When My Heart Stops Breaking, It’s Time to Leave

For nearly 26 years I have worked with people who have pushed their own self-destruct buttons, fought without success to break the fetters of addiction and suffered from the callousness of a society that prefers to keep its distance from them.

For nearly 26 years my heart has been broken over and over again. With each new crisis in the life of a person we serve, I re-live the heartbreaks of the past.

As I prepare to visit yet another friend going through a tragedy of monumental proportions (sorry, but I can’t tell you about it right now) a part of me can’t help but pray for a healthy dose of “professional detachment”. That part of me yearns to be able to seal this sad situation in a box that I open only when necessary. The rest of the time I can go on my merry way oblivious to the anguish as I perform the more mundane tasks of ministry.

But is that what I really want?

Is it better to keep that emotional distance, or is it better to feel the pain?  I confess that sometimes I “grow weary in well-doing” and even dream of days without a phone call or vision of someone’s suffering or desperate need,  but over the years I have made a discovery:

Walking with people through their pain, sharing grief in their defeats and joy in their victories is the fuel for my passion.

God’s vision for this ministry is the engine and the Holy Spirit is the spark that gets things started every day. But it’s my passion for the people we serve, our staff, volunteers and donors that keeps the engine running on what has become a very long trip.  And I think I have enough fuel to go just a little farther.

God help me if I lose that passion.  God help me if my heart stops breaking.  When that happens it will be time to leave.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director



Extraordinarily Ordinary

I love living on the edge, pushing the envelope of my faith in my service to Jesus through Teens Opposing Poverty.  I can identify with those who make a call for “radical Christianity.”  But my chosen vocation and avocation are not for every Christian.

Each year, we see over 1,500 youth and adult volunteers serve the poor through our ministry. The vast majority of them won’t choose full-time ministry as their vocation.  The adults have normal jobs and the youth are getting through school.  When they graduate, most of the youth will get jobs and raise families, just like their unbelieving neighbors.  Hopefully, they will stay in the church.

In other words, they will live ordinary lives.

Kristen is an adult volunteer with one of the groups that is involved in our motel ministry. She met a couple at one of the motels and they became close friends.  Kristen has advocated for them, helped the wife get a set of dentures, visits them on a regular basis and invites them to special occasions in her life.  She leads and ordinary life, but by just becoming a caring friend she has done something extraordinary.

If you follow Jesus, you will be anything but ordinary.  The Holy Spirit can guide you to those wonderful, small acts that can impact the lives of others. Living a life filled with righteousness, love, grace, mercy and justice will make you stick out like a sore thumb even if you don’t abandon the ‘burbs for a radical life with the rural or urban poor. You can be a disciple maker and witness for Christ right where you are. Just be true to Him.

People everywhere need a dose of God’s grace, a friend, a listening ear, wise counsel from the Bible, a word of encouragement, a smile on a really bad day and…well, you get the picture.  It doesn’t take much to be extraordinarily ordinary.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings Executive Director



Emotional Gas

Two churches were sharing the duties of the ministry trip for Teens Opposing Poverty on a cool Sunday afternoon.  One brought the hot dogs. The other brought the chili.

We served about 30-40 homeless people in McPherson Square, just a few blocks from the White House. There were no long lines, no rush.  They just kind of trickled in for food.  The atmosphere was relaxed. Our volunteers had lots of opportunities to connect with the people they served..

As we transitioned from mostly serving to mostly talking and visiting, David, Oliver and I stood between the chili and hot dog stations.  Oliver was bringing us up to date on his decision to propose to his girlfriend and told us how good he was feeling right now.  He suffers from a number of chronic health problems.

After some unrelated small talk, the discussion turned to household bills.  David shared the recent break he had gotten on his gas bill.  Oliver was lamenting that the gas company estimates his bill every other month and they always overcharge him. One month he will have a huge bill, the next month he will have a huge credit.

