[The following story appeared in 'Sword Magazine' in August, 2007]
Mercy - Best Served Locally
This is the story of Kurt Erickson, a 'missionary' to the homeless as told to Julia Fisher
You might think the middle of summer a strange time to focus on somebody who works with the homeless! However, aren't the homeless always with us - spring, summer, autumn and winter?
Yes, of course we are affronted when we walk the streets of our cities; these people smell. And aren't they drug addicts and alcoholics? Not always. I have learnt that sometimes they are people just like you and me. People who used to live in a house with their family. Well educated. Then something catastrophic happens and they lose everything - including their dignity. What is the heart of God towards the 'vagrant' - people we used to hang in this country?
There is one man I know who invites such people to his home, sits them down at his table and feeds them. He even encouraged one 'tramp' ('toy boy' prostitute and addict) to hold his baby son - the man responded by weeping - who would trust a man in his state to hold their most precious possession- a vulnerable, helpless child?
Kurt Erickson and his wife Asha came from the US to London because 'the Lord told' them to come here and work with the homeless; to be His 'hands of mercy' on our streets. They arrived with very little and knew they had to live in one of the poorest areas of London; they found themselves a small flat in Tower Hamlets where they have been for the past 15 years. Their two sons were born there. And there the work of Eleos International Ministries was born that now extends into Romania, Southern Africa, and the United States. Look at their web site and you read that Eleos (Greek for 'mercy') International Ministries is committed to showing the love of Jesus by caring for the most vulnerable in our society (the orphan, the elderly, the homeless and others). They work in partnership with local churches around the world to help them become 'missions of rescue' for destitute and vulnerable people. They believe local churches are in the best position to provide the nurture, support, family, and teaching that hurting people need so desperately.
So who is Kurt Erickson and why did he give up the good life as an actor in New York to come and live in Tower Hamlets?
'I was an actor; that was my identity', Kurt told me. But, at the same time he was addicted to drugs and alcohol. Twelve years later he was a wreck and living in squalor. But something happened; in 1983 he had a dramatic conversion experience and came to know and believe in Jesus. By 1986 his love of the theatre had vanished and instead he knew he would be spending the rest of his life working with the homeless.
'Most of these people will not just walk into a church building; we need to go to them with creative and innovative ways to bring the love of Jesus.'
By 1988 he had enrolled at the Moody Bible Institute and by 1990 had married Asha, who converted to Christianity at the age of 19 from Hinduism. A year later they moved to London to be 'missionaries', ministering to London's homeless community and children in London's East End. In 1996, Eleos Christian Church was planted in the East End of London. In 2001, Eleos Ministries U.K. established 'The Church Without Walls' in London (a church of homeless men and women which meets on the streets close to Westminster Cathedral). And the following year, Eleos School of Ministry and Practical Theology was founded in London and Eleos Ministries UK and World Christian Outreach merged to create Eleos International Ministries.
I was interested to hear the story of one person Kurt had met on the streets. He told me about Colin (not his real name.) 'From Scotland originally, living on the streets for many years, we met him at the Church Without Walls one Saturday morning. He represented one of the many thousands who drift into London from all over Great Britain and Europe only to find themselves on the streets and in desperate situations. Once diagnosed with mild mental illness, he had little hope and no one to turn to. Colin always had a 'far away' stare in his expression and, although always pleasant and polite, he usually kept to himself.
We found him, sleeping on concrete, roaming from hand out to hand out, using his time simply to walk around the streets without purpose, sitting on park benches, going to day care centres, watching hours of television without interest, longing for something to do. He had given his heart to the Lord years ago, but for all practical purposes, the outworking of His faith was more or less non-existent.
After a few weeks at the Church Without Walls (CWW), his heart was warmed and his faith in Christ renewed. In the last few months, we have taken him in and loved him as a true brother. We assisted him in finding immediate shelter and continue to work through all the necessary legal work to secure a place of his own. He is now a precious part of the Eleos family.
Hope has revived his heart and his mouth cannot stop speaking of the Saviour who came and died for him.
