Daniel Zhao

It’s Sunday, 8 a.m. Nia Campinha-Bacote DIV ’21 reads aloud to a circle of about 18 adults. Bibles are cracked open on their knees. Cups of coffee rest near their feet. Dusty backpacks lean against the walls.

In the passage Campinha-Bacote reads from the gospel of John, Jesus walks past a man who had been blind from birth. She reads, “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’”

She continues: “‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

After she finishes the passage, Yale New Haven Hospital resident Daniel Song, the leader of the group, looks up from his Bible and at the faces in the group. He relates the story to the way society often blames homeless people for their situation. This isn’t a typical bible study. At the Agape Church for the Homeless, most of the attendees are experiencing or have experienced homelessness.

“How many of us, when something goes wrong, immediately ask questions like, ‘Whose fault is this?’” Song asks the group. “‘Who can I blame for this situation?’”

He explains that rather than fixate on fault, the right question to ask is, “How is God moving right now?”

Campinha-Bacote finishes the passage. In the end, Jesus puts mud on the blind man’s eyes and tells him to wash it off. The man obeys and his vision is fully restored.

Song shares his interpretation: Both faith and obedience — believing that God makes something possible and actively taking the steps that God commands — are essential.

“The blind man doesn’t understand why he has to put mud into his eyes,” he says. “But just because Jesus tells him to do that, he does it in faith, and he is healed.”

His interpretation resonates with Don, a white-haired man around 40 years old, who says he spent 25 years in jail for drug-related crimes. He reflected, “I’m not late in where I should be right now — not in God’s eyes.” His story was similar to the story of the blind man, he said: “With God’s perfect timing, Jesus came on the scene and this guy was healed.”

Each week, around two dozen people — old, college-aged, people you may see sleeping on the New Haven Green, homeless families, volunteers, several housed adults — gather at Agape to worship God. Founded by a member of the Protestant church Elm City Vineyard, or ECV, in 2008, the church has steadily grown in scope and purpose. According to Josh Williams ’08 DIV ’11, who has been a pastor at ECV and served at Agape since 2014, three to four of its members get out of homelessness each year. The church provides short-term employment opportunities, and one volunteer is dedicated to working alongside newly employed individuals and helping them become comfortable in workplaces. The church strives to be a place of encouragement and support grounded in Biblical teaching.

Williams described a dialogical teaching style that focuses on asking questions, identifying the “undersides” of Bible stories that help people relate to the characters and to each other in a way that fosters empathy.

For example, the group studied the story of Moses, a character in the Old Testament who led the Israelites out of slavery under the Egyptians, calling on God to part the Red Sea as they escaped. One part of Moses’ story is often overlooked. Earlier in his life, he encountered an Egyptian man beating an Israelite and murdered the Egyptian.

“All of a sudden, people perk up a little and say, ‘Oh, I can relate to someone who made such a horrible life choice,’” Williams said. “The funny thing is, for everyone in the room — volunteers, people who are homeless alike — we can all relate to making mistakes and not wanting to be judged for that, but wanting to be given grace and generosity.”

Song, one of four leaders who rotates leading Agape now, carries this out. Rather than focusing on theologically heavy passages of the Bible, he implements a story-based approach that focuses on narrative texts from the gospel and the Old Testament. This approach works well at Agape because attendees can easily draw connections between their own lives and the circumstances and decisions of the biblical characters.

Campinha-Bacote has been volunteering with the church for five years. She said Agape recently began emphasizing personal sharing and community building at each meeting.

“What we care most about is doing life with people and having people actually experience a life change, more than people being able to just rote quote Scripture,” she said. “As we are actually doing community and loving people and praying, these things will then lead to the pedagogy of the Bible.”

As a result, the group grows not through direct outreach, but rather in a grassroots manner — people invite their friends, who, if they find it meaningful, then stick around and invite their friends. The goal is to pour time and investment into people who come of their own accord and are willing to commit to the community.

Campinha-Bacote said that Agape hopes to reach a larger audience not by direct intervention, but by encouraging its members to lead others. As its congregants “are changed, they will change the Green.”

Similarly, the leaders do not assume the role of teaching the congregants one correct way of thinking. In a setting like this one, where everyone comes from a different faith background and different set of beliefs, conflict is inevitable. In the past, members have left meetings abruptly.