As they continued their conversation, a wave of emotion swept over me.

I have known both of these men for over 10 years. They both used to be homeless, trapped in the prisons of their addictions.  I watched how God used our friendship, relationships they formed with our volunteers and other influences to get their heads and hearts in the right place so they could endure the rigors of overcoming their homelessness.  It wasn’t an easy road for either of them.  There were setbacks too numerous to mention, but they persevered. They beat the streets.

And now they were talking about their gas bills.

I put my hands on their shoulders, looked at them, smiled and asked, “Ten years ago, could you have ever imagined you would be having this conversation right now?”

They they looked at me and at each other. In nearly perfect unison they smiled and said, “Never.”

Who would have ever thought someone could be grateful for a gas bill?

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director




By Dina Thompson

[Dina’s church, Providence Chapel Church in Frogtown, Virginia, had their first day of ministry for seniors at a subsidized housing project in their home county.  She was so moved by the experience that she wrote down her impressions the day after. It’s easy to see that when we give we often receive more in return] – Steve Jennings

We  were  greeted  with  smiles  and  hellos  as  we  carried  in  the  boxes  of  canned  food  and  fresh  fruit  to  the  common  area.  Some  had  already  gathered.  They  knew  we  were  coming  and  they  were  waiting  for  us.  We  fixed  small  packages  for  those  who  were  bound  to  their  rooms  to  be  delivered.

 “Mr.”,  we  called  from  the  hall,  “we  have  some  things  for  you”.  We  could  hear  that  he  was  trying  to  get  the  door,  10  feet  away  dragging oxygen tubes and  using a cane.  It  took  several  minutes  for  him  to  eagerly  let  us  in.  We  put  the  food  away  in  his  cabinets  and  invited  him  to  the  common  area.  We  told  him  of  the  people  that  gathered  to  meet  him,  small  children,  and  music.  His face lit up.  We  could  see  and  feel  the  excitement as  he  tried  to  hurry  his  pace.  He  could  leave  his  oxygen  behind  for  just  a  little  while,  he  insisted…..  we  placed  a  chair  close  to  his  door  so  it  would  not  be  so  far for  him  to  walk.

We could barely hear her  call  to  come  in.  As  we  entered  the  room,  filled  with  cigarette  smoke,  all  her  necessities  surrounded  her  so  she  could  reach  them  easily.   An  older  woman,  she  seemed  to  be  confined  to  her  chair.  We  could  not  stay,  as  the  cigarette  smoke  overwhelmed  us,  but  she  thanked  us  gratefully.

A  pink  heart  shaped  welcome  sign  and  angel  wings  decorated  her  door.  As  we  waited  in  the  hallway  at  her  door,  I  thought  the  music  playing  loudly  inside  the  apartment  was  unusual  for  an  elderly  person.  Only  meeting  elderly  so far,  the  sight  of  the  young  woman  with  her  feet  and  body  strapped  to  the  wheel  chair,  instantly  grabbed  at  my  heart  and  put  a  lump  in  my  throat.  I  consciously  held  my  breath  a  moment   so  not  to  gasp  out  loud.  Like  the  angel  wings  on  her  door  foreshadowed,  she  was  beautiful.  She  had  the  face  of  an  angel,  a  vibrant  smile,  and  beautiful  blue  eyes  that  lit  up  with  tears.  “Yes!!”  She  nodded  eagerly.  She  would  like  to  go  upstairs  to  listen  to  the  music. Her  speech  was  difficult  but  the  brightness  in  her  eyes  and  the  yes  and  no  movements  from  her  head  allowed  us  to  understand.  Known  to  love  sitting  in  the  sun,  a  calendar  with  beach  scenes  was  found  for  her.  She  nodded  eagerly  and  marveled  at  the  beauty  of  the  beaches  as  I  read  about  each  on  the  back  cover.  A  small,  stuffed  puppy  was  so  soft that  she  enthusiastically  managed  to  turn  her  hands  slightly  and  her  eyes  sparkled,  when  I  placed  the  toy  in  her  hands.

