place to call home.  They made themselves live on just what they could earn or be given for these months.

This narrative summary of their journals invites us into these intense and challenging experiences.  The author provides a vivid insight into the "other America" that is known only vaguely to most Americans or the rest of the world.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[review] Experiencing the Future of Faith

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First reading notes written 29 October 2008
Expanded into a review article 6-7 November 2008
Posted on OJTR 7 November 2008
Last edited 27 April 2009

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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