Student Finds a Niche in Homeless Ministry

Dan Johnson

CHICAGO, IL (April 9, 2009) – After the first time Dan Johnson traveled with fellow students to help homeless people as part of the North Park’s Friday Night Homeless Ministry, he decided he wasn’t going back.

“I really didn’t like it,” he says. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but I stopped going.”

The uncertainty of the situation made him uneasy. “You’re putting yourself in an environment where anything can happen,” he explains. “I was scared to talk with people.”

He stayed away for several weeks but others encouraged him to try one more time before Thanksgiving. That turned to one more Friday, and then another, and then another. Since then, the 22-year-old hasn’t missed a Friday. For the last two years, he has led the ministry.

Each week, students serve the people who live under bridges and have “their own little community” on Lower Wacker Avenue. The students provide food, clothes, and blankets. They also develop relationships to meet social and spiritual needs.

Johnson, an Ashland, Mass., native, had wanted to attend a school in an urban environment. After discovering North Park’s University Ministries department, which oversees the homeless ministry, he was sold. “It was one of the things that drew me to North Park,” he says.

Johnson no longer serves a group called “the homeless,” but ministers to individuals who are homeless. Relationships develop over time. Each week, one of the men asks a volunteer about how she is doing in school.

The ministry has changed the way Johnson relates to others and not just those to whom he ministers. “It has shown me I can’t put myself in other people’s shoes,” he explains. “I have to be respectful and try to understand. Everyone has a story.”

Johnson, an art education major who hopes to teach in a public school, also has grown more comfortable in leadership over the last two years. In the beginning, “I got nervous a lot," he says. "I was afraid something was going to happen and it was going to be my fault.”

Although he isn’t sure whether he will continue in some form of homeless ministry after he graduates this spring, or whether another opportunity will come his way, he isn’t anxious about the future.

“I’ve learned to trust God,” he says. “I’m much more at peace.”