Song  requests  were  called  out –  “Jesus  Loves  Me”,  “Amazing  Grace”,  “How  Great  Thou  Art”,  turning  the  afternoon  into  a  grand  hymn  sing,  party  atmosphere.

The  elderly  man  sitting  next  to  me  explained  that  he  was  the  victim  of  a  stroke  which  took  his  left  side.  He  used  to  love  to  sing  in  the  church  choir  and  cook  chicken  and  dumplings.  As  Providence  church  members  and  others  sang,  his  beautiful  baritone  voice  would  come  through  in  brief  spurts  of  energy  and  highlight  the  music.

“When can  you  all  come  back?”,  a  woman  asked.  “Yes!”,  the  rest  joined  in.  Another  said  she  would  have  sing  along  books  printed  for  next  time.  Good  times!  A  good  time  was  had  by  all.

Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. Psalm 98:4


And Now for Something a Little Different

The sunlight was as cold and barren as the naked trees in Franklin Square, just a few blocks from the White House. It seemed to offer no respite from the chilly breeze that blew through the park.  John and Walter stood with cups of hot chili in their hands and their collars turned up to keep their necks warm.

 We engaged in small talk for a while.  Both men answered questions and offered opinions between bites of chili and a never-ceasing stream of thank-yous.  Walter talked excitedly about starting a new job after more than two years of searching. 

 John fell silent as Walter spoke.  He cast his eyes into his cup of chili like he was looking for a bit of cracker floating in it.  After a few minutes, John began to share his struggle to find a job.  As the frustration in his voice grew, he stopped eating the chili and spread his arms in a gesture of desperation.

 “No matter where I go, no matter where I apply, I can’t get a job! I’ve filled in over 200 applications and still nothing,” he lamented.  “Because I have a prison record, I can’t even get a job at McDonalds! I served my time.  I paid my debt to society.  Why can’t I get a break?”

 That conversation took place in 1999 during a strong economy.  Jobs were plentiful, but not for John.  His words have haunted me ever since.

 How many people languish in poverty because, no matter how hard they try, they can’t get a job?  Prison record, lack of education, lack of job skills, mental illness and other obstacles create dim prospects for tens of thousands of poor people. Many have marketable skills and talents, but a job is still out of reach for them. 

 That conversation spurred me to look for a way that someone in John’s shoes can learn how to earn an income regardless of their background or mental state.

 Recently, I discovered eBay Giving Works, the nonprofit arm of the giant online auction.  I also began researching Etsy, a marketing system for arts and crafts, the Amazon Marketplace, Fulfillment by Amazon, and other Internet-based commerce platforms.  I believe these methods can provide additional support for TOP and help homeless and other poor people we serve step up the ladder to a better life.  

 We have named this effort TOPwerx. We are launching it right now.  In the first stage, our staff will learn the techniques of selling online. Our initial approach will be sort of an online thrift store, except we won’t sell everything through one site.  We’ll use whatever platform best suits a product. 

As we learn the ins-and-outs of online commerce, we will develop a training program.  Once a core curriculum is in place, we plan to help 2 – 3 clients through a pilot program.  During this stage we will fine tune the system and make careful notes on outcomes.  We plan to bring in youth volunteers wherever we can during the process, especially when we teach computer skills. Finally, we will seek grants to expand so we can serve more people and increase support for TOP at the same time.

 How You Can Help

We are looking for donated items to sell.  Games, toys, tools, horse supplies, electronics, textbooks, reference books, shoes, clothing and anything else you can imagine selling on eBay.  We can arrange pickup in Northern Virginia, the Northern Shenandoah Valley and DC.  If you are somewhere else in the region contact us.  Our goal is to find a repository for donated items in every city where we work.

