Minister asks congregation, ‘What in God’s name are you doing here?’

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Minister asks congregation, ‘What in God’s name are you doing here?’

Dec. 28, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0595}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

TAMPA — When you are a member of the body of Christ you are expected to be the arms, heart and legs.

That’s what members of Hyde Park United Methodist Church are becoming through the church’s new HOMES (Housing Offering Mentoring Education and Support) ministry. Launched last August, HOMES is an intensive homeless ministry program developed in partnership with Metropolitan Ministries.

Metropolitan Ministries helps poor and homeless families living in Tampa by providing food, clothing, shelter and other vital services. The goal is to alleviate suffering, promote dignity and instill self-sufficiency as an expression of the ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ.

A faith-based and community-supported nonprofit organization, Metropolitan Ministries is funded through charitable donations from individuals, businesses, congregations, schools, foundations and civic groups.

As Kate Crawford saw her new bedroom set for the first time before Christmas she said, "I have never had anything this beautiful." The set and other household items were donated by members of Hyde Park United Methodist Church as part of its HOMES program, a partnership with Metropolitan Ministries to help families transitioning from homelessness to self-sufficiency. Photo by Linda J. Beavers, Photo #06-493. Web photo only.

By partnering with the organization, Hyde Park United Methodist Church is providing church members who volunteer to serve in a variety of ways to help Metropolitan Ministries’ clients become self-sufficient.

Church members initially began working with four families living in an apartment building purchased by Metropolitan Ministries. They help tenants with tasks like cutting grass, car maintenance, transportation, home maintenance, child care, budgeting, home organization and a plethora of other needs.

Tenants can live in the complex for one year while they work with a case manager and church volunteers. The goal is to get them up to speed with running a household and its corresponding responsibilities so they can manage on their own.

Seeing to the welfare of its community

The program was introduced to the church during worship services Aug. 20, when the Rev. Dr. James Harnish, senior pastor at the church, preached the sermon, “What in God’s Name Are You Doing Here?” using Jeremiah 29:1-4 and Matthew 5:13-16 as his texts.

Harnish shared the story of the children of Abraham, who were living in Jerusalem until they became captives of Nebuchadnezzar’s forces in 597 B.C. The army took the people off into exile in Babylon.
“They were stuck there — displaced persons among the enemy, refugees in a foreign land, longing to be anywhere other than where they were, hoping against hope to return home,” he said.

Harnish said the prophets repeatedly told the people to take heed, things would change for the better and they could go home. He said the people then received a surprising, unanticipated word from the Lord through Jeremiah, who told them to settle down as if they were going to be there forever. They were told to build houses, plant gardens, take wives and raise children and grandchildren.

“And perhaps most surprising of all: ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare,’ ” Harnish said.

Harnish pointed to that scripture as the foundation for Hyde Park United Methodist Church’s ministry. He said it was a reality in 1899 when three families became concerned about the welfare of children in their neighborhood and started a Sunday school on the corner where the church now stands.

Harnish said the church was applauded in 1942 in an editorial in The Tampa Morning Tribune that encouraged the church to “go on, unhampered, in its good work for a cleaner community and the dissemination of God’s Gospel.” The church reaffirmed its mission in 1953 when, during the reconstruction of the sanctuary, the congregation recommitted itself to being “a church that shall fulfill a ministry of social service and be a renewing and cleansing power in the community.”

Throughout the years, the church has been faithful in caring for the city, which is why many of its members are involved with such agencies as Metropolitan Ministries, Salvation Army, Cornerstone Family Ministries Inc. (formerly Tampa United Methodist Centers), Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels and others.

“And that’s what, in God’s name, we’ve been doing here,” Harnish said. “Throughout our history, this congregation has believed that ‘Making God’s Love Real’ (church’s mission) means that the welfare of the church and the welfare of the city are inextricably linked together.”

Embarking on the HOMES program is just one outcome from a discernment process the church began two years ago. It was designed to engage members more directly in the needs of the city and was a time of rigorous study, resulting in the congregation being asked: “What’s the fire in your bones? What breaks your heart because it breaks the heart of God?” The top two answers were children and homelessness.

