Homeless ministry helps church see people 'like Christ would'
AURORA, Colo. (BP)--In many ways, Colfax Avenue could be considered Main Street as it cuts across the downtown areas of Denver and Aurora. But it's also one of the city's meanest streets. Colfax is synonymous with crime, drugs, gangs, prostitution and other vices.
Colfax is a magnet for the homeless of Denver and Aurora. They live on the street. They sleep under bushes or in back-alley doorways. They hang out in parks or at bus stops; that is, until the police enforce an anti-loitering law. Even then, they just wander a bit further down the road to another bench or another bus stop.
For most people, the homeless are a nuisance to be avoided. Just ignore them, don't make eye contact and keep walking. But a couple of years ago, members of one Aurora church took the time to pause and look at the homeless population on Colfax. Much like Jesus probably would've. Amazingly, they stopped seeing the dirty, drunk, unshaven stereotypes. Instead, they saw people with stories to tell, people with emotions, people who need Jesus.
Central Baptist Church sits a few blocks south of Colfax Avenue in Aurora. A few years ago, Central Baptist's men's ministry organized a "chili feed" in one of the parks just north of Colfax. The idea was to minister in some way to the neighborhood, the people who lived in houses near the park, and share the gospel. In the process, they discovered quite a few homeless people.
"They came and stayed all day," said Elaine Fergerson, a key organizer of the homeless ministry. "They listened to the gospel all day long because they had nowhere else to go."
The chili feed became an annual event and the ministry grew to include a giveaway of boots, shoes, gloves and coats. Others from the church got involved. And God began giving a ministry vision to several individuals.
"After the second chili feed, we knew we had to do something on an ongoing basis," Fergerson said. "We couldn't win them to the Lord and say, 'Okay, we'll see you next year.'"
Though the church was pastorless at the time, God continued raising up individuals for a new ministry, preparing their hearts.
"Elaine battled me for a year to get something started," said Terry Minas, Sunday School director and men's ministry leader. "Even while we were between pastors, she just kept growing in her heart for this ministry."
"I discussed it with a few women in the church," Fergerson said. Three of the ladies in her class said she should talk to Donna Godfrey, another leader in the church.
"We hardly knew each other," Fergerson said. "But when I approached her about it, we had the same heart."
Before pursuing the idea too far, Fergerson and Godfrey waited until the church called Don Garner as pastor last summer. They shared with him their heart for a homeless ministry.
"Elaine was really quite discreet about it," Garner said. "She didn't want money from the budget and she didn't want to plead for volunteers."
With God having impressed several people with a vision for this ministry, the plan was to spend time on Colfax each Saturday, inviting the homeless to church the next day. They would be picked up on Sundays, brought to church to attend Bible study and worship, and fed a hot meal.
"We used the chili feed last October as the launch date for the homeless ministry," Garner said. "Over 100 of our church members showed up that day."
"We minister to more than 50 people on an ongoing basis," Fergerson said, "though it fluctuates from week to week."
Since then, 11 people have been saved and six have been baptized. One of the recent baptisms, Alan, voluntarily entered a detoxification program at the Denver Rescue Mission on the afternoon he was baptized.
Like Alan, the church already has many success stories and testimonies of changed lives. Diana is living in a halfway house and is working; Elizabeth is living with her daughter; Mary is living with her grandmother; and Charles lives with a brother. Peter, Regina and Ronald all have apartments now. One man left recently for Wyoming where he has a job. He assured the church that he'd be back to visit. Another man came back recently to let them know he's off the streets and working at a local sporting goods store.
"It means just as much to our church family as to the people we're ministering to," Garner said.
Sixty-nine families are involved in the ministry in various ways.
"When Terry mentioned that he wanted to give away sack lunches on Saturday as they invited the homeless to church, we discovered that Donna had a heart for organizing that," Fergerson said.
"Then another lady said she wanted to prepare a devotional for each lunch."
Church members donate the goods and prepare the food for the Saturday sack lunches and Sunday hot meal.
"One lady said she can't cook, but she wanted to provide the plastic forks, knives, napkins and such," Fergerson said.
"We have people who haven't been involved in ministry at all and this gives them something to do," she said.
Even with the success of the ministry, the challenges of the homeless population remain.
"Many of them are what I call 'hard-core' homeless," Minas said. "They've been on the streets for many years, most of them by choice."
Panhandling, loitering and other issues remain a reality for the homeless, even though they're frowned upon by law enforcement.
"A buck and a quarter will get them a 32-ounce malt liquor from the liquor store," Minas said. "Many of them are constantly looking for their next cigarette, whiskey or six-pack."
And Minas faults well-intentioned citizens with enabling the bad habits of the homeless.
"The homeless panhandle to make a few bucks," he said. "By giving them cash, the public keeps them liquored up. We need to educate people about how to effectively meet the needs of the homeless. Citizens complain about the problems of homelessness and public drunkenness, but they continue to feed the problems."
Though alcohol and other poor habits contribute to the problems of the homeless, life on the streets is inherently dangerous.
Charlie, one of the men ministered to by Central Baptist, was beaten recently with a baseball bat. His glasses are now twisted and damaged beyond repair, with only one lens remaining.
"A lot of them sleep during the day and stay awake at night," Minas said. "It's safer."
Many of the homeless on Colfax fit society's stereotypes of unkempt, unshaven, out-of-work men, their homelessness driven by alcohol or other addictions. But not all of the street's homeless fit the stereotypes. Even a few women live on the street.
There are people like Eric and Kara, both 22 years old. Minas met them on a recent Saturday when they both refused a sack lunch saying they weren't hungry. But they did want food for their dog, Hank. They admitted to living in the woods near the intersection of Colfax and Quebec. They've been on and off the streets for six years.
"Kara didn't want to talk about her situation," Minas said. "She knew it was wrong. There's a story there."
Minas is much like a hunter when he goes looking for the homeless on Colfax. He sees people and clues that the average person would miss as they drive down the street. Recently he spotted a clean-cut young man with a backpack and a bicycle. There were many clues that told Minas the young man was out of place on that street corner.
Minas pulled into an alley and offered the young man a lunch, which he was eager to accept. Within just a few minutes, John was in tears as he recounted the events just three days earlier that put him on the street. He battles a crack cocaine addiction and alcoholism. John recounted that he "blew it" earlier in the week and his wife kicked him out. He left home with his bike, a few items of clothing in a backpack and his addictions.
As Minas listened to and counseled with John in the alley, the conversation turned to spiritual matters and Minas discovered the young man was raised as a Southern Baptist. Following his parents' divorce, he left the church. He explored Catholicism for a while but found that to be unfulfilling. Now, he's a student of Buddhism. John knew passages and characters from the Bible. He even knew how to be saved, but was disenchanted with Christianity.
As the encounter with John concluded, Minas was hopeful about the young man's future.
"He's searching," Minas said. "As long as he keeps seeking, he has a good chance of discovering the Truth."
In just a few months, the church's ministry has been phenomenally successful, not only in terms of the homeless people helped but also within the church family.
"It changes how you look at people," Minas said. "You really begin to see people more like Christ would."
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: IN THE PARK, CHURCH BILLY, CHECKING ON ROBERT, TALKING WITH KYLE, PRAYING WITH ROBOT and HOT MEAL.