We are also looking for people who have experience selling on eBay, Half.com, Etsy.com, Amazon Marketplace or Fulfillment by Amazon to help shorten the learning curve for us.

 Please pray that TOPwerx will become an opportunity for those who have little hope in the job market and that it will help TOP expand its ministry with “the least of these.”

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director


Heart, Mind and Soul Part 3: William’s Story From Served to Servant

This is the third in a series of posts about where the solutions to homelessness truly begin.  They are not in the opportunities, training or services offered to homeless people.  They are in the hearts, minds and souls of the homeless themselves. The longer I spend in ministry with these amazing people, the more I learn of the importance of attitude and that nothing else we do to address their challenges will work if their hearts, minds and souls are not in the right place.

To read the first two installments, click on the links:



His street name was “Black”.  He was homeless for over 12 years.  Drugs and alcohol were his life, but on Sunday afternoons when the youth volunteers from Teens Opposing Poverty (TOP) came to serve, he was always straight and sober.  For years, I just made small talk with him.  He spent most of his time talking with the teens.  Several of them became friends with him.  It was a few years before I found out his real name was William.

Then in 1995 something terrible happened.  William almost lost his life in a fire.  As he lay half-conscious on a hospital gurney, he watched his cousin die.  That horror was followed by 6 months of skin grafts and the loss of his left leg. He had a breathing tube stuck down his throat for so long that it paralyzed half his vocal cords.

After he got out of the hospital, William spent nearly three more years on the street until he was able to secure Social Security Disability.  It was during these three years that he went from being someone we served to one of my best friends.  He was, and still is, one of the most humble people I know, but he also began speaking with the deserved authority of someone who daily had to live with pain that most of us could not imagine.

When he spoke to our volunteers, William wielded his testimony like a knife cutting into our complacent hearts. He helped us to see his struggles and shared with us his belief that God saved him for a reason. In telling his story, he let the youth know that they were here for a reason, too, and that God can use even the bad things in our lives for good.

I’ll never forget the day we helped him get into his first apartment.  He stepped inside and closed the door, turning the lock several times.  Then he flipped the light switch on and off and finally looked up at the ceiling.  “Look,” he said, “No stars.” He hasn’t been homeless in more than 13 years since then.  But unlike many who get off the street, William kept going back and keeping in touch with the people he used to live with.  Little did I know what a valuable asset he would become to TOP because of that.

In the weeks and months that followed, William met us on every homeless ministry trip we took.  He was great with the teens, taking the shy ones under his wing until they were comfortable enough to start talking to the people we served.

As his confidence grew, he offered suggestions on things we could do differently, other sites where we could serve and better ways to connect with our homeless friends.  I wasn’t the only one who recognized William’s growth and willingness to assume responsibility and assert authority.  The teens did, too, and started turning to him when they had questions.

When TOP was able to hire staff, William became the coordinator of our homeless ministry in Washington, DC.  Now he develops new Street Ministry Outreaches and shares his powerful testimony with churches and other groups.  He went from being one of the homeless guys to a ministry professional.

I haven’t just seen this scenario play out in William’s case.  Giving those we serve a chance to become servants is a crucial part of our ministry.  Everyone has gifts to give, talents to use and faith to share.   When people have an opportunity to contribute, they hold their heads a little higher.  They remember that they can make a difference.

We must remember that we are in ministry WITH the poor, not to them.   Let’s not get so wrapped up in giving to others that we fail to give ourselves a chance to receive.  Understanding this one simple principle can bring out the best in all of us.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director


Heart, Mind and Soul – Part 1: Jeff’s Story

This is the first in a series of posts about where the solutions to homelessness truly begin.  They are not in the opportunities, training or services offered to homeless people.  They are in the hearts, minds and souls of the homeless themselves. The longer I spend in ministry with these amazing people, the more I learn of the importance of attitude and that nothing else we do to address their challenges will work if their hearts, minds and souls are not in the right place.

