I’ll never again drive across the overpasses heading into downtown Chattanooga without thinking about Tree Man Smith, God’s determined love for the destitute, and the Cooperative Program.
Tree Man — or “Tree” as his friends call him — is homeless and has been since 2004. The refuge taken under Chattanooga’s many overpasses has been his only protection from the elements. Tree is nicknamed “Tree Man” because he ran a tree removal service for a number of years.
But the line between the Haves and Have Nots is thinner than you might think. A blown engine rod in his truck, clients that didn’t pay, and stolen tools is all it takes to go from scratching out a living to clawing for survival. Tree is definitely a survivor.
Unfortunately, homelessness has a darker, sinister side that claims a larger human toll than economic poverty. Too many of these “societal castoffs” suffer from drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness. For instance, Tree has a friend with whom he shares the same homeless camp. I’ll call him, “Bill.” Most nights Bill crawls across jagged quarry rocks spread under the overpasses to get back to their shabby tent, but when you’re drunk to oblivion you don’t stand a chance navigating those rocks walking in the dark.
It’s too easy to say, “Well, Bill brought that misery on himself.” Or, “Bill should have never taken the first drink.” Thank God He didn’t look down on me (or you) and say, “Well, Randy should have never sinned. He brought that misery on himself.” Thank God He sent Jesus to save me (and you) from dragging ourselves aimlessly across life’s jagged rocks. And thank God He sent Jimmy Turner to share Jesus with men like Tree and Bill.
Jimmy is a former Marine (although he says, “Once a Marine always a Marine”) with bottomless compassion for the homeless — and not just any homeless. Jimmy is cofounder of Relevant Hope, a Chattanooga ministry that meets physical needs while providing a future hope. Relevant Hope is different than many other ministries because it goes to where the people are. It isn’t uncommon for Jimmy to pull his truck to the side of the road and disappear into the woods looking for the most down and out of those who are down and out.
That’s how Jimmy found Tree. He actually found Tree in a bad way and started ministering to a physical need that eventually led to meeting his greatest need, which was to know Jesus Christ. Jimmy baptized Tree last September and he is training Tree to lead others to Christ and to plant churches among homeless communities. God is determined to bring salvation to the most destitute among us through people like Jimmy and Tree.
And through us as Tennessee Baptists, too. People ask me why Cooperative Program giving is so important or how the money given to CP through the Tennessee Baptist Convention is used. This story is just one of many examples played out hundreds of times. Churches across Tennessee who contributed to the Cooperative Program had a hand in supporting Jimmy who is working in 50 to 60 homeless camps around Chattanooga. Churches giving to the Cooperative Program are participating in reaching people across Tennessee, across America, and around the globe.
Tennessee Baptists are also supporting — through the Cooperative Program — the TBC’s 1-5-1 church planting strategy that is helping equip people like Tree and a layman from Morris Hill Baptist Church named Jeff — and many others — to plant churches among the homeless. We are seeing these modest little groups of believers reach out and plant other groups that are becoming bodies of baptized followers of Christ. The gospel is advancing and lives are being eternally changed because Tennessee Baptists cooperatively gave financially to advance God’s Kingdom. That Kingdom may very well be under an overpass.
If you’re driving through Chattanooga, say a prayer for Jimmy and Tree Man, and the many others tucked under the many overpasses. You might not see them, but God does, and you’re driving across His mission field. Then let that overpass be a reminder that God uses our giving and our going to reveal His love and salvation to the most forgotten among us.