Urban Churches Embrace Homeless Ministries
Dec. 07, 2004
A UMC.org Feature
By Neill Caldwell*
Most of the United Methodist Church’s homeless ministry is done in major cities, which include the oldest and largest efforts to feed the homeless on the West Coast.
First United Methodist Church of Seattle makes homelessness the prime focus of the church’s outreach programs, says Jo Gustafson, urban outreach coordinator.
"We dedicate a lot of our time with shelters and with feeding programs," she says.
Gustafson believes the church has hosted some kind of holiday meal for the homeless for its entire 150-year history. This year, because Christmas falls on a Saturday, the men’s and women’s homeless shelters that use the church facilities will provide worship services and meals on Christmas Day, and the church will host a large breakfast Dec. 26.
"We’ll leave the building open from 8 to 5, because the homeless have no place to go during the day," Gustafson says. "While they are here, they can watch movies or TV, play cards or games, basically hang out in a safe and secure place. Our volunteers drift in and out all day long, with most bringing food."
First Church Seattle is also one of many United Methodist congregations participating in the "Room at the Inn" program, which provides a safe sanctuary for families that have been living on the street.
"We have a monthly meal that serves around 500 people, and we’re adding a second meal each month that we’re very excited about," Gustafson says.
At Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in downtown San Francisco, more than a million meals are served to the city’s poor and homeless population throughout the year.
The free meals program, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, is the largest of Glide’s nearly 90 ministries. Twenty-seven staff members and thousands of volunteers are committed to serving three hot meals a day to the Bay Area’s poor.
"For Glide, this is our family," says Calvin Gibson, managing director of human services at the church. "We see ourselves as being an integral part of the community, and the meals program is something we need to be doing."
Each year, Glide organizes a weeklong series of Christmas events for the homeless, including giving away 6,000 bags of groceries to needy families and individuals, and 5,000 toys to local children. On Christmas Eve, the church sponsors a prime-rib lunch. That is followed by a Christmas Day breakfast from 7 to 8:30 a.m. and lunch from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The church also offers two morning worship celebrations to ensure that guests are served spiritually as well as physically.
More than 5,000 people are served on Christmas Day, which is almost double the number the church helps on a typical day. Thanksgiving also sees huge numbers.
"On Thanksgiving and Christmas, we’re seeing more of the working poor — people who cannot afford to serve their families the traditional holiday meals," Gibson says.
Glide also hires its meals staff from the population it serves, "giving them the opportunity to start anew in their lives," Gibson says.
"This is a very exciting time of year for us," he adds. "Although we do provide meals every day, there’s something about the holidays that provides an extra sparkle."
*Caldwell is a freelance writer in High Point, N.C.
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