The young man was frustrated, scared and angry.  We’ll call him Jeff. His eyes were fixed on mine in a steady gaze as he recounted his recent trials.  He had made mistakes and served time for them.  Now he was on parole.  Despite diligently looking for a steady job, work was inconsistent. For the most part, he was getting by, but sometimes had some slow weeks. 

Jeff’s inconsistent pay made it difficult to get a place of his own.  He had been living with his mother, paying rent, until she moved to a new apartment.  For reasons he didn’t explain, he couldn’t move to the new place with his mother, but she had arranged for him to keep the apartment she had left for a few more weeks – or so he thought. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way.  While he thought he had three weeks left in the apartment, he came home two nights before to find all of his stuff in the hallway of the building.  After scrounging to find a place to put his stuff, he spent a couple of chilly nights on the street.  Needless to say he didn’t get much sleep, which didn’t help his mood.

Now he was worried that he had no address, which is required when you’re on parole.  Fortunately he had a good parole officer who knew he was trying to do things right and would cut him some slack.  He could get by a few days with no address and avoid a return trip to jail.

I named a couple of agencies Jeff could turn to.  He had already been to them and said they told him he would have to wait over a year to get a place under their affordable housing programs. He named several other agencies in the city he had turned to, but none could help him find a room to rent, much less an affordable apartment.  A mental health agency spent lots of time asking him about his childhood and his relationship with his parents.  He answered all their questions but didn’t feel he got any real help from them

“How is analyzing my childhood going to put a roof over my head?”  he asked as he stood up from the bench and paced in agitation.  “I’m trying.  I’m trying hard, and it seems every time I turn around, something else bad happens.”

Jeff’s story is typical of what we hear on the street.  Everyone I know who has made it off the street can’t count how many times they were shot down before they finally had success.  Sometimes they knocked themselves down by pushing their self-destruct buttons, but often circumstances beyond their control sent them back to the streets.

After 25 years of hearing stories of setbacks and successes, I have discovered two virtues that lie at the core of people who make it off the streets: perseverance and focus. Every homeless person I know who found housing never stopped trying and focused on that goal like a laser beam.  Even though they got knocked down over and over again, they picked themselves up and kept pressing forward.  They knew where they wanted to be, and they resolved to do whatever it took, whether it was work a job they hated, stay on the street longer to save money or continue to take advantage of free food, clothes and other services in order to attain their goal of a roof over their heads.

These virtues come from God or from within ourselves.  We can’t magically transplant perseverance and focus into somebody, but there are things we can do to help people discover them.

Open the Door and Walk Down the Street

For the first time, Teens Opposing Poverty has coordinated a week-long mission outreach to the homeless in Washington, DC.  Part of the week’s activities included visiting other organizations that work poor and homeless people.

 We visited So Others Might Eat (SOME) and DC Central Kitchen. Both of these organizations do incredible work for the poor and homeless.  DC Central Kitchen provides 5,000 meals a day that are served through a variety of soup kitchens, Meals on Wheels and other programs.  They also have a training program that moves people from homelessness to employment (at a living wage) in the food service industry.  SOME has a soup kitchen, food pantry, clothes closet, low income housing, a warehouse full of furniture and other essential items and a long-term rehab program, along with providing medical, dental and mental health care.

 The people who took us on our tours were passionate about what they do and totally focused on their mission. 

 That is a good thing and a not-so-good thing.

 It’s good because passion and focus on your mission may be the only motivations to carry you through tough times when you are in the nonprofit world. It also keeps all of us who work with an organization or ministry on track.   I am often the same way with TOP, and it has been an important reason why we have stayed alive during the lean seasons.

 But that kind of focus can also be a negative.  We (fingers pointing back to me) too readily put on blinders and fail to connect with our fellow servants.  Thus we often re-invent the wheel, creating unnecessary duplication of services. 

