You don’t need a house to belong to a church!
SUMMARY: In his ministry, Jesus traveled from town to town. While he wasn’t homeless, he did rely on the kindness and love of others, much as those without a home do today.
Many churches give generously of their time and treasures to help the homeless. Expand both your involvement and your congregation by identifying ways to welcome and incorporate homeless people into your worship services and church activities.
Ben Griffith, street outreach worker at the Oasis Center, a drop-in center for youth in Nashville, Tenn., says the key to involving the homeless is to open your ears first. “I think it is really important to listen,” he says. “People seem to be much more eager to work on their own goals, than on mine.”
Preach about it.
Have your congregation participate in a homeless-awareness worship service. Let them understand the challenges and clear the myths and stereotypes. Perhaps someone in your congregation has been homeless or the local shelter has a speaker’s bureau so someone can share a personal story. Help your congregation understand that homeless people are not any different from them.
A homeless-awareness worship service can both educate and inspire members. Light the Way, an interfaith homeless organization in Columbia, S.C., offers this four-page litany to help plan a homeless-awareness worship service. It includes sermon ideas, Scripture references and links to a few United Methodist worship plans.
Finding possible new congregants requires going to where they are. Volunteer at a local soup kitchen—or see if you can eat there. At Oasis Center, staff, volunteers and youth all eat together. “It feels more like community and less like a barrier between us,” Griffith says.
“There are lots of services and resources out there, but very few people who have the time to sit down with people and meet them as people and see the strength and good in them!”
Having a meal together allows both the homeless and your members to relate to each other as people, not stereotypes. Your congregation also can share information about what is happening at your church and extend an invitation to come to a service. Everyone likes to be welcomed.
If you invite people you know have transportation difficulties, plan to give them a ride. Depending on the circumstances, you may want to have individuals volunteer or have a church van pick up at scheduled destinations.
The Rev. Nancy Neelley, a deacon at 61st Avenue United Methodist Church in Nashville, says the church, which works with the Oasis Center, has an ongoing ministry in which members will pick up anyone wanting to come for a meal, Bible study and church on Saturday nights.
Take to the streets.
“We do a lot of street outreach,” Griffith explains. “This involves walking around downtown and talking to homeless adults and youth.”
It is helpful to bring socks, bottled water, underwear and snacks as icebreakers, but those things are not needed, he says.
“People really just want to talk and be treated like they matter. I also go to ‘events’ like meals at churches and under bridges.”
Spread the word.
Griffith says word of mouth is powerful advertising in the homeless community. If people know who you are and what you do, they are more likely to trust you, your motives and your service.
Assist other organizations.
You don’t need to start from scratch in showing your commitment. When Houston planned its first health fair for the homeless and underserved, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church got involved. Its Emergency Aid Center served as a pick-up stop for participants who needed transportation
Don’t forget low-income people.
Homelessness is not just about people who live in shelters or on the streets. In the United States, 15 million households spend 70 percent of their income on housing—leaving little else for food, transportation and basic care. Older adults may be especially susceptible because they are more likely need to help with daily life activities but cannot afford to pay someone to help (and insurance will not pay for it either). St. Paul’s Church in Houston, like many other congregations, has a Faithful Friends program where church members volunteer to help older adults with tasks of daily living—running errands and doing light chores.
Make it a culture and involve everyone.
“This is really the culture of the church, more than a specific outreach or event,” Neelley says. “Some of our members are homeless, but they still participate in some very vital ministries.”
Don’t just think of the homeless as members or participants who need to be helped. They can help too—contributing to other ministries. Working together helps make everybody feel more similar.
“Some people have gotten off the streets and have stabilized into homes and gotten off drugs and alcohol. I’m working now on a welcoming ministry there. The goal is for all to feel equal — whether they have homes or not. People are asked to stay after the meal and participate in community,” Neelley says.
“We’ve seen some amazing stories of people coming to know the love of Christ through the simple acts of acceptance at 61st Avenue,” she says. “It can be hard to deal with the complexities of homelessness, but this is really what all Christians are called to—to love those who don’t fit in, who feel lost and betrayed.
“We get a chance to show that Christ is alive through our actions.”