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The pastor of a Sacramento megachurch had already raised the money he sought for a program to provide food and shelter to the homeless. But Rick Cole, who began the fundraiser with a stunt where he would live on the streets, couldn’t leave after only a few days. So, he spent the next two weeks living life as the homeless do — and the experience opened his eyes.
"I've walked past people that stay in some of the places of homelessness. And really almost not even noticed them, not considered their plight and what's going on in their life. Now I was living among them," Cole told NBC News.
Unrecognized by his new neighbors, the 57-year-old pastor spent his days looking for food and worrying about where he'd sleep at night. He didn't preach he didn't proselytize. He just listened. "I think I began to experience how people ignore others. I became the one ignored. People walked by me like I didn't exist."
Cole, pastor of the Capital Christian Center, had in the past pitied the homeless but found it difficult to grasp the circumstances that lead to people ending up on the streets. There are an estimated more than 2,500 homeless people in California's capital city, according to a 2013 count by Sacramento Steps Forward.
"It might be, like, man, those people just need to get a job. They need to get themselves out of the hole they dug for themselves," Cole said of attitudes he’d heard — and shared at times — before his two-week stretch on the streets. He slept by a river some nights, alongside other of the city’s homeless.
"Once we try to go to sleep at night, it was really sketchy because there's people walking up and down this river all night long. So you wake up kind of startled, not sure what's going on. So it felt, actually, very insecure,” said Cole, who has been pastor of the church for 19 years.
After the experience, Cole said the "holes" he found were filled addiction and mental illness, bad breaks and bad decisions. Who was he not to help?
"They matter to God. They matter to me, and now I'm trying to figure out why didn't they matter to me before," Cole said.