 I’ve had people suggest that we do all sorts of things to combat poverty from job training to setting up day centers for the homeless to transitional housing.  In my wild imaginings I picture TOP doing those things. But other people are already doing that, and it’s not our mission.  We are often the first point of contact for the people we serve.  Our job is to encourage them, find out what keeps them on the street, and point them to the resources that help them into a new life.

 Getting to know other organizations helps us to do a better job of fulfilling our mission and opens our eyes to new possibilities in how we serve others. A fringe benefit of this interaction is that we learn things that help us do a better job of running the organization.

 If you’re involved in a church or nonprofit organization, I challenge you to open the door and walk down the street to other churches and nonprofits and groups who serve the people you serve.  Learn what they do and how they do it.  Don’t be afraid to form partnerships and cross referrals.  Every once in awhile take off the blinders of passion for your own organization and learn a little from others. You’ll be glad you did.

 God’s grace to you

Steve Jennings


If He Can Be Thankful We Can Be Thankful

His “roof” is the sky.  His “walls” are his blankets and tarp.   His “heater” is a metal grate that belches out foul-smelling, pneumonia-inducing steam.  Three days ago his backpack (with all of his worldly possessions) was stolen, and he is left with the clothes he is wearing.

 A few months ago he was laid off from the job where he had been working for over a year.  The pay wasn’t great, but the work was pleasant and it kept a roof over his head.  He remembers that time especially on the cold nights.  Unfortunately, the search for a new job has come up empty.

 He has no family to turn to, no network to hold him up.  His friends are on the street with problems of their own: addiction, mental illness, despair, broken families and relationships.  He eats once a day when the Salvation Army food wagon stops near his “house”.  Sometimes he gets up and walks the 20 blocks to the place where they serve breakfast.

 With his mouth full of the hot dog we had just given him, he smiles at us and says, “thank you.”   Then he begins to list the things he is thankful for:  people who care enough to bring him food and clothes, his friends, warm places to go during the day, shoes with no holes in them, medical care when he gets sick, hope for the future, a friendly smile, a kind word, a country where he can make his own way, and Jesus who never abandons him.

 The man I just told you about is one I have seen many times.  He wears many faces.  The color of his skin is often different.  Sometimes he speaks fluent English.  Sometimes he’s difficult to understand.  Yet I have learned a valuable lesson from him – always be thankful.  No matter how bad things get, there is always something we can find in our lives to stir up gratitude in our hearts.

 Gratitude is the enemy of despair.  Thankfulness gives us the power to press on.

 May every day be your Thanksgiving Day.

 God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings

Lessons from the Street

Some “how-to’s” of homeless ministry.

Based on 20+ years of working with homeless people, here are some things I have learned. Your mileage may vary.

1. Freely give at first. Don’t worry about whether the person you are helping is “using the system”. Err on the side of grace, and use your giving to establish a relationship with that person.

2. Pray for discernment as you continue to work with a person. If it appears that they don’t want to take action to improve their lives, you must first determine two things:

a) Do they have a clue as to what they need to do for their part?
b) Do they have the capacity to do what is necessary?

In other words, do they have physical, mental or emotional challenges that make it difficult or humanly impossible to make the changes in their own lives?

3. If a person is able but unwilling to take action, don’t enable them to continue in their current lifestyle. They need to feel pain from their situation in order to move out of it. On the other hand, don’t abandon them. Be there. Be a friend. Be an encourager. Share the love of Christ with them. Help them to bring Jesus into their hearts so that the power of the Holy Spirit can strengthen them to overcome the forces that hold them down.

People trapped in poverty face a ton of obstacles to success: emotional, physical, mental, situational and spiritual. We MUST minister to the whole person. We MUST get involved in their lives and make ourselves vulnerable to the disappointment that often comes when they fall. When we do that, God can use us in incredible, life-changing ways.

Steve Jennings
Executive Director, Teens Opposing Poverty