Cold nights, warm hearts: Churches become homeless shelters
Each Friday night, a van picks up 15 homeless men…
You better get right, church, and let’s go home …
It’s a weekday morning, about 30 minutes before lunch, but the homeless men and women assembled in the River City Ministry dining room sing like it’s Sunday.
As the smell of donated fried chicken wafts from the kitchen, the ramshackle congregation turns from playing dominoes and flipping newspaper pages to praising the Lord.
During this daily devotional, these street people pray, read Scriptures, recite faith-based poetry, share personal testimonies and — of course — sing.
“You may fall. You may have some scars,” a transient tells his downtrodden peers, reflecting on Hebrews 12. “But get up and finish the race.”
Physical needs draw upward of 200 clients a day to the River City Ministry, which grew out of a Vacation Bible School organized by the Little Rock-area Levy Church of Christ at a subsidized housing project in 1989.
The ministry operates a day shelter, a food pantry, a clothing closet and medical and dental clinics. It provides job and counseling referrals.
However, River City’s staff members and volunteers say the ministry fulfills a higher calling: serving spiritual needs of the poor, oppressed and hurting.
In the last five years, the ministry has celebrated more than 1,000 baptisms and restorations.
“We want every person who enters RCM’s doors to know they can have the abundant life Jesus offers because each is created in, and bears, God’s image,” said Anthony Wood, the ministry’s evangelist and assistant director. “God loves the poor and forgotten.”
Robert and Debby Millar were unemployed, unable to pay their bills and addicted to drugs and alcohol when they came to the River City Ministry for food.
“The more I came around this place, the more I got to know God,” said Debby Millar, who has been sober for five years. “It’s by the grace of God and these people that I’m still here and still alcohol- and drug-free.”
Since 2007, 450 clients — like the Millars — have been baptized for the forgiveness of sins, according to River City leaders. An additional 600 souls have been restored to God.
“Our evangelism is a no-pressure, self-discovery effort using questions to help the person being reached to connect to God,” said Wood, who served 15 years with the Memphis Urban Ministry in Tennessee before joining the River City staff in 2007. “We look into their eyes long enough and listen to their hearts until we see a window back into our own souls. We are all connected in God as human beings.”
Often, the converts go share the Good News among friends, Wood said — be it a full Bible study under a bridge or a few encouraging words at an overnight shelter.
“My good friend J.C. has brought over 25 of his friends to us who were later immersed,” Wood said of one such convert. “J.C. always enjoys helping with the baptisms.”
INSIDE THE ‘RED ZONE’
The folks served by the River City Ministry may sleep in a makeshift camp by the Arkansas River or in an abandoned building with no utilities.
Some stay in overnight shelters that provide van or bus transportation to River City during the day.
“Whatever brings them to our door, there’s generally a problem,” said Paul Wilkerson, the ministry’s operations director. “People don’t come here to celebrate the great events of their life. They come … because they’re in trouble.
“We just try to have a smile,” added Wilkerson, an elder for the 600-member Levy church, which pays his salary. “You can’t fix everything, and you can’t give everybody everything they need. But you can be Christ-like, and you can be kind, gentle and have a sweet spirit.”
Church donations and government grants fund the River City Ministry, which has a motto of “Opening Doors to God by Serving the Poor.”
The ministry shines the light of Jesus in a part of North Little Rock dubbed the “red zone” because of its high prevalence of drugs, gangs and prostitution.
“I really believe this is where Jesus would come if he were to come back,” said Jim Woodell, who preached for 25 years before becoming River City’s director in 2004. “He wouldn’t go to the hilltops. He’d be down here in this valley … with these poor people. So that’s why I’m here.”
PROGRESS IN INCHES, NOT MILES
River City partners with other ministries that have followed in its footsteps.
These include HopeWorks of Greater Little Rock, a personal and career development program, and Hand Up Housing, which helps the homeless transition into a stable residential environment. Like River City, both nonprofits maintain close ties with Churches of Christ.
The River City Church of Christ, a short drive from the ministry office, averages Sunday attendance of about 90, said Keith Lape, a domestic missionary supported by the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ in Little Rock.
Most of the attendees first connected with the church through the River City Ministry.
“There’s a wide number we are interacting with and ministering to that rarely or sporadically connect with us in our formal gatherings,” Lape said. “The church is a lot bigger on the outside than it is on the inside of the building.”
Another nearby congregation, the Silver City Church, focuses on mentoring at-risk youth in North Little Rock. The River City and Silver City congregations cooperate on joint projects such as a summer camp.
“We measure progress not in miles per hour but inches per year,” Lape said of the inner-city work. “We’re just trying to be faithful, to plant the seeds, to cultivate the soil, to prune, to do whatever we know God’s called us to do and let him take care of how it all manifests itself.”
LOVE ON THE LUNCH MENU
Anthony B. Wright, a one-time state high school basketball champion, said he was on the street and focused on drinking and chasing women when he came to the River City Ministry in 2005.
“I got baptized at a young age, but I didn’t know what it means or what it stands for,” Wright said. “Now, I know what it means.”
Wright turned his life around and later joined the River City staff, providing manual labor in the food pantry, kitchen and yard as well as helping with security.
“I’m not perfect, and I make mistakes, but I know that I got people out here who care for me,” he said. “These people are like family to me. I just got to give God all the praise and honor. Without this ministry, I wouldn’t be standing here. I’d probably be dead or something like that.”
Leola Johnson, the River City Ministry’s head cook, started as a volunteer in 2005.
“I’ve been here ever since and loving every minute of it,” said Johnson, who taught herself to cook as a 7-year-old while her mother worked in a cotton field. “I’m worshiping the Lord and just having a good time.”
Her specialties include spaghetti and meatballs as well as beans and cornbread. No matter what she makes, nobody complains.
“They love everything I cook, and I just love them,” the River City church member said of the 100-plus guests who line up for lunch after the morning devotional.
Their souls — and stomachs — full, the poor can sing in hope of heaven.
I’m going home on the morning train …
I’m going home on the morning train …
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