This post is part of my “stories” series. In this series, I share stories of how people live their lives in response to the gospel and as a demonstration of God’s love in order to teach us and to provide an example to provoke us to love and good works. (See “stories: A New Series” for more information about this series.)
This story was sent to me by a reader named George. What happens when a group of people begin serving the homeless in their city? Ups and downs, organization and disorganization, politics and struggles… and those who care about the homeless continue to serve them through all the mess.
Many years ago a man attending a well to do suburban bible church decided he needed to help the homeless. He cooked lunch for them once a month and served it to them, using volunteers from the church, in a municipal garage in downtown Phoenix. After a while the man passed the baton to others, and the ministry continued, moving from the garage â€“ which was scheduled for demolition â€“ to an overpass in an industrial area on the outskirts of downtown. (Note that no one now connected with the ministry recalls the manâ€™s name, but we are confident that the One Who matters has it written down.)
Originally the man collected donations on the church patio in a coffee can. The church preferred that donations flow thru it, tho off-budget. People could write checks made to the church and indicated for the homeless ministry, and the church would disburse them at a rate of X dollars per month. In practice, the church made up shortfalls and accumulated overages, but the ministry was not a part of the official budget.
After one leadership change in the ministry, some people decided that the group deserved to be an official ministry of the church. About the same time, the new associate pastor responsible for the churchâ€™s outreach decided that the reason homelessness existed was because of rich suburbanitesâ€™ sucking the money out of the inner city, and efforts by them to alleviate homelessness was just self-indulgence. And the city decided that public, on-street feeding of the homeless simply attracted more homeless into the downtown area, which scared away shoppers and tourists. So the city passed an ordinance strictly limiting public serving.
First there was a confrontation with police. Now, the confrontation was made by a couple of women not from the church but who were regular participants. But it did make the newspaper, which the churchâ€™s senior pastor read. Then the ministryâ€™s leaders â€“ some of them, anyway, confronted the church about being on-budget. It wasnâ€™t long before the church leadership decided the ministry should be dis-associated from the church, although it would be allowed to continue to solicit volunteers and in-kind donations on Sundays. But no more pulpit announcements, and no more storage space, and no more financial assistance. Any donations made thru the church would be kept by the church. The associate pastor suggested that, in keeping with the churchâ€™s motto of â€œcome, grow, and go,â€ it was time for the ministry to go. Away.
All of this sounds very political. And it is. But this is not the real story.
There were among the ministry people who wanted to live out, at least some of the time, Jesusâ€™ teaching to love one another and to support those who cannot repay. Those people looked for ways to improve the monthly meals â€“ chicken BBQs, stroganoff, Mexican â€“ and to ensure with music, bibles, and prayer that the guests knew Jesus was the motivation of the ministry. Politics and recognition, in themselves, were unimportant. What mattered was maintaining a connection to volunteers.
The ministry was only partly one of serving the homeless. Another part of the ministry was connecting suburbanite Christians with opportunities to follow Christ outside of their normal environments. So, while the ministry has never â€œended homelessness,â€ it has succeeded in facilitating Christians in serving in ways they would not have done without the infrastructure provided by the ministry.
One â€œposter childâ€ for the ministry was a former church secretary. While sheâ€™d administered church outreach programs, sheâ€™d never participated. Then one Saturday she decided to attend and at least watch what the group did. She quickly saw that she could fit in, that she could reach out to non-suburbanites, that she could share Christâ€™s love with them in tangible ways. She today attributes this experience to her move to a mission field in Alaska.
When the ministry was booted from its home church, the advice given was to disband and join an established ministry. After some attempts, the group was unable to find a group that shared its enthusiasm for making meals special. So the group formed its own non-profit corporation and volunteered its monthly meal service to existing homeless shelters that relied on donations. That was in 2000.
Today, the ministry has grown and stabilized at a monthly outreach to 570 homeless people in five overnight and transitional shelters. Including core volunteers, each month about 50 Christians serve as Christ has called them. In addition to building a solid relationship with another suburban church, fellowship with the original church has been restored. The disruptive people from all sides have moved on. While politics is ever-present, the Spirit typically wins the day.
Just as the ministry cannot claim to have overcome poverty, neither can its members claim to be like Mother Teresa, either. It is, after all, a once a month ministry. Even so, it is a very special mechanism for moving and connecting Christians in a special way for the service of our Lord.