Comedian Jeff Foxworthy finds blessings ministering to Atlanta's homeless

by Gregory Tomlin, |
REUTERS/Phil McCarten

ATLANTA (Christian Examiner) – "You might be a redneck" if you enjoy Jeff Foxworthy's routines poking fun at the eccentricities of Southern language and culture – a style of comedy that has made him one of America's top funnymen and earned him legions of loyal fans.

Sellout crowds on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, successful TV shows and even game shows (Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? and American Bible Challenge) are part of his portfolio. All are supported by his willingness to make fun of anything and everything with his distinctly backwoods humor.

Behind the laughter, however, is a serious man who believes he has more work to do in the race called "life." That's because he isn't just a comedian. He's a Bible teacher.

Atlanta NBC affiliate WXIA recently reported that Foxworthy is now in his eighth year of teaching a men's Bible study at The Atlanta Mission, a Christian mission to homeless men, women and children in the heart of the city. Foxworthy said he was asked to teach and, for a moment, was terrified because he felt inadequate.

"I'm like, there's six million people in Atlanta and you can't find anybody more qualified for this than me?" Foxworthy said in the interview.

"Yeah, I was scared. I didn't know what I was doing, but I'm not scared anymore. All I did was say 'yes,' and to me that is part of faith. God's like, 'Okay, if you really believe I am who I say I am, I can handle this. All I want from you is to say 'yes.' That's all you gotta do. I'll handle the rest.'"

"I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know anybody in my group. It was me and 12 strangers who'd been living under bridges."

"And I tell my kids all the time, 'You know what, life isn't worth living unless you have some of those hold your nose and jump moments.' Hold your nose and jump. I had no idea when I said, 'Okay, I'll do it,' in one little room with 12 guys, that it was going to grow into this. No idea," Foxworthy said.

And I tell my kids all the time, 'You know what, life isn't worth living unless you have some of those hold your nose and jump moments.' Hold your nose and jump. I had no idea when I said, 'Okay, I'll do it,' in one little room with 12 guys, that it was going to grow into this. No idea.

What started with 12 homeless men now stands at 200 on a weekly basis in the mission's classes, but if asked Foxworthy isn't focused on the numbers. He is focused on the world of people – human beings – God has opened up to him because of his obedience to the call.

Eight years ago, Foxworthy admits, he didn't know a single homeless person. In fact, they weren't even a concern for him.

"It's easy to drive by somebody homeless when they're not a person. It's easy to roll down the window and go, 'Here's three bucks, leave me alone,' but when you start learning somebody's story, they become a human being," he said.

Foxworthy said that lesson was driven home with him because of the first person he met at the homeless shelter. He was a 21-year-old white man (a rarity among the mostly black, middle-aged men at the shelter). Foxworthy said he didn't know why the young man was there and jokingly told him to "go get a job."

Foxworthy didn't know the young man's backstory. When he was 11 years old, his mother killed herself. His brother did the same in the following year. It was just him and his father, and he went on to college hoping to make a life for himself. But in his sophomore year, he was notified that his father had done the same thing.

"He started getting high because he was tired of hurting all the time," Foxworthy said. "You know, I looked at him said, 'I would have gotten high too. But for the grace of God I'm you. You just had circumstances different from mine.' Here's the cool part. Eight years later ... he got his nursing degree two years ago. He's been sober for eight years."

That is the kind of transformation those who run the shelter hope for, Foxworthy said. The Atlanta Mission's statement of purpose claims it was founded on the idea that "a relationship with Christ is the key to restoration, redemption, and sustainable change for everyone."

Change isn't always easy for the men in the Bible study. They sit around in the Thursday morning study, eating chicken biscuits and talking about a Bible passage, life, and purpose. Sometimes they talk about falling down and getting up again.

Foxworthy has learned in his time at the mission never to be surprised.

"A guy will look at you and say 'I stole my grandmother's life savings to buy heroin' and you're like 'Okay, fine. We can work with that!' At least you're not pretending that you've got it all going on," he said.

But he is also surprised at the sense of charity shared among the men in the group. On one occasion, he told the men that he and other group leaders at the mission would match every dollar they gave to help others like them.

"I have a hard time with this one," he said, recalling how the men in the room each put $50 in a basket to help the poor. "And then they went and got their coats and they were pulling out change and wadded up dollar bills – $5 bills. They gave every penny they had. Homeless people gave every penny they had to help somebody else. And in the middle of it, I had to get up. I went out into the hall and I sat down and I just wept. I just sat there and cried. I've given stuff away, but I've never given everything I had to help somebody else."

It is that kind of generosity which has blessed Foxworthy as much as anyone else. He takes it to heart as he roots for the men in the class – each one a down-on-his-luck success story in the making.

"I've always had a heart for the underdog because I'm an underdog, where I came from. I just don't think you can judge somebody based on the quality of their shirt or their shoes because you don't know what beats in their heart underneath. Life is upside down. When you invest in other people you're the one who gets the most out of it not them. It gives your life meaning and purpose."

For his part, Foxworthy is thankful to be a part of the mission each week. He is thankful that he said "yes" when he was asked to lead the Bible study. His experiences have also been valuable lessons for others who may not understand that you only get one chance in this life to help others. Life is like running a race with a single lap, he said.

"There are so many people who waste their lap. This isn't a practice lap. You don't get to do it again," Foxworthy said.