“The HOMES ministry is not the only way we are seeking the welfare of our city, but it is the new initiative that we are launching today in the hope that it will become a model for other congregations in our urban area,” Harnish said. “That’s the new thing that we are doing in God’s name to seek the welfare of our city, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world in Tampa. The question is: Where do you fit in? What, in God’s name and in the love of Christ, are you doing here?”

Meeting real needs

Hyde Park United Methodist Church volunteers unload mattresses and other household goods being delivered to four families living in transitional housing provided by Metropolitan Ministries. Photo by Linda J. Beavers, Photo #06-494. Web photo only.

The Rev. Vicki Walker, minister of outreach at the church, said the response from the congregation since that sermon has been overwhelming, with 150 members volunteering to serve in some capacity.

Some church members function as team leaders who act as the go-between to determine direct needs and fulfill them within the congregation, Walker said, adding, “It really does take a village.”

It takes a village because the statistics associated with homelessness in the area are daunting.

According to the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County 11,023 men, women and children were homeless in Hillsborough County in 2005, a 26 percent increase from 2003; 10 percent are children, a 48 percent increase in two years; 40 percent are families with children; 25 percent are veterans; and 31 percent are employed full time.

The organization also says Hillsborough County has the sixth largest homeless population in the nation and there are enough services within the county to provide assistance to only 13 percent of the homeless population.

Walker said the HOMES program is designed for people within this population who want to “find a way out” with the help of others. She said members have assisted clients in a variety of ways — with tutoring for tests to improve employment status, with financial budgeting. She says they touch practically every aspect of a client’s life.

Church member Karen McCormick has seen that firsthand.

McCormick is adult services coordinator for HOMES. She said she will receive a telephone call from a team leader in need of a specific item for a client and once she spreads the word through e-mail messages the calls immediately start coming in with people who say, “I have one of those.”

McCormick said she was amazed in mid-December when the ministry learned Metropolitan Ministries would be receiving two trailers to house families and asked the church to furnish them, complete with utilities hook-ups, for a Christmas Eve move-in date. While unanticipated red tape put a halt to the ambitious project, it was too late for members who had donated two households worth of items, including linens, dishes, furniture and everything two families would need.

The donated items were instead used to refurbish the current transitional housing where HOMES clients live. But before the items could be distributed, church members had to determine exactly which items the families needed.

McCormick said she interviewed one resident whose request demonstrated to her that many who need help are asking for things most people take for granted. “She wanted a butter knife and dish towel,” McCormick said.

McCormick said church members were just as excited about making over the homes of current residents as they had been about outfitting two trailers by Christmas Eve.

“God knew the need,” said McCormick, who is retired from the furniture industry. “We have very nice furniture that had been donated. The furniture the residents have has been handed down and down, and why shouldn’t they have something better?”

Mission becomes reality

As Jessica, a member of one of the families living in transitional housing provided by Metroplitan Ministries, opens a box conatining a brand new computer she is overwhelmed by the gift, one of many donated by members of Hyde Park United Methodist Church through its HOMES partnernship with the nonprofit organization. Photo by Linda J. Beavers, Photo #06-495. Web photo only.

By participating in HOMES the church’s mission of “making God’s love real” was both seen and felt the week before Christmas.

During December Harnish focused his sermons on being the gift of love, using Psalm 25 and I Thessalonians 2:17-3:13; the gift of hope, using Luke 1:67-80; and the gift of love and joy, using Zephaniah 3:14-20.

McCormick said these focal points energized members and encouraged them to reach deep within themselves to help others at a time when so many in society are inwardly focused on themselves.

“People were able to hear the call, see the need and react,” she said. “It has been unbelievably fantastic.”

Now that the program is up and running Walker said the Hyde Park church and Metropolitan Ministries would like to invite other churches and community organizations to participate. She said she remembers Mother Teresa being asked why she helps one person at a time when helping one person after the next is only a drop a bucket.

“She said she had to do what she could,” Walker said. “We are doing what we can, and we hope to have a ripple effect and other churches and groups will step forward.”

Walker said only then will there be less judgment and more compassion in society for people who are in need of help.

“We want to truly be the gift,” she said. “We want to be the tangible example of making God’s love real. We want to love people. If you are standing beside me and you are cold, I want to give you a blanket.

“I am reminded of the old communion prayer that says, ‘We have failed to be an obedient church.’ We want to be faithful and obedient.”


This article relates to Outreach.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.

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