By Marjorie Bozer
“It was 2:00 in the morning and I had already eaten my ice cream. I wasn’t sure where I could sleep. I knew I wanted to come here for breakfast and my camp is out in the country, east of I-75. So, I slept a few hours over there,” Darren said, first putting a finger to his lips to warn me of his secret, then pointing over his shoulder. “You are inside so you probably have never noticed how many ‘No Trespassing’ signs there are. Just look around. The police said if we find a spot without a ‘No Trespassing’ sign they will look the other way, but good luck finding one,” he said, pointing to yet another “No Trespassing” sign on the side door of the church. Darren was easy to talk to and shared freely when I opened the conversation with a comment about the treasures stored on his bicycle.
Maria refused to have her picture taken because she had new wounds on her face. “I was beaten up last night. They took everything I own, even my medicine. I had seizure medicine and stomach cancer medicine… they even took my aspirin. I have a headache from this gash and don’t have any medicine to make it go away.”
Maria’s story was one of several that involved theft and violence. One man spoke of having to defend his guitar from being taken last night. Darren said he has to arm himself for protection so he carries knives in his pocket. However, he assured me, the majority of the homeless are harmless and law abiding, like himself. “It is just that there are some who are on drugs or have bad tempers and you have to look out for them.”
Along the street beside the church, starting at sunrise, Pastor Rick opens his trunk, filled with sacks of clothes, and helps a man find the right sized pants. He breaks open some new packs of socks and is passing them out a pair at a time, followed by tubes of toothpaste. A lady stops him and asks for a blanket. He tells her he has just given two blankets to “her man,” but the man speaks up and says she is not his lady. Pastor Rick calmly offers to get a blanket for her.
We enter the small church fellowship hall which is pleasantly decorated for fall. Some arrive early and are treated to donuts, juice, and coffee as they wait. A large screen TV is displaying a worship band in one corner, offering praises to God, setting the atmosphere and preparing hearts to hear the Word.
Seated just inside the door to greet everyone is a saint with a heart of gold, named Sister H, who has been helping the homeless for decades. She is full of compassion and knows her regular guests by name. She reaches for a new pair of socks to store them away for an expected latecomer who always misses the handouts and each time asks for socks. Seated beside her, as a keeper of the peace, is Brother Mike.
Some homeless guests, in a small room off to the side, are reading their Bibles as they wait for the service to begin. I ask what they are reading, and one man tells me he is reading the book of Deuteronomy and he cannot understand when they have been told not to build an idol, why they do it anyway. We talk about our sinful human nature and that Jesus is the solution. Another says he likes the book of Acts and raises his hands in the air. Then he asks if I think Jonah was really swallowed by a whale or if it was just a story. I assure him the Bible is true and share about how to accept Jesus. A third tells me he prefers to read the Old Testament. I try to point out how different it was when man was separated from God by sin versus in the New Testament when we can have our sins forgiven and can communicate directly with God.
An announcement is made and the service begins. The guitar player will be a little late today so we will listen to Pastor Rick first. After a prayer, Pastor Rick shares about choices. Some choices are small and will not make a big difference in our lives, such as: coffee or tea? Other choices are very important and as we make each good choice we gain strength to continue to make good choices. But the biggest choice in life is whether we will choose the easy, popular, wide road which leads to destruction or the narrow, harder road that leads to eternal life.
The guitarist arrives and we worship God together with music. Many in the group sing out the popular choruses. We end with an all-time favorite, Amazing Grace.
Breakfast is served. As many as 150 guests are expected in this small fellowship hall today. Not everyone will be able to be seated, but those who come first will have seats and the rest will take their plates outside.
There is an orderly assembly row system of filling plates and passing them out. The volunteers along the line are familiar with their roles and soon everyone who is seated has been fed. Now those who are outside begin their line up for plates to go.
There is a scuffle outside and the police are here to intervene. Inside, we do not notice any trouble, the worship team still leads us in praise from the corner TV while people eat and talk amongst themselves. Always on guard, Brother Mike is alerted to the conflict and is acting as peacemaker before the police arrive. It is not long before the outside skirmish is solved and the police pull away.
As plates are emptied, people clean up after themselves and begin to depart. Volunteers finish the cleaning, mop the floors, and prepare the room for Sunday morning church services. Families with young children, all dressed in their Sunday best, are getting out of their cars and coming to church. Most of the homeless have already departed.
Darren is still outside; the chain on his bike is broken. He has a friend nearby who will help him get it fixed. Darren is most interested in telling me ideas that he has to help the homeless. “If someone had money, like my dad or uncle (who are now deceased), they could purchase that vacant Publix, put in some microwaves, and give us who live outside a place to get a shower, make warm meals, and have a roof over our heads when it’s raining or cold. That would be good for everyone. We would be out of sight and we would be safe, if there are some basic rules. You think about it.”
I do think about it. Not that I can afford to purchase a vacant Publix, but how can I better serve this people group? Now that these faces have names and I know some of their stories, they will be harder to forget or ignore.
How can we be Jesus to those near us who are hurting and without a home? There is a team of volunteers in Sarasota, Florida who have found a way to make a difference in the lives of these needy individuals. The homeless count on their generosity and as they are being fed and clothed they are learning about Jesus. Pastor Rick, Sister H, Brother Mike, Esther, and the many other volunteers are being Jesus to those who are hurting and without a home.
The Matthew 25 Ministry at Abundant Life Church started in December 2008, when we passed out blankets and provided coffee and doughnuts to our friends near the bus station in downtown Sarasota. Soon after we started we met Sister H and her ministry at United Pentecostal Church where they were serving a full breakfast every Sunday to 100 to 150 homeless people. Abundant Life Church linked arms with United Pentecostal Church and Sarasota Christian Church to provide an ongoing outreach to the homeless. Once a month, Abundant Life Church underwrites and provides volunteers to serve, preach, and lead worship at the breakfast. The other weeks, breakfast is underwritten by other churches, but the meeting place is always at the United Pentecostal Church. This interdenominational, cooperative effort has worked well for us for the past six years.