Church’s ‘God Squad’ makes rounds for area homeless

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Church’s ‘God Squad’ makes rounds for area homeless

Oct. 31, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0758}

An e-Review Feature
By Steven Skelley**

LAKE WORTH — West Lake Worth, Fla., is an area plagued by gang-related crime and drive-by shootings.

Officials say an increase in homicides in the first quarter of the year were gang-related, with five deaths considered gang slayings, according to a recent article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The killing of three men in a Lake Worth backyard prompted city officials and police to bring in The Guardian Angels, a citizen’s group of volunteers who work with local police to patrol dangerous neighborhoods, to help curb the gang violence, and as recently as Sept. 17 a teen was shot in a drive-by shooting while riding his bicycle.

Compounding the area’s problems is an estimated homeless population of 1,766 people in Palm Beach County, of the state’s 60,168 who are homeless on any given day, according to a 2007 annual report from Florida’s Office on Homelessness.
The God Squad of Lake Worth’s Lakeside United Methodist Church is combating these problems with a different kind of drive-by: drive-by feedings for residents who are homeless and hungry.

Taking it to the streets

Beverly Brown clutches the steering wheel of the tan church van, maneuvering through thick city traffic. Karen Roongrojana, seated in the passenger seat, calls out, “There’s one!” and points to a tired-looking Latino man panhandling in the middle of a busy intersection.

For 30 years Pete Lobeck was a professional air conditioning repairman, but after serving four years in jail for having a passenger in his car who was carrying illegal drugs, he says he can’t get a job. The meals from Lakeside United Methodist Church’s God Squad give him a chance to “have some good food every once in a while,” he says. Photo by Steven Skelley. Photo #07-0695.

As the van pulls into a nearby parking lot, the man spots Brown and Roongrojana, waves and begins running toward them with a big smile.

Another man, José Gonzales, also runs to the van. He is wearing a dirty, wrinkled blue plaid shirt and an old, worn T-shirt and appears to be somewhere in his late 50s. “Ronnie had another heart attack,” he says, “and they took him to the hospital.”

Ronnie is a homeless man who has suffered 12 heart attacks in four years. Brown and Roongrojana both sigh sadly and promise to pray for Ronnie, knowing as soon as he is released from the hospital, he will be back on the streets in the heat, which may cause the stress that will bring on yet another heart attack.

Brown and Roongrojana pull a prepackaged meal from a cooler just behind the van’s front seats. Inside is a sandwich and assorted vegetable and fruit selections meant to approximate a balanced meal.

Gonzales says he is grateful The God Squad brings him meals. Lots of people want to get rid of the homeless, he says, but Brown and Roongrojana want to help people like him. “I love God, and I know He loves me,” he said. “Some of us just fell on hard times.”

When Brown and Roongrojana stop to feed another homeless man, he begins to cry and says: “Thank you so much. I was so hungry.”

Brown and Roongrojana return to the van and look for another opportunity for a drive-by feeding. A few minutes later, they spot Pete Lobeck sitting on a cardboard box at the intersection of another street.

Before becoming homeless, Lobeck worked for 30 years as a professional air conditioning repairman and held an advanced license for commercial air conditioning. He lost his job, wife and son when he spent four years in prison after police found that a passenger riding in his car was carrying illegal drugs.

“There are days I wouldn’t eat if these two didn’t bring me something,” Lobeck said. “Most of the time, I eat out of dumpsters. I eat whatever I can get. It’s really nice to have some good food every once in a while.”

Lobeck says no one will hire him. Even when he places an application with an employer, he has no phone number for them to call or address where they can reach him.

Both Brown and Roongrojana agree they are seeing more homeless women and couples. “There seem to be more people losing their homes, and they have no place to go. Palm Beach County housing is especially expensive,” Brown explains.

According to the Florida Coalition for the Homeless, 40 percent of all homeless people are families, 60 percent are single adults, 8 percent are older than 62 years of age and 23 percent are children 18 or younger. There are only about 9,000 emergency shelter beds available for the total homeless population.

Providing relief after the rains

The God Squad is part of Lakeside United Methodist Church’s Matthew Meals outreach program.

In 2004 the Lake Worth area was hit by two hurricanes in just three weeks — Frances and Jeanne. Members of the church gathered to help their community through the crises and eventually launched an outreach ministry that would bless thousands during the next three years. Matthew Meals began when about 20 members of the congregation, representing all age groups, collaborated with the conference’s South East District office to become a distribution site for disaster supplies that came from all over the state.

