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On the Road

This family sold everything they owned in order to help others.

The Loecken Family

I steered our RV out of the campground in Rancho Cucamonga, California—home for the last two months for me, my wife, Beth, and our four kids. We’d had a great stay, delivering care packages to the homeless and painting a church on Skid Row in downtown LA.

Four years ago, living in our big house in the Atlanta suburbs, I could never have imagined this being our life. But then so much had changed since that fall afternoon we ventured under a bridge below I-75…

I gripped my son Noah’s hand tight as we made our way down the steep embankment that day, the roar of traffic above us. What was I doing bringing a five-year-old down here? Or the rest of my family, for that matter?

Behind me, Beth held on to nine-year-old Abigail. Bekah, 11, and Ben, 13, followed close behind. We’d come to work with a nonprofit called 7 Bridges to Recovery to distribute care packages to the homeless. I was hoping it might connect us as a family. But this was more than I’d signed up for. I could barely breathe from the smell. How could anyone live like this?

We reached the bottom and my eyes adjusted to the gloom. Bare mattresses were scattered on the ground. Some were unoccupied, but others held ragged men, sleeping or sitting, staring into space.

I took one of the sack lunches we’d brought and Noah and I approached one of the men. His hair was greasy, his T-shirt stained, his pants torn. “Hello,” I said. “We brought you some food. We want you to know there are people who care about you and that God loves you.” He nodded and mumbled, “Thanks,” but didn’t make eye contact.

“Could I pray for you?” I asked. Another nod. “Dear God,” I prayed, “please help this man know you’re with him. Give him comfort and strength. Amen.” Noah clung to my leg. I looked around and saw Beth and the kids handing out lunches. Would this make a difference?

Lately nothing in my life seemed fulfilling. I was making a ton of money in my job as a mortgage broker. Beth and I had turned our house into a showcase, with a fountain in the entryway, wall sconces and oil paintings. My favorite spot was the front room with the sofa big enough for all of us, the 50-inch flat-screen TV and surround sound. When we wanted something, we bought it. Except I didn’t know what I was looking for anymore.

I was putting in 12-hour days at the office, even some weekends. We needed the money. Besides, the kids were busy with their own activities. We didn’t have many close friends. Going to church was the one thing we did as a family, but even there something was missing. I had this nagging sense God wanted me to do something else. But what?

We’d gone on a two-week mission trip to Africa, but we came back more restless, more acutely aware of the needs of the poor, more dissatisfied with our comfortable suburban life. That’s how we had ended up here under the bridge.

Noah and I moved from one man to the next. I gave each a sack lunch and offered to take him to a shelter for the night. No takers. There seemed to be no way for me to connect with these guys.

I looked down to check on Noah and realized he was no longer holding my hand. He was marching up to a man sitting on a mattress. The man had scraggly hair, a matching beard and missing teeth. Before I could say anything Noah hugged the man’s leg. The man flung a bony arm around Noah. Then they smiled at each other, completely unguarded. I ran up to them. “Good kid,” the man said. “We don’t see kids down here.”

“Thanks,” I said. “You definitely seem to have made a friend.”

“We brought you some lunch,” Noah said, taking the bag from my hand and giving it to the man.

“Thank you, young man,” he said. “I appreciate it. How old are you anyway?”

We talked for a few minutes. He told us he’d lost his job. His wife left him and his life had spiraled downward. He spoke freely about himself, but seemed more interested in us. He asked Noah what he liked to do for fun and me what I did for a living. His eyes grew wide when I told him our whole family was spending the afternoon under the bridges. “But why are you here?” he asked.

Why were we here? “Because I want you to know God loves you,” I said, trying to sound more certain than I felt.

He locked eyes with me. “Show me what you say,” he said.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that,” I said.

“Show…me…what…you…say,” he said, with just enough edge to keep me from asking again what he meant. It seemed almost a challenge.

I prayed for him and thanked him for his time. Noah gave him a hug goodbye. On the way home everyone talked about what they’d experienced. “I want to do that again,” Noah said. I told Beth what the man had said. “That’s odd,” she said. “What do you think he meant?”

“I’m not sure. I guess that talking about God isn’t enough.”

We pulled into the garage and went into the house. Everyone went their separate ways. I sank into the plush sofa and stared at the screen of the 50-inch TV. Show me what you say. Those words were like a drumbeat in my head.

Here were all the trappings of my success. But how were they helping me know God’s love? That afternoon under the bridge was better family time than anything we did in this huge house.

I fell to my knees. “Lord, what is it you would have me do?” I asked, my voice breaking. “I need you to show me the way.” I lifted my head and thought of a Bible verse, James 2:17. Faith without works is dead. That sounded like what my life had become. The six of us going in all different directions full of activity but empty of meaning. Yet in one afternoon it had come back for all of us. Maybe we needed to make giving of ourselves the focus of our lives.

I shared my thoughts with Beth and the kids. They’d come home with similar feelings. The things we owned no longer seemed important. In fact, they were holding us back. What if we sold the house? Got an RV and traveled the country helping others? It wouldn’t be easy. But I’d be able to work from the road and we’d continue to homeschool the kids.

That’s what we’ve done ever since we hit the road in April 2008. Our journey has taken us from Atlanta to nearly every state in the country, including all the way here to southern California. I nosed the RV out of the campground onto I-5, not sure exactly where we’re headed but knowing we will be led.   

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