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“Come to me, all you who are weary…”

By Lydia Gingerich

A pale and tattered woman stumbles through the doors of the homeless shelter. This trembling old woman, likely in her seventies, leans on the arm of a young drug dealer who found her freezing out in the parking lot. Nikki makes a call to the volunteer nurse while the woman is given blankets and a place to rest. The staff receive assurance from the nurse that the shaking is a positive sign. She will be okay for tonight, but this woman still needs a home; what is she going to do for the rest of the winter?

Nikki Gonzales has been serving the homeless for the past four years by directing Code Purple Sussex County which provides shelter on the coldest nights for the homeless in Sussex County, Delaware.

This organization “includes various shelter locations in the county…at churches. So a church will open up and they will have cots and blow-up beds, blankets, meals every evening, toiletries, and just a warm place to stay for the night.”

One of these churches is Gateway Fellowship, a Conservative Mennonite Conference (CMC) congregation that Nikki and her family attend. Gateway works with six other churches in the county to provide volunteers and a space for people to stay. Last winter the churches housed about 250 people throughout the winter. This year the churches will be open every night from December 15 through March 15, but Nikki and her team continue to serve all year long.

“We have become like a family, so even in the off season I have many people who call. So that way if someone is cold and needs a place to stay at two in the morning, you know, they get an answer.”

Over the years, Code Purple has seen many people utilize their shelters who are in desperate need of help. “These people have burned every bridge because they have stolen from their family or their mental state has been poor for so long that their family can't take it anymore. There are no more options and they’ve been through all the state resources and so they really have no other choice when they come to the shelter. So we see the hardest of the hardest.”

The need in this community is great, and there are many issues that never get resolved, but Nikki wants to give people more than just food or shelter. “We tell them: God sees you; he created you; he loves you. He wants you to walk with him so that you can walk in freedom – away from all this stuff. But it is not always easy. It rarely happens where they instantly get it. But we keep loving them; we keep praying for them.”

Prayer is important for those seeking help as well as the volunteers. Being with these people and speaking God’s truth over their lives can change a judging or fearful perspective.

“I've learned more serving and getting out there than sitting in a pew listening to a sermon.” “You see so much more than the black and white – why don’t they just get a job? Or why don't they stop doing heroin? I've learned more serving and getting out there than sitting in a pew listening to a sermon.” Nikki does not want to downplay the importance of Sunday morning, but has personally benefitted from taking what she learns in a sermon and practicing it in her ministry, and vice versa.

Miss Dot, the pale and tattered woman in her seventies who was found out in the freezing cold parking lot is one person who impacted Nikki. After nursing her that night, Nikki and the other volunteers found out that Miss Dot had numerous ailments and would need special assistance. She had no children and her husband had recently passed away. Code Purple helped Miss Dot find a hotel, and then a shelter in which to stay. Throughout those initial months, Miss Dot got to know Nikki’s family, making special friends with her youngest daughter. When Nikki asked Miss Dot if she knew the Lord she replied, “Don’t worry, me and him [sic] have it worked out.” She was then transferred “to hospice upstate. So my mom and dad and I drove up. I barely got there in time to pray over her as she passed away. The Lord brought her into our life in her last days, so she would not have to die alone.”

Another person that has been especially impactful to Nikki is a man she met during her first year at Code Purple. This man had made an inappropriate comment to Nikki and she informed him that she would not tolerate that kind of speech. He later apologized for the remark and she forgave him.

“And he said it’s not that easy. And I said, yeah it’s that easy. I forgive you. God forgives us every time we ask for forgiveness and we turn from what we were doing. And he said it doesn't work that way in the world. And I said it can. It could work that way between me and you. And ever since then we have been best friends.”

Nikki has listened to this man’s story – he comes from an abusive household and struggles with alcoholism. He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has received government assistance on numerous occasions. Nikki is grateful for all of the services that have been provided to him, but there is still a gaping hole in his life. “The church is supposed to fix that. We have the answer, we have to give Jesus because he is the answer to this gentleman's problems.”

Please pray for the guests who arrive at the shelters this winter. Pray that they will see Jesus, love Jesus, see what he's done for them, and accept him. Pray for more volunteers and resources. Pray that God would activate the church to be in the world – loving people and expanding his Kingdom.