He knows he is not just coming 'to a church' but that he is a vital part of the work of God in London, as he now spends his time praying with people, helping the elderly, setting up and breaking down the church's equipment for our Sunday services. Colin recently started Bible School and represents many who, week after week, are finding that Jesus is the only one who can meet all their needs, satisfying every desire and bringing the peace that had been so foreign to them. It always amazes and humbles me how God visits those circled around this lonely tree in the middle of London, encased by a small brick wall spotted with bird droppings, litter and human lives lying on card board boxes and concrete pillows. How incredible that God Himself would pay attention to this detached, lonely little corner in a city of seven million people. But this is His altar, His meeting place with humankind. God dwells with the weak and lowly. Truly, blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom and they will have the Good News preached to them.
'We have relied too much on the government and para-church organizations to care for the poor
I was interested to hear more about the CWW and the reaction of the people to this 'preacher' who reliably turns up week after week regardless of the weather with hot tea, fruit, sandwiches, chocolate, clothing and Bibles. Kurt described what happened one winter morning. He told me how the temperature had dropped during the night and he arrived early to find a group of homeless people waiting for him; they were shivering. Some had woolen hats but most were without adequate clothing and some did not even have shoes. Faced with dozens of street sleepers that morning, there, under the tree, Kurt started his 'weekly service.'
'We expound the Word of God, pray for the salvation, healing and deliverance of everyone who comes,' he told me. 'Sometimes I'm asked whether all we do is give out food. Nothing could be further from the truth. We know that Jesus is the only hope for these people. Only He can restore their lives and give them back their dignity. We are His hands of mercy. We are His voice of compassion. Truly, God calls everyone who is lonely, afflicted, broken-hearted, and searching, to come to Him and find fulfillment, hope, and renewed life. The main message is the love of God, found only in Christ, available to all who turn to him in repentance.'
'Hands of Mercy' conferences
Kurt knows he has gained a wealth of experience over the past 15 years, and he is keen to share this experience and encourage churches to get involved. I recently attended one of these conferences and asked Kurt what he was hoping to achieve.
Our 'Hands of Mercy' meetings are aimed at restoring mercy ministries within local churches,' he told me. 'When people realise they don't have to be 'experts' for God to use them, they come to life! We are seeing local churches responding to the needs of widows, the elderly, and fatherless children in their congregation and locality, as well as helping the destitute in their area. We believe God desires to bring revival though local churches - a revival of compassion, mercy, sacrifice, and pouring out our lives for others. This revival will change the world!'
A little while ago, Kurt was invited by a doctor's surgery in the East End of London to provide a weekly 'surgery' for people whom they realised needed more than a prescription to ease their pain. It's called, The Chaplaincy. 'I teach a simple message on the healing mercy of God and I see these people respond to His outstretched hand. Every person attending has been changed and transformed by the overwhelming compassion of a truly living God. These precious ones, who not so long ago, were manipulated and controlled by hurt, bitterness, hopelessness and spiritually 'dying of thirst', now weekly drink His liquid love and are refreshed and living for Him!'
'We believe it is now the local church's turn to become relevant to the needs of the most vulnerable'
Eleos School of Ministry and Practical Theology
This further aspect of the work of Eleos reflects the importance Kurt places on right theology and doctrine. His desire for the people he meets initially on the streets is for them to grow in faith and understanding of all that God is doing in the world today. He sees a natural progression ... they come off the streets, their lives are restored, and then they are taught the Word of God in depth. Kurt understands the importance of the local church, he also understands the importance of having a Biblical world view and understanding the role of the church in relation to Israel (he recently taught a seminar on this very subject.)
If you would like to contact Kurt, or have him lead a seminar in your church, or if you would like to support Eleos International Ministries by volunteering or in any other way, then please visit their web site at eleosinternational.org. And if you would like the newly released DVD entitled 'Church Without Walls: a true story of love and compassion in a hurting world,' email eleosUK@eleosinternational.org
A final word from Kurt
'We long for more of the outpouring of His Spirit among us. We taste the joy of His presence and look forward to what lies ahead. We grow increasingly tired, yet He is never exhausted; we are stretched beyond our means financially, yet He gives abundantly all we need and His resources never dry up; we become overly concerned and pushed to the limit in patience and humility, yet His mercy and peace are a constant stream flooding our hearts giving us renewed passion, patience and love.'
For more information about books by Julia Fisher, and for details of her next tour to Israel, visit her web site, www.juliafisher.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org