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Monday, May 10, 2010

Profile: Andy Odle, street minister

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Indiana native Odle began working at Church on the Street with the intention of only staying in Atlanta for three months. Twelve years later, Odle's now the executive director of the Christian outreach organization that goes into the community to minister to and develop relationships with the city's chronically homeless. Every Saturday, the group holds a prayer and outreach service in Old Fourth Ward.

What is the mission of Church on the Street?

What we believe is that no one is left out of God’s love. We don’t have the luxury of being able to just sit up in our nice condos or our houses in suburbs and forget about these people. We believe homelessness is a relationship problem. The first thing we want to do is to let people know that even though the world has pushed them aside or counted them invisible, the Church and God doesn’t. We go to them, and we love them. We’re not there to provide a meal for them or cottle them as some would say.

Do you work with social service or rehabilitation programs in Atlanta?

When we build trust, then what we can do is connect them with other organizations in the community. But as far as they’re concerned, these other institutions have forgotten about them and screwed them over – whether that is a ministry, a social service, the police. Hopefully we can vouch for these other organizations and say that these are people who really care about them. Or this is how they can help. We’re hoping our relationship translates over. So then we’re picky about who we choose on that other side.

How do first-time volunteers react after they work with your organization?

Ninety-nine percent of the people who come to work with us are blown away by how their previous perceptions of homelessness are completely wrong-headed. They’re not bad people. They just don’t understand what’s going on. So they come and they hear the stories and they meet the people and they understand the history and all that surrounds modern homelessness, they have a different understanding.

Where are you originally from? How did you end up in Atlanta?

I am from Indiana. When I was in college in Indiana, I had a chance to do an internship in Phoenix, Arizona at church. So I got to know this guy named Kurt who moved to Marietta, Georgia a few years later. And he’s a pastor of a little church up there. And he started doing street ministry and volunteering. So he asked me, ‘Want to help me get this going?’ And I said sure. We thought it would only be for three months, and now I’m on my twelfth year of Church on the Street.

Where did you get your doctorate degree?

At Kings Colleges at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. It’s in moral theology. What the Brits call moral theology we might call ethics or theological ethics. And I actually studied social theology and homelessness.

Do any of your former clients end up becoming part of the outreach program?

Absolutely, in more or less formal ways. There’s one guy who we’ve worked with since we started doing this. He’s battled addiction. He’s been doing really well for quite some time now and has really helped us on our side of the table. There are guys on the street who vouch for me. There are guys who are able to advance our work because they say ‘Hey, Pastor Andy’s a good guy.’ They watch my back.

Do you try to involve people outside of the Church as well?

More often than not, the people who are going to interested in what we’re doing are going to be Christians or at least people who are going to be sympathetic. That’s not 100 percent of the cases. I actually have one volunteer who grew up in the Church, but he kind of turned his back on it. He said “I really want to come volunteer and be a part of what you’re doing. But I just want you to know, I’m not going to be talking about Jesus.” And I said, “Come on.”

What compelled you to start doing this type of work?

My whole life I’ve had these sympathies toward vulnerable people – whatever that looked like. Whether that was homeless people, whether that was black people who were discriminated against, that’s just one of the sympathies I’ve always had.

Have you tried to work cooperatively with the city of Atlanta?

We’re nobodies. So in some ways, if at all, we’re just a little blip on the radar screen for someone in power. If Kasim Reed wants to do something for the poor and we believe that it’s right, I’m glad to participate with him. But just because I cooperated yesterday doesn’t mean I’m not going to call him out [when I think he’s wrong].

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