"What is your dream?" It’s the one question they never expect.
You can see their eyes widen when we ask them. They suddenly look up as if to say, “Did I hear you right?” Most of the time, when a homeless family arrives on our Los Angeles campus, they’ve lost just about everything. They have their car, whatever they’ve been able to cram into it, and nothing much else except the clothes on their backs.
Someone on our staff takes them into a room and sits down with them. They’re expecting all the usual questions they’d get from most social workers. But we don’t do that kind of intake here. We have a different first question, and it almost always takes people by surprise.
“What is your dream?”
The question stuns them. Then often their eyes narrow a little with a flash of suspicion: Is this a joke? What is my dream? Are you kidding me? Coming here isn’t about dreaming! It’s about surviving. It’s about staying alive and keeping body and soul together.
I didn’t show up on the front porch of a place like this because I’m chasing my dream. I’ve ended up here because I don’t have anywhere else to go. I want to keep my family together. I don’t want to live with abuse or threats. And I don’t have the energy any longer to fight the alcoholism, the drug abuse and the prostitution that are all around me. And you ask me, “What is your dream?”
But “What is your dream?” is no idle question. It pertains to life and death. Think about Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no revelation [or vision], the people cast off restraint” (NKJV). In other words, without a dream, people don’t exercise self-control. When men and women have nothing to live for, they “cast off restraint.”
So right up front we ask the people who come to us, “What is your dream? What do you want to see happen in your life? What do you want to achieve? Where do you want to go?”
“Well,” they may say, “we’re just trying to survive.”
And we answer, “But what if we took survival off the table? While you’re here, you won’t have to worry about that. This is a safe, clean place, and we will give you the food and shelter you need. So let’s start thinking about your potential.”
The fact is, when you’ve been disappointed again and again, you become afraid to dream. How could you bear another disappointment? But in the power of Christ, you can begin to dream again.
Even in marriages, there comes a point at which people lose hope. A husband and wife may be committed to staying together for the rest of their lives, but as they imagine the years ahead, it looks to them more like running an endurance test or slogging along on an endless marathon.
Asking people “What is your dream?” is almost like lifting them to a whole different plane. We’ve found that most people really do have something in their hearts they would love to do or pursue, but they have suppressed that dream for so long that it doesn’t seem like a possibility at all.
Maybe the dream is getting free from addiction. Maybe it’s finishing high school or going to college. Maybe it’s being trained for a certain occupation or specific career. The desire is still there, but it’s buried so deep beneath their setbacks, pain and loss that they’ve forgotten they ever had any aspirations.
Once we hear their dream, we tell them, “We’re going to help you get to your dream”—and they can hardly believe their ears. Maybe they expected to have to prove themselves first or completely clean up their lives before we would start talking to them about their future.
Belonging and Believing
This “What is your dream?” interaction is based on a concept that the Lord has impressed on us through the years as we’ve worked with people in crisis. We call it “belong and believe.”
Think about it. In the Gospels, Jesus said to a number of men, “Come and follow Me.” At that point, they were in no way ready to be disciples of Christ. They were just regular guys. But Jesus called each one of them, inviting them to walk with Him and to serve Him. He allowed people to belong first, to see what He was doing, find themselves drawn to Him—and then believe.
For some of them, coming to faith in Jesus took a long time. Two disciples didn’t believe until after the resurrection, when Jesus directly confronted them and said, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25, NIV). He didn’t justify their lack of belief or make excuses for their behavior while they were learning, but He allowed them to belong to believe. They didn’t have to clean up their lives first.
Manuel Ramos was 17 when he came into our teen discipleship program (a major program at the Dream Center in which teens who have been kicked out of their homes and kicked out of school are raised in a Christian environment). Manny’s father was an alcoholic, and as a young boy, Manny became heavily involved in alcohol and drug abuse. He has been hospitalized more times than he can remember, he once accidentally burned down his home, and he drifted from trailer park to trailer park staying with friends until he ended up on the mean streets. He was probably as lost and broken and lonely as a young man can be.
When Manny finally came to us—thanks to the help of a concerned family friend—dreams were the last thing on his mind. All too real was the horrific nightmare from which he’d just emerged.
“I had no idea I even had a dream,” he says. “I shouldn’t even be alive! At one point in my life, I was so messed up I thought it was all over. I couldn’t remember what I had done that week because I had never been sober. I was homeless, no one cared about me, and I didn’t care about myself. I didn’t take care of my body or try to stay clean. I just didn’t care.”
And Manny had become an alcoholic by age 13. “Addiction doesn’t really say it,” he recalls. “It was more like affliction. Something awful. I was so lost—but nobody cared. If I had been dying, no one would have heard my screams.
“So dreams? I never had time to think about dreams. I’m only 17 years old, but I’ve gone through stuff in my life that no man should ever go through. I’ve felt pain that’s so painful you want to throw up, but I had to go on.
“So I quit sobbing and wiped my eyes. I hid the pain in the corner of my heart where no light shines. That’s where it stayed, and I forgot it was even there.”
Once in our program, though, Manny learned that he had to re-encounter all of that hidden pain before he could catch a vision for a new life. Jesus helped him do exactly that. Soon after Manny met Jesus, the Lord walked him over to that corner of his heart where he had buried all his sorrow—the still-raw, jumbled up, jagged-edged, poison-tipped blades of pain that had torn into his young soul again and again.
The Bully in the Room
That hiding place in Manny’s heart reminds me of an article I read about storing nuclear waste out in the deserts of eastern Washington state. In a process known as vitrification, radioactive liquids and sludge are turned into large glass logs that are stored in vast vaults somewhere deep under the soil—where they will presumably remain for the next 1,000 years or so. But Jesus doesn’t allow hidden vaults of crystalized pain and deep-rooted anguish. He wants to throw those vaults open. He wants to take that pain on Himself.
“Jesus showed me my despair,” Manny remembers. “I found out right then that I had a Father and that He was a Father who actually cared about me. Without Him, I would have no dreams at all. I guess I had been just too proud to let God take care of me.”
Sometime in the midst of Manny’s discipleship program, somebody taught him Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:33-34: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
As Manny began to seek God first and release all his stored-up pain, he found something he hadn’t even been looking for. Manny found his dreams.
Pain is like the bully in the room that chases a person’s hopes out the door and sends dreams into hiding. That’s why people in crisis who come through our doors are so surprised to have us ask them, “What is your dream?” Their dreams have been overshadowed by their disappointments and sorrows for so long that they may have forgotten they ever had any.
But the Lord doesn’t forget anything. As we ask God to reveal His dream for our lives, He may first have to roll up His sleeves and help us work through some interwoven layers of heartbreak that have hidden His desire and purpose for us.
Jesus did exactly that for Manny, even after all that young man had been through. I encourage you to believe that Jesus can do the same for you and the people God has placed in your care—both in your church and in your community. See what happens when you ask the people in your path, “What is your dream?”
Matthew Barnett is the senior pastor of one of the fastest-growing churches in the United States, Angelus Temple in Los Angeles. He is also the founder of the Dream Center, a ministry that demonstrates the love of Christ by rescuing people out of poverty, homelessness, addictions and human trafficking. Excerpted from God’s Dream for You with permission from Thomas Nelson for use in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of Ministry Today.