On the last Saturday of every month volunteers at Lakeside United Methodist Church prepare hot meals for anyone who stops by the church needing something to eat. Photo courtesy of Lakeside United Methodist Church. Photo #07-0696.

Hurricane Francis left residents without electricity for six days. The church, however, had a working gas stove and oven in the fellowship hall kitchen. Before long, members decided to offer a hot spaghetti meal. About 100 people were fed the first day. The next day, the church offered a chicken and rice dinner, feeding 256 people. After four days, hot meals had been served to about 800 residents.

Soon after, Hurricane Jeanne hit and the church teamed with Christians Reaching Out to Society Inc. and local food suppliers to feed people.

The Rev. Rachel Hollingsworth, Lakeside’s pastor, said the outreach “was awesome” — that the congregation was touched by those experiences as they began to see first-hand the reality of need on real faces in their community.

“Hearts were stirred, questions asked, discussion ensued, and on the last Saturday in April 2005, Matthew Meals was born,” Hollingsworth said.

The ministry evolved to include The God Squad, in which two or three people load up the church van and take hot meals to the homeless on the street corners and the community’s shut-ins.

The name Matthew Meals comes from key verses in Matthew 25:31-46 in the parable of the sheep and goats: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. … I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

On the last Saturday of each month a hot meal is prepared and served to whomever stops by the church. Visitors receive a takeout dinner tray, which includes an entree, a vegetable, a fruit, dessert and bread.”

Many people return on a regular basis, counting on this one meal to help them stretch their family’s food budget. Some give the meal to one of their neighbors, whom they say “could use a hot meal today.”

Hollingsworth said passersby are often surprised by the “advertising” by the church sign on the street, where several people from the congregation standing waving their arms and inviting people in to pick up a free meal.

Blessing and blessed
“I think the ones who are greatest touched by this ministry are the volunteers themselves who come to offer their time and talents, as well as their gifts and graces, in order to help others,” Hollingsworth said. “There is good fellowship as they come to prepare, serve, talk with others and clean up. It’s great to see God at work in the hearts and lives of the community and the congregation.”

One woman came to Matthew Meals one Saturday and brought two of her neighbor’s children. Soon she began attending the church. Now she is a member of the congregation and helps faithfully with Matthew Meals.

Beverly Brown (left) and Karen Roongrojana brave some of Lake Worth’s most dangerous neighborhoods to bring meals to people in the community who are homeless, like Pete Lobeck (center), as part of Lakeside United Methodist Church’s God Squad. Photo by Thomas Routzong. Photo #07-0697.

Hollingsworth says the church learned to reach out after the hurricanes. People in the congregation caught the spirit of the adventure, she said, but they all had to sit down and talk about their fears of reaching out to a community that was different from the church congregation. They had to address issues of safety and “what ifs.”

Through those talks, Hollingsworth says, they decided “that we would try or we’d never know if we could do it” and now feel God has affirmed their efforts and still affirms their attempts today as they serve people in their neighborhood.

“We have seen many miracles, and it’s a God-thing,” said Brown, who describes herself as the “designated head cook” for Matthew Meals. “God has called us to be disciples for Him and to feed the needy.”

Along with providing meals, Brown says they take prayer requests and share them with the congregation on Sunday morning and during other prayer times.

“I think we have touched the homeless, as they are starting to recognize us, and they want to pray with us and for us, as well as us praying and ministering to them,” she said. “It makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside, especially when delivering to the homeless and they recognize us because we have built a relationship with them. They wish us well and even pray with us or offer God’s blessings to us.”

Hollingsworth says every church can be an outreach of God’s love. “Each church, the building and the people, is located in a unique spot where the love of God can be shared in caring, specific and meaningful ways,” she said. “The Lord Jesus Christ ministered to people at their point of need, preaching, teaching, healing and feeding them. We have the example to follow to also reach out to our brothers and sisters in our neighborhood.”

The church would like to be able to feed more homeless, but they lack the funds and food donations.

“We’d love to bring even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich out to the homeless at least once every week,” Roongrojana said. “It may not seem like much to you, but it may be all they have to eat today. If someone would donate the funds or supplies, we’d be glad to deliver the food to those who need it.”

Lakeside United Methodist Church is located at 1801 12th Avenue South, Lake Worth, FL 33461. More information on the Matthew Meals program is available by calling 561-585-7519.


This article relates to Missions.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Skelley is a freelance writer based in Beverly Hills, Fla. His columns appear in the Naples Sun Times newspaper and Faith & Tennis magazine.

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