Pastor Eric Johns and his sons, Alex and Nate, spent Monday through Saturday last week sleeping under an overpass and spending time with the homeless in Buffalo, New York. This is something the pastor has done for the past 21 years as part of his church’s ministry to those in need in Buffalo and the broader area.
“Over the 21 years, we’ve made a lot of friends,” Eric told WIVB News. “I think one thing people have to understand is, when my sons and I are out this week, it’s not with a bunch of people we don’t know. We know many of them now on a first-name basis because they come to my church on Sunday, they come to the programs that we offer.”
Eric Johns is a pastor at the Buffalo Dream Center, a church that has been around since 1993 and that has a thriving inner city ministry. While Alex and Nate spent the entire week with their father on the streets (posting regular Facebook updates), others, including Eric’s father, joined them for shorter periods of time.
Eric Johns and His Sons Spend a Week with the Homeless
During the night, Eric, Alex and Nate slept under an overpass on Exchange Street in downtown Buffalo. The pastor is committed to staying out for the entire time he has planned, no matter what the weather is like. This year, the temperature was in the 50s for the first several days of the week (which is warm for the city this time of year), but the night before Thanksgiving, it dropped to around 20 degrees and was rainy and windy. One year, said Eric, the temperature fell below zero degrees and city was warning people not to go outside…but he stayed out anyway.
A lot of their time during the day, Eric told WKBW News, was spent finding their next meal. When they were not finding food to eat, Eric and his sons walked to places where they knew homeless people would be and sat, talked and prayed with them. On Thanksgiving Day, Eric and his sons handed out Thanksgiving dinners to over 250 people and then had their own Thanksgiving meal at a soup kitchen.
Even though the three know many of the homeless in Buffalo from their church or from serving in the soup kitchen, they do not often get a chance to have in-depth conversations with the people they meet. Alex told WKBW, “Our church works with homeless people so being out in the streets we get to see a lot of the people we know, and we get to sit down and really get to know them. Because when we work with them, we don’t get to sit down and really talk with them.”
It makes a difference, said Eric, to go to where the homeless are and spend time with them. He said, “We’re able to really just connect with people on a new level by being in their world.”
Someone the Johns family has known for a long time is a man named “Shoes,” whom Eric described as his “good friend” and who has been like a grandfather to Alex and Nate. They first met Shoes when he came to Dream Center after being released from prison, where he had been for seven-and-a-half years.
After visiting the church, Shoes gave his life to Jesus, and every year that Eric has spent a week on the streets, Shoes has gone with him to protect him. This year, Shoes has his own apartment where he was able to host the pastor and his sons for a few hours. “God just really changed his life,” said Eric.
Passing the Baton
Eric told WGRZ News that he’s seen positive and negative changes in the 21 years he has spent working with homeless: “I would say there is a lot more women on the street, sadly, than I’ve seen in the beginning years. But a positive thing, there’s a lot less veterans.”
Part of the purpose of Eric Johns’ annual week of homelessness is to raise support for his church’s Boxes of Love ministry, an outreach that provides food and gifts for families in Western New York during the Christmas season.
The pastor plans to entrust the week on the streets event to his sons when they turn 18, and the outreach to the homeless is certainly something that has been impactful to them. “Growing up I thought it was a normal thing, just going to soup kitchens and talking to people,” Nate told WKBW. “I’ve always loved doing it.”
For his part, said Eric, “I’ve learned a lot about myself, being out here, and it has made me grateful for the things that God has given me, thankful for the community that I live in.”