People are drawn to Orange City in central Florida, near Deland, in part because of the mild weather, but the lack of affordable housing can make it tough to find a place to live.
Pastor Janet Chilcote of Orange City United Methodist Church said they are seeing a significant increase in the number of homeless women, along with many who may be living in tents in woods near the city.
To address that issue and to help provide dignity, the church has launched Mail Call, an ambitious outreach to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those who need help the most.
The “mail call” idea is that the homeless, who are referred to as guests, can receive mail addressed to them in care of the church. It has turned into a lifeline for many.
“For them to have a place to get their Social Security checks, to have an address to put on applications, to have access to clean clothes and a place to network, plus the support from each other and volunteers makes such a difference,” Chilcote said.
“We know that our guests tell other people about us, that we are a church that cares about people.”
And that’s where the rest of the program takes off. The church provides much more than a place to check the mail.
Guests receive a healthy dose of fellowship, a delicious lunch, an opportunity to pray, and sometimes they might even receive a bicycle.
Pat Schwartz is a church member who has been serving this mission for eight years, and she has seen it grow exponentially. Records show that in 2018, 1,574 guests were served.
Although the ministry is not on the church budget, it works thanks to donations, volunteers and guests.
“God’s provisions make it happen,” said Schwartz, who is still somewhat surprised to be so involved in the ministry but is glad she is. “I had no idea this is what I was supposed to do.”
Every Thursday, from 11-12:30, volunteers provide a meal, conversation, clothing, sanitary products, gift cards for food, sleeping bags and sometimes even a bicycle from church member Derrill Carter, who faithfully provides bikes that he has repaired.
“That’s a life-changer for some of our guests—to get transportation,” Schwartz said.
Volunteers collect phone numbers from the guests to keep in touch but don't receive other information. When guests are ready to leave, they get a brown bag lunch to go. A retired minister has set up a prayer corner in the room where lunch is served, and volunteers mingle with the guests.
Recently, as many as 15 young people at the church in grades 6-12 have begun preparing meals as part of the outreach. Chilcote said this allows them to pray for the people who will be served and to be part of the church mission.
“It also teaches them life skills, like cooking and nutrition, with three adults helping them learn how to serve and help the homeless in our community,” she said.
In addition to the Thursday Mail Call, there is also a time on Mondays when folks can check for mail. The church has a Third Saturday Community Connection ministry with a food pantry and resources for neighbors and members.
There also is the Manna Ministry, which provides bags of necessary items including socks, snacks, toiletries, etc. The church, which averages about 120-150 in worship, is glad to be a mission center.
“We want to be that place in the neighborhood where God’s love can be found,” Chicolte said. “We have such a wonderful crew of volunteers, and each person comes with their gifts.”
—Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.
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