James Barnett never imagined that he would be homeless. Yet for two years he found himself sleeping on the streets with the poor — by choice. It was the only response to his faith that seemed to make sense.
“To me, the only rational response to a God who says, ‘Give up everything and follow me,’ was to give up everything and follow him,” James said.
So he did.
James was born into a Christian home in Boynton Beach, Florida one Easter morning in 1985.
“When he was born I remember thinking, ‘God’s got a special plan for your life,’” James’ mom, Jeri Lynn Barnett, said.
Growing up, James attended a Methodist church with his family on Sunday mornings and went to Bible study on Wednesday nights. He didn’t do “bad things,” he said, yet his faith didn’t cause him to live in a way that stood out the way that he believes Jesus calls us to.
“I was raised in the church, but that’s kind of where it ended for me,” James said. “In my attempt to look like Christ, I simply didn’t look like the world.”
James did service work and went on mission trips throughout high school and college, often volunteering at homeless shelters, but he couldn’t get past the feeling that something was missing.
“I wasn’t friends with the poor,” he said. “I knew they were poor and I was wealthy, but I didn’t know them.”
Not long after graduating from Florida State University, James took a job with J.P. Morgan & Chase. He was making almost a six-figure salary, but he wasn’t happy. He called up a buddy he knew was taking a mission trip to Latin America, got a couple of days off of work and three weeks later left the country for the first time on a plane heading to Nicaragua.
The turning point
Nicaragua’s city dump is called La Chureca. It’s the final destination for most of the city’s garbage, including mountains of fecal matter, medical waste and battery acid. Hundreds of people live inside the dump, where families construct their homes out of the trash. It was here, in the middle of the wasteland, that a Jamaican prophetess named Mrs. Ruby had come to live among the poorest of the poor, praying over them and speaking to them on God’s behalf.
“She would pray over people as if the Lord were speaking,” James said. “I didn’t really believe in that stuff before I went. It’s very different from what we’re raised to believe, but it’s actually very biblical. Looking back, it’s kind of shocking that I wasn’t taught about it in church.”
His last day in Nicaragua, James went to see Mrs. Ruby. As James kneeled on the floor of her home just outside the gates of the dump, she poured oil over his head and began speaking in tongues.
“I was expecting something transformational,” James said. “I mean, how often do you get outside of the country to be prayed over by a prophetess in the middle of a dump?”
Finally, the prophetess fell silent. She looked at James and said, “Child, the Lord wants you to know you haven’t been obedient.”
James was furious. He had worked so hard to live a good life; he didn’t understand how he had not been obeying.
“My child,” she said calmly, “your obedience isn’t defined by what you don’t do, but by what you do for the world your God so loved.”
Slowly, James began to feel convicted that there was a difference between admiring Christ and following him.
James walked into the kitchen and hopped on top of the counter, not sure how his mom was going to react to what he was about to tell her. He sat there quietly watching her cook at the oven. James had been restless lately. She knew something was up.
“Yes?” she asked.
“Mom,” James said, “I feel like I want to be homeless.”
James remembers her response was simple, yet profoundly beautiful.
“She’s got these beautiful big, round eyes,” he said, “and she started tearing up. She nodded her head and just looked at me, and said, ‘OK.’”
James’ dad said it would be a neat adventure. His boss thought he was a fool, but he quit his job in September of 2009 and put some of his belongings up for sale on Craigslist, the rest up for sale in the driveway.
Before he hit the road, James stayed at home to gather support. He started sleeping on the streets in Tallahassee, handing out socks and clothing to those in need, but eventually he ran out of items to give and money to buy more with.
A graphic design major in college, he made a t-shirt design and had some shirts printed that simply read, “Clothe Your Neighbor as Yourself.” He began selling them, and pouring all the profits back into helping the homeless.
At first, Mrs. Barnett was terrified.
“I was in fear for my child,” she said. “I just prayed and prayed that if it was God’s will for him then I would feel a peace about it.”
Almost immediately, she felt a light calmness about her.
She felt God saying, “He was mine before he was yours, and I’m going to take care of him,” she said.
The entire time James was away from home she was overwhelmed by a sense of peace that never left her.
Meeting love face to face
The first week James spent on the streets it rained.
