Forging friendships one meal at a time

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Church offers meal, Christ's love to homeless

By Myra Holmes

 

In a part of the country with a nearly overwhelming homeless population, Shorelife Community Church (SCC), a USMB congregation in Capitola, Calif., is sharing the love of Christ one meal at a time.

Well over half a million people in the U.S. are considered homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s most recent annual report on homelessness. That same report indicates that California accounts for 21 percent of the nation’s homeless population and has the highest percentage of “unsheltered” homeless. California’s Santa Cruz County is ranked 10th in the nation for number of homeless among small regions.

And smack in the middle of Santa Cruz County is Capitola, home of Shorelife Community Church, a small congregation of only about 25 families. Six years ago, Trevor Lee, pastor of Shorelife, had both a desire to help and previous experience serving the homeless. He knew there were many organizations meeting physical needs in the more densely populated areas of the county, but Lee wanted to find those whose needs were not being met. And he wanted to meet more than physical needs.

“How can the gospel be preached to all unless somebody goes?” he says. “We need to go where previously we’ve not been allowed in.” So he began to look for an “untouched” group.

Lee only had to look a few miles down the road to the small, unincorporated community of Aptos where about 35 or 40 homeless men and women live. This group tends to be rather “insular,” says Lee, generally refusing to mingle with other groups or accept help. Many have been burned by faith-based groups offering help, then abandoning the project. They are understandably wary.

Lee says, “If you’re going to be doing this, you have to prove your consistency and your faithfulness. Otherwise you’ll soon get written off as do-gooders trying to make yourselves feel better.”

 

It started with coffee

On one cold day in late 2010, Lee rode his motorcycle to Aptos and met “Terry.” Lee asked if he might bring some hot coffee. Soon there were a handful of homeless men and women meeting Lee, his wife, Jackie, and a few Shorelife volunteers on Friday evenings for coffee.  

Lee remembers bringing coffee one cold, fall evening in the kind of driving rain that soaks through in less than a minute. The fact that the volunteers came despite the poor weather “spoke to them about our seriousness,” Lee says.

Based on that early trust, Lee asked if they might bring a meal, and the group agreed. That was early 2011, and the Shorelife volunteers have been serving a noon meal every Saturday since. They call the outreach Manna Ministries, to highlight God’s provision of food.

 

Volunteers provide five-star dining

Each Saturday morning, a team of faithful volunteers prepares a meal at the church and takes it to the homeless in Aptos, a group which has grown to about 30. The core of volunteers includes head chefs Paul Kessler and Dennis Alameda, who prepare the main portions of the meal in the use-what-you-have style of The Food Network’s “Chopped.” Judy Willis is the “salad queen,” creating hearty greens that are meals in themselves. Jackie Lee makes coffee and helps with logistics. And Nancy Eaton calls herself the “scullery maid,” helping to clean up and then serve.

These meals aren’t meager soup kitchen fare. A typical menu might include: roast chicken, potatoes, salad, coleslaw, two or three vegetable sides, dessert and cookies, breads and pastries, coffee and water.

The team loads the food, serving equipment, tables and chairs into a van, sets up in the parking lot of Resurrection Catholic Church in Aptos, and serves those gathered. Because Resurrection Church needs the lot for other activities, Manna Ministries is allowed only half an hour in the parking lot, so the team sets up, serves and tears down with military precision.

 

Addressing physical needs beyond food

Many of the Aptos homeless live in the woods at “the bottom end of the lifestyle,” as Lee says, and physical needs go beyond food. Bloody and filthy feet are often evidence of the wear and tear of their life. Lee wonders: When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, were they as “damaged” as this? Sometimes, the guests show up barefooted. “The first thing we do is get their feet washed, get them some socks, then we go straight out to Big 5 and get them a pair of boots or something,” Lee says.

Often, such extras are paid for out of the pockets of the volunteers. Volunteer Nancy Eaton says, “We love them. If anyone in my family had such a need and I could fill it, I would.” 

Other area churches come alongside with donations of finances and items to help meet physical needs: hygiene kits, sleeping bags, tents, bottled water—and socks, which seem to be a perpetual need. Those partnerships in the community continue to expand as others hear about the success of Manna Ministries and ask how they can help.

Last year, these community partners helped to raise about half the funds needed for a shower trailer, a portable way to provide for better hygiene. Lee is currently pursuing other possible funding to make this dream a reality.

 

Nourishing souls ultimate goal

The team’s ultimate desire for their homeless friends is to meet spiritual needs as well as physical. “The important thing is that they come to know Jesus,” Lee says. “The goal is for them to know they are loved, not because they’re a project, but because Jesus in us and through us is loving them.”

So the Manna team also brings Daily Bread devotionals to their Saturday meals. They pray before each meal, and the regular guests now compete for the privilege of praying. Volunteers often pray with the homeless guests for specific needs, and God has answered those prayers. When one guest tells how God answered prayer, “that’s the best advertisement you can get,” Lee says.

The team dreams of one day bringing the meals to the Shorelife facility, where they would have better facilities to meet physical needs as well as more time to explore some kind of Bible study.  In order for that to happen, the homeless guests would have to be willing to leave their comfort zone, and the Manna team would have to arrange transportation. 

 

In it for the long haul

It’s not a ministry with overnight results. It takes patience, time and consistency to build trust. “It’s consistently portraying Jesus and his love to them which will win them over,” Lee says.

But these volunteers are in it for the long haul. Nearly six years into Manna Ministries, Lee says he can scarcely convince core volunteers to take a Saturday off. They speak by name of their homeless friends, celebrate when one finds housing or gets accepted into college and grieve when a regular disappears or dies.

The most difficult part of the ministry, several say, is bumping up against needs they can’t meet, like dental work, addiction treatment or medical care. So they keep sharing the love of Christ one meal at a time, believing that God will use it to make a lasting difference.

As volunteer Judy Willis says, “We just love them.”

Congregations and individuals interested in serving the homeless in their community are invited to visit www.usmb.org/homeless-ministry-tips for pointers from the Manna Ministries team.

Photo provided by Manna Ministries: Judy Willis, Paul Kessler, Nancy Eaton, Trevor Lee, Dennis Alameda and Jackie Lee are regular volunteers with Manna Ministries.

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