By Sue Tornai
Sunday school teachers see their students grow physically and spiritually into adults. I have been humbled over the years by my students’ testimonies, baptisms, and sincere love for Jesus. Once in a while I see God’s message take root in a young person to change the world.
Birth of a Mission
Matthew Johnson, a student who was in my third grade class in 2010, is an example of such a world changer. His smile and eagerness to help brightened my Sunday mornings. I was not surprised to hear that he helped serve a meal to homeless guests in his neighborhood. He was 8 years old at the time and told his mom, Luz, about his experience.
“I saw the man we often see at the post office,” Matthew said. “His name is Robert, and he asked me if I had hobbies and what I liked to do. I told him I liked outer space. He said he did too. We talked a long time, and he suggested some movies I might enjoy.”
Matthew grew silent and tears welled up in his eyes.
“Is something wrong?” Luz asked.
“Yeah.” He looked up. “Many of the people who came to dinner did not have socks, shoes, or coats. Mom, it’s cold outside!” Matthew wondered how God could allow people to go without clothes to keep them warm. It was then he felt called by God to be “Jesus with skin on,” a phrase he learned in Sunday school.
Luz has witnessed Matthew’s compassion from the time he was 4 years old. When he saw scenes on television of a homeless person or passed someone in need on the street, he looked up to her and asked, “What can we give him?” One time when they were shopping, Matthew asked Luz for $4, and she watched him give it to another kid he thought needed it.
“Would you like to do something for the homeless?” she asked.
Matthew smiled, and they agreed to collect socks. Matthew asked the principal at his school and the leaders of two churches for permission to set up collection bins. That first year he received 3,000 sock donations.
Each October since then, Matthew, now age 14, has held Socktober Drives in Sacramento. Matthew prays every year, “God, help me make a difference—to reach more people and more families.” In 2013 he set a goal of 10,000 pairs of socks by October 31. Even though he fell short of his goal, he gave seven dozen pairs of socks from the amount he raised to Kashlynn, a girl in Kentucky who asked for socks for her birthday so she could give them to the poor.
The host of TV show Good Day Sacramento invited Matthew to be her guest and surprised him by also inviting the founders of Bombas Sock Company. For each pair of socks sold, Bombas donates a pair to charity. The owners presented 4,000 pairs of socks to Matthew, which was the exact amount he was short of reaching his goal.
Matthew’s big brown eyes opened wide. “This was kind of like the miracle of Jesus feeding a crowd from a boy’s lunch!” he said. “The Lord gave thanks for the five loaves of bread and two fish, and the disciples distributed enough so everyone ate and was satisfied. I gave a few socks to Kashlynn, and God multiplied my gift through Bombas.”
More than 600,000 people are homeless today in the United States. The challenge might seem daunting, but it doesn’t discourage Matthew. He prays for God to help him make a small difference in a big world. His compassion is contagious, and more people, churches, and businesses get involved every October.
My friend Ruth is an example of this kind of contagious compassion. She told her husband, who had been on a sock-buying binge, about Matthew collecting socks for the homeless. Her husband was so inspired that he gathered more than 100 pairs of socks from around the house, new and slightly used, and together he and Ruth donated them to The Gathering Inn in Roseville, California. The attendants received them with big smiles. “Socks are like gold to the homeless!” one of them said. Empowered by their enthusiasm, Ruth led the women at her church to regularly donate socks to the homeless.
Matthew and his parents established a nonprofit organization, Socks from the Heart to the Homeless, for the business of collecting socks and other necessary items for the homeless. He has earned the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce Heroes of Human Service Award two times in the past six years. When asked if he was tempted with pride for his accomplishments, he said, “No, this is God’s work.”
The work, however, has grown into a full-time job for Luz and Matthew—collecting, counting, and donating to numerous organizations that serve homeless people in Northern California and across the nation. Luz already has a full-time job, and Matthew’s high school homework assignments take a lot of his time in addition to the time he spends playing his guitar in a band at church.
Matthew and his parents didn’t want to let go of their ministry to the poor, but they didn’t have time to do all the work. Again they prayed to God for help. Soon after they prayed, Matthew asked his youth group if they would like to partner with him in the Socktober Drives. Their answer was a unanimous yes.
Luz remembers praying before Matthew was born, “That he may be a revolutionary who speaks for those who have no voice or befriends the homeless person no one will even look at.” She named him Matthew, which means “gift of God,” and sees answers to her prayers almost on a daily basis. When she walks with him in town, she holds back when he approaches a homeless person and watches him give a plastic bag filled with toiletries, snacks, socks, and a small Bible.
“How do you feel when you talk to a person on the street?” I asked Matthew.
“I feel great. Their faces light up when I give them something. They feel respected and glad someone took time to talk with them.”
By inviting the youth at church to help in the Socktober Drives, Matthew is able to share his heart of compassion and the joy of serving the homeless as well as play his guitar and lead worship at church. He is doing what God calls each of us to do.
On the Socks from the Heart to the Homeless Facebook page (facebook.com/Socks-from-the-Heart-163606797076789) there is a video of Matthew promoting a Socktober Drive. He talks about what Jesus said in Matthew 22:37-39: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” He also talks about what Jesus said in Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” In other words, how we treat others is how we treat God.
Matthew Johnson speaks to my heart and many others’ hearts when he asks, “How can we love our neighbors as ourselves when we spend money to indulge ourselves and think little about giving to the poor?” He admits, “We may not save lives by collecting socks, but we are being obedient to God.” It starts with radical compassion like Jesus had when he fed a crowd from a boy’s lunch or when he healed the sick and made the deaf hear and the blind see; when he cleansed lepers and gave a son back to a widow; when he turned water into wine to save a bridegroom from an embarrassing situation. Jesus gave his life on the cross so we would be forgiven and experience eternal life.
We too can be intentional in showing compassion, mercy, and love in the things we do. It’s happening in our Sacramento community. Believers take time to visit food lines to the poor and volunteer to pray for people. They introduce them to the love of Jesus and have conversations about how to begin a relationship with Christ. People are joining Matthew Johnson by becoming Jesus with skin on, and as a result many people are learning about forgiveness, new hope, and eternal life.
Sue Tornai is a freelance writer in Carmichael, California.