On the streets of Gainesville, Fla. he handed out rain ponchos to the wet and cold. After receiving a poncho, one man replied, “Let me give you something,” and signaled for James to come with him behind a building. A little nervous, James followed. The man pointed to the bathroom, and again said, “Follow me.”
James was hesitant, but he felt a voice say, “Go in. Trust in my peace.” Inside, more homeless men were gathered around the wall in a tight circle. Unsure of what was about to happen, James watched as the man pushed through the group and pointed at the wall.
“I noticed your socks were wet,” he said reaching out toward a hand dryer. “This is how we stay warm and dry our socks. I wanted to give something to you.”
James just looked at him, amazed.
Georgia on my mind
After three and half months, James headed to Atlanta, a city known for having some of the most dangerous streets in the country.
“I heard I was going to die in Atlanta,” he said. “So before I took off for Georgia, I swung back home to see family and friends — just in case.”
It was in Atlanta that James met Joe McCutchen, a volunteer at SafeHouse Outreach, an urban program committed to helping those on the margins of society. When the two met, the first thing Joe noticed about James was his feet, wrapped up in a
pair of burlap canvas shoes — the only pair of shoes he wore for two years straight.
“I remember looking down and seeing his shoes held together with duct tape and I thought, ‘I really like this guy.’”
James worked with Joe in the SafeHouse Outreach mail center for two months, reaching out to the more than 12,000 homeless who live on the streets and under the bridges of the city.
“It was a joy having him around,” Joe said. “They still talk about him on the streets here.”
Although James was getting the hang of life on the streets, street life wasn’t always easy — or safe.
Back in Gainesville, James had become good friends with a homeless woman named Laurie whose boyfriend would come back to the alley some nights drunken and angry. He usually hit Laurie and eventually, she told James she was afraid for her life. Thinking about how he could help his friend, James remembered the way that Jesus often “disarmed people with creative thinking,” he said.
So he got creative. Thursday nights he started showing up in the alley with board games.
“I ended up just having to hug him every time I saw him to disarm his anger,” he said. “The first time I went out there he came at her furious and didn’t even see me. I stepped out in front of her and just hugged him, held onto him for a few seconds. I said, ya know, ‘Lord, bring peace.’”
Eventually, the boyfriend calmed down and the three of them sat together in the streets playing Mancala.
When two paths cross
Matt Follman was pouring soup into someone’s bowl at a shelter when he told the homeless man he was serving to have a good day.
“Easy for you to say,” the man replied, adding how easy it must be for Matt to go home to his nice house, drive a nice car and eat out of his nicely stocked fridge.
The man’s comment tugged on Matt’s heart and within a few months Matt had sold everything he owned to live on the streets among the poor. He heard that the homeless flocked to the south like birds, and he’d always wanted to see the beach anyway, so he picked up from Colorado and headed to a little surf town in none other than Melbourne, Florida.
It wasn’t long after he hit Melbourne that he heard about James Barnett.
“I kept hearing this name echoing around,” Matt said, “and I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’”
Matt was hanging out in a coffee shop one day when James came up and gave him a hug. It’s not hard to imagine they became fast friends.
“I told James this is going to be a great friendship,” Matt said, “and he looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘It already is, man.’”
This March, James took Matt with him on a trip to visit SafeHouse Outreach in Atlanta.
“I’m learning from James in the way that Timothy learned from Paul,” Matt said. “It gives me chills to think that I’m going to meet the same people that James has already met along his journey. It’s funny, all God wants to do is just to use us — if we would just open our eyes and ears. God is writing; we’re just the pencil. All we need to do is ask to be used.”
The Clothe Your Neighbor movement
By the end of 2010, Clothe Your Neighbor As Yourself had become an
official non-profit organization.
All of the profit goes to benefit either The Kenyan Knitting Project, which pays the salaries of Kenyan women who knit uniforms for Kenyan orphans, or The Brigade Project, which provides a way for community members to request and then hand deliver basic goods to the homeless in their area.
Today, James lives in a parsonage in a little surf town in Melbourne, Florida, where some 70-plus kids at First United Methodist Church call him their youth pastor. Others call him a saint. Some call him crazy. But the homeless who James met along his journey will always call him by the nick name they gave him on the streets: Mr. Butters — because as they say, “he spreads the love like he spreads the butter.”