For more than twenty years, Michael Tang has been leading the Surry Hills Urban Mission (SHUM)—a group of volunteers who share sandwiches, hot drinks, conversation, prayer and Jesus with marginalised people outside Sydney’s Central station. Wendy Cosier spoke with Michael to learn more about SHUM, and Michael’s experiences serving people who are experiencing homelessness.
In a nutshell, what is SHUM, and how is it different to other services that give food to people on the streets?
We are not a food van! If you watch a food van, when the food is finished being handed out, they are gone. If our food is finished, we’ll still hang around, to just meet and talk to people—that’s our main aim. We are trying to meet people where they are, and encourage them in the life with Jesus—sometimes pray with them, have conversation, sometimes teach them something from the Bible—and just try to connect with them. Because we have been doing it so long, people tend to know that. Our food is not as good as the food van (we’ve just got sandwiches) and people still want to come to us to talk. And in doing so, you learn that they need other things, maybe sometimes physical, and we help them with that. But they all need support, they all need relationship, they all need to feel accepted and know that someone cares about them. That is what we are trying to bring to them, in a God-centric, holistic sense.
Many people you meet through SHUM have no permanent place to live. What other losses are associated with homelessness?
One of the big losses is relationships. Firstly, ones that they can trust; and secondly, relationships that can be helpful and supportive. Often they have a whole lot of broken, dysfunctional relationships—they’ve lost connection with their family, partners and friends they’ve had in the past. And some of them lose their relationship with God or don’t even think about him—so they have lost their purpose in life, their purpose to exist.
When we see a homeless person begging, what would be a helpful response?
It is good to try and build up a relationship with that person. I’m not saying God can’t do anything if it’s just a once-off meeting (of course God can do whatever!) but in terms of you: you are not going to change the world in five minutes! If you really want to help that person, you have to be with them more than once. Then you’ll see what they need more and more. And offer them something else: invite them to a place where they can meet with people, where they can sup together with people, feel comfortable, secure and safe. It will take time. And that’s what people have to ask themselves: Do I have the time and commitment to spend with that person?
When we see someone living on the streets, many of us assume that person needs food, money and a home. What do you think they need?
I think everyone needs Jesus (I’m biased that way!). I also think they need friendship, they need support, they need to have a place where they feel accepted. They need a purpose for living—they need to go somewhere where they can form relationships, have trust and share what’s on their mind. And that’s the problem: just by housing someone, you don’t get all those other things. But Jesus can give people’s lives purpose, and change people’s perspective on life no matter what their situation, whether they are housed or not. That doesn’t mean everything will fall into place straightaway. Life continues, but now they can go through those problems with Jesus. To go through something by yourself is terrible, but instead of being alone, they can be with God’s family and with the Lord— and that’s much better!
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