Kurt Salierno is a man who has dedicated his life to living with and ministering to the poor and needy in his corner of the world. Since 1977, he has been involved in working with the poor and homeless across the country. Kurt walks the streets of Atlanta developing relationships with the men and women he meets in order to help them get off the streets. He has seen God work in the lives of drug addicts, drunks, prostitutes and thieves. Although Kurt stutters, he effectively communicates his love and concern for the homeless and poor through the power of Jesus Christ. I had the opportunity to chat with Kurt, and here’s a portion of our conversation.
The Bible makes it clear that we are to minister to the oppressed. What made you decide to work with the homeless as opposed to other people who might be oppressed?
It’s the passion that God’s implanted in my heart. In Scripture it says that when we give and care for the poor, we’re giving and caring for Jesus. The Word of God says that as I’m caring for the poor that I meet in the streets, I’m caring for Jesus. That changes the mindset because I’m not really doing it for the poor, I’m doing it for Jesus, and the recipients are the poor and the homeless that I meet.
There’s been a lot of frustrations in your ministry to the homeless, but if you have this perspective, you can keep going, can’t you?
Absolutely. In fact, that perspective keeps me focused when bad things happen. Sometimes I get shot at, or guys will try to mug me or abuse me on the streets. Sometimes there are brand new homeless people that have just come in who don’t know me but see all the goodies that I have in my grocery cart and try to rob me. The understanding that I’m not doing it for them, but I’m doing it for God, helps me keep the whole thing going. Plus, at least once a week, I’ll see a man or woman make a decision to change their life, get some help, and they begin a new adventure through Jesus Christ. That makes it all worthwhile because we actually see people get healed constantly. There’s something about working with homeless people that is close to the heart of God. His power and His grace are constantly evident as we work with the poor.
How has “living” with the homeless allowed for a much greater opportunity for ministry as opposed to just occasionally visiting them at a homeless shelter?
They know that I care about them and that I understand their plight. I know what it’s like to sleep under the bridges and fight the rats off from biting you. I know what it’s like to run away from drug deals gone bad. I’m with them in the rainstorms, when it’s miserably cold, and when they’re hungry. Sometimes I’m on the street for four or five days and nights in a row. I sleep with them. A man walking by would not recognize me as a pastor. He would think that I’m one of them.
Normally, when we pass by homeless people, we don’t look them in the eye, and we don’t acknowledge them as human beings. We bypass them. For me to develop a relationship with them and love them as they are, I earn their respect and their trust. This seems to be the key element to staying alive for one thing, but it also allows me to have relationships with them to the point where they share their deepest issues with me. We can then go beyond that to the place where Christ can touch their lives.
Give us a feel for who the homeless people are, where they’ve come from, and why they’re on the streets.
There are doctors and professional people who had a life of prosperity with their families and career, but who – through the use of alcohol and drugs – have lost it all. The common thread running through almost every homeless man is that he has made bad choices. Some of them have made one bad choice, and some of them have made a combination of bad choices. Some of the homeless are mentally unstable and can’t hold down a job. Some of them are unstable from birth, some unstable from being on drugs and alcohol, and some of them are mentally unstable from living on the street. You can’t live on the street more than a few years without becoming somewhat mentally unstable. There are some great people with fantastic hearts living on the street. Some of my best friends are homeless people that are alcohol and drug-free. They are some of the most caring and loving people on earth who just so happen to be homeless.
How can we as parents help our children develop a heart for the poor – one that goes beyond feeling into action?
One of the things that I would encourage parents to do is to create opportunities for their kids to give to other people. We often have calls from families telling us that they have a box of clothes that they’d like us to give to the homeless. I always tell them that although I appreciate the offer, I’d rather they come with me and pass the clothes out themselves. I want them to see the faces of the human beings that they’re giving to. Better yet, I want them to wear some of the clothing that they want to give away and take the items off of them and hand the clothing to the homeless people. It’s more symbolic to give something off your back than giving something out of a box. It symbolizes to a young person that we’re supposed to be giving what we have on us to those in need.
Giving is the beginning, middle, and end of a strong relationship with yourself and with God. We’re called to give. We’re saved to save others, blessed to bless others, and God has given to us to give to others. Young people have the concept and many adults do today that God blesses us so we might store up. That’s not right. Many believe that God gives to us so that we might enjoy for ourselves. That’s not right. He blesses us, gives to us, and saves us to bless and give and save others.
I believe parents ought to be helping young people find arenas where they might give, like at a nursing home, a homeless shelter, or a clothing closet. They need to offer a place where young people can give of themselves without getting something back in return like a paycheck. It will give them a place where they can give from their heart unselfishly.
Kurt is the director of Salierno Ministries. His wife, Lori, is the director of Celebrate Life International.