“People are going to have whatever reactions to the words we’re saying based on their personal experiences,” Song said.“So the question we ask is, ‘How can we walk with them through that?’ That’s why relationships are the most important — not to see this conflict as a problem to be solved, but as evidence of their particular journey and interaction with God.”

Ultimately, Campinha-Bacote said, their work is founded on and grows out of love. Working with Agape has changed her perspective on New Haven and the situation of homelessness.

“I love these people and deeply care about them, and that changes the way I walk through the Green and walk through the streets,” she said. “These are my friends. They’re not just people asking for money.”

When Mike, a black man in his 50s, walks into the room, he and Campinha-Bacote greet each other with a huge smile and hug.

Born and raised in Branford, Connecticut, he grew up catching crabs and going to church. When he moved to Arizona with his wife and two kids, he left behind generations of family. About 10 years ago, they divorced. Through a weekslong hitchhiking trip that trekked across the nation, he made his way back to Branford to be with his grandfather, who had recently fallen ill.

Then, he began struggling with drug addiction. Estranged from his family, he became homeless.

“My family was more like, you’re that? They were ostracizing towards me,” he said. They blamed him for his homelessness.

He felt a compulsion to go to church and found himself in the pews on Sunday mornings.

“I was always at church. I was always there,” he said.

For the past 10 years, he’s been “off-and-on” homeless. He struggles with alienation from his family, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Recently, as he seeks housing, he has been working with a doctor to manage his depression. He has also been attending Agape. He said that his faith encourages him to associate with other Christians and learn from them.

“I try not to go get involved with others because they’re not like-minded, so they’re not gonna like my ways,” he said. “It makes for a better path.”

Across New Haven, even churches that don’t specifically target the homeless community play a role in addressing their needs.

Greg Hendrickson ’03, a co-pastor at Trinity Baptist Church, said that his church’s outreach includes concrete actions that meet basic needs, such as an open-doors food pantry and a benevolence fund used to help lift homeless congregants into housing. But most importantly, he said, the church creates connections — a group of congregants visit Columbus House, the largest homeless shelter in New Haven, once a week to meet people and build relationships.

“When you’re homeless, a lot of your life becomes intensely focused around this one life struggle or challenge,” he said. “Everything becomes about homelessness. It’s really helpful to have a community where you are more than that struggle.”

Vox Church and Christ Church engage in similar outreach work, such as operating soup kitchens and sending volunteer contingents to local shelters.

Outside of churches, faith-based organizations make up a vital part of the network of homeless services. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, they operate 30 percent of the emergency shelter beds on a national level.

In New Haven, the largest such organization is Christian Community Action, or CCA, which occupies a unique space in the city’s network of shelters. It is the only family shelter that accepts males older than 14. According to Shaunette Marquis, one of the family coaches at the organization, it also has much less stringent rules for behavior within the shelter — for example, it does not enforce a curfew, which can be a blessing to single mothers who work longer hours. Finally, each of its 17 units houses a separate family, so no two families need to share a common bathroom, kitchen or other utilities.

Though the organization was founded by a bishop, nothing in its day-to-day operations marks it as faith-based. In contrast to organizations such as the Bridgeport Rescue Mission Center, which provides Sunday services and pastors on site that give counseling and spiritual support to the inhabitants, CCA offers no kind of religious services directly. Child and family, housing and employment specialists work with families to help them carry out an action plan and eventually reach self-sufficiency.

“Some families may come in with greater barriers than others,” Marquis said. “But our job is to make sure no one’s exited to the streets. They might exit to another shelter, or to go stay with a family member. But no family’s ever exited from CCA with nowhere to go.”

After the Bible study portion of the Agape meeting led by Song and Campinha-Bacote, the congregation breaks into four groups, creating a more intimate setting to talk about the highs and lows of the week.

It has been a good week for Mike — he bought a new phone with money he’d been saving for months and called his son for the first time in ages. He started his new job with a moving company. He hurt his back, though, and would appreciate prayers for healing.

Pablo shares his desire to move to the West Coast and start a new family. New Haven is infused with bad memories of his past relationships and hard times.

When it’s Grant’s turn to go, he shrugs nonchalantly. Song asks about his kidneys — he’s been waiting on a transplant for years. Any news? Nope. How’s his leg doing? A little better — he supposes that’s a highlight.

Song asks if he has any prayer requests. He says, “That I wake up tomorrow morning.”