Clergy spend retreat with homeless

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Clergy spend retreat with homeless

By Erik J. Alsgaard | June 10, 2009 {1029}

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It’s not unusual for clergy to gather in a retreat setting for fellowship, edification and spiritual support. It is unusual when that gathering is held at an inner city rescue mission.

Yet that’s exactly where more than 30 clergy from the North East District of the Florida Conference met recently for one of their quarterly meetings.

“Once a year, we offer our clergy a retreat,” said the Rev. Rick Neal, superintendent of the North East District. “It’s not a command performance like our other quarterly gatherings, but an opportunity for clergy to do something different. In this case, it’s to re-engage with the community around them.”

The Rev. Moses Johnson preaches at New Life Inn. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #09-1194.

The clergy included Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker, who participated throughout the weekend retreat.

Whitaker said he attended the meeting because he has made a commitment to make what he calls “drop-in visits” across the conference.

“I’m looking for opportunities to be with the laity and clergy of our church,” he said. “Not to come with my own agenda, but to be with them as a pastor. … I also want to have opportunities to learn about and to affirm the tremendous ministries a lot of our people are involved in. I was invited to come to this district for this event, and I’m so glad I had the chance to do it. I’m grateful to have some personal time with the clergy.”

That personal time included going as a group the first night from the City Rescue Mission in Jacksonville to the ministry’s New Life Inn next door and the bus depot downtown.

Preaching in the streets

Every night at the inn men and women who are in the process of coming off drugs and alcohol are given a bed, meals, support and an opportunity to start turning their lives around.

The Rev. Moses Johnson, pastor at Simpson Memorial United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, preached to more than 100 men, walking them verse by verse through Psalm 23.

“Some of us say, ‘The Lord was my shepherd,’ ” Johnson preached. “God forbid. How many here tonight know that the Lord is my shepherd?”

Dozens of men stood and applauded their answer.

“If the Lord is my shepherd, then we have to build on that relationship,” Johnson said. “David had to learn that all he really had was his relationship with the Lord. We’re hoodwinked and bamboozled to think that the more things we have, the better off we are. Build your hope on the things that are eternal!”

The men clapped again and roared their approval.

By the end of the sermon, with sweat running down his face, Johnson had the men on their feet in a call and response that sounded like a cheerleader leading the crowd. “Jesus!” Johnson shouted. “Jesus!” the men echoed back.

‘A revolution of character’

Frances Jennings, a member of Avondale United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, has volunteered at the City Rescue Mission for 24 years. Every Monday night, she leads a women’s Bible study.

Frances Jennings speaks with the Rev. Rick Neal during the clergy retreat. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #09-1195.

“Somebody else told me it was 30 (years), but I really do not know; I’ve been doing it so long,” she said. “I just love the ladies. We’re all addicts of some sort. My addiction may be pride or gluttony, while these women may have addictions to drugs or alcohol. I see Christ in all these women, I really do.”

It was Jennings who urged the district clergy and superintendent to see the ministry of the City Rescue Mission in action.

“I wanted our clergy to see our street people, to see what it is that is being offered here in Jacksonville,” she said.

Patrick Hayle, executive director and CEO of the mission for five years, said Jennings has been a godsend to the mission.

Jennings is “an angel to the women here,” he said. “I have been here a total of 12 years, and Frances Jennings, I’m sure, was here before me. She continues to invest in to the women’s lives. Every Monday evening, she not only teaches a Bible study, she loves on these women. She encourages them, she prays with them, she prays for them. She is an absolute blessing to these women and the City Rescue Mission.”

Hayle said City Rescue Mission’s ministry is grace-based.

“We’ve been in Jacksonville since 1946,” he said. “We’ve been serving the homeless and the needy with the love and compassion of Jesus Christ since. We have approximately 145 beds on the McDuff Ave. location, a Christian-based recovery program for men, women and children.”

The program, Hayle said, is one of a “revolution of character.”

“The program lasts for nine or ten months,” he said. “Then students — what we call our clients — will go into their after-care program, which means they start doing servant leadership and start to transition out, which means finding a job. After that phase, which lasts for six months, they should have saved enough money to afford to find some sort of permanent housing.”

City Rescue Mission provides services to Jacksonville’s homeless and a residential Christian-based substance abuse recovery program for children and adults. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #09-1196.

When they leave the mission, Hayle said, they have the opportunity to return and “graduate.”

Once a person graduates, he or she is given the responsibility of giving back to the program by being a mentor. Since the mission started the graduation concept in 1997, nearly 400 people have become mentors.

Private individuals, businesses and foundations and churches throughout Jacksonville support the mission. The United Methodist Church, Hayle said, is a big part of that support.

“We partner with many, many churches,” he said. “We are a non-denominational organization. The United Methodist Church is one of the partners who gets their hands dirty.”

Lives changed

A centerpiece of the retreat was a three-hour segment of testimonies offered by current and former students in the program. Clergy heard stories of how lives were transformed by the City Rescue Mission and the power of Jesus Christ.

Beth (not her real name) shared how she didn’t start using drugs until she was 30 years old.

“I asked my husband for cocaine on my 30th birthday,” she said. “Shortly after that, I was hooked.”

Beth said she lived in an affluent neighborhood of Jacksonville and seemingly had it all: a big house, children, a husband, a good job. Then the drugs took over, and she lost it all. It wasn’t until she found her way to the City Rescue Mission that she was able to turn her life around.

“It was a slow walk down a long road to learn about Jesus Christ and the truth about the lies the devil was telling me,” she said.

Another testimony came from Al (not his real name), a Marine who had served in Iraq. When he returned home, with time on his hands and an inflated sense of invincibility, he began drinking. In just a few years he had been charged with driving under the influence and had crashed two cars.

Patrick Hayle speaks with district clergy and a participant of the substance abuse recovery ministry. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #09-1197.

Still, it took a drunken driving accident that almost killed his wife — and subsequent time spent in jail — to bring him to his knees. After checking in to the City Rescue Mission and going through its program, today Al is employed, clean, has his own car and is remarried.

“This is what our program is all about,” Hayle said. “We provide a healing environment where grace flows freely.”

“It doesn’t mean students can do whatever it is they want to do,” he added — the mission has strict non-smoking, no cell phone and no leaving campus rules. “It means that we’re trying to change the people from the inside out. It’s not about pleasing God by doing the right things and following certain rules, it’s about trusting God.”

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.

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