Albert introduced himself as a homeless man living on the streets of Detroit after a fire in his apartment. He was eager to tell his story of what life was like living on the streets. We were patient listeners until he came to his pitch about donating money, at which point we prepared to leave. We had been instructed by leaders of the ELCA National Youth Gathering to avoid contributing to panhandlers. Seeing a homeless person as a fellow person and hearing their story was likely all we were going to do for Albert, until he mentioned music.
We asked about his favorite music and if he was a musician. Albert lit up and insisted that we follow him to an open air piano. It was here that God was revealed.
The piano sat under an awning between a large bank and a café/hotel. Albert situated himself at the keys while our group gathered around. He began by singing a self-composed rap/song about unity and God’s love. It was catchy and soon our kids were humming along shouting on the choruses. As he finished, we offered to sing him a song. I pulled out the ukulele from my backpack and one of our students, Chane Eckhardt, sat at the keyboard. We sang one of our camp favorites: Sanctuary. After the second time through, Albert was singing with us. The third time through, Albert began rapping along, his own free verse adding a new rhythm to our harmony.
This was a moment of God’s evidence in our midst. Here we were, a church group from Iowa singing our camp song, while a homeless man from Detroit rapped alongside us. I watched the passersby stop in their tracks as they appreciated our music, heads turning from the café, smiles from the audience. Through that music, God built a bridge and established a connection. More than that, God opened our eyes to the diversity of the world, and Godly love that transcends the boundaries that we have built. It was a moment when God burst into our lives and we claimed that street-side piano nook as holy ground.
Andy Langdon is the director of youth ministries at St. Paul. He and a crew of adult leaders and high school youth recently returned from the ELCA National Youth Gathering in Detroit.