ST. CLOUD - A tiny old church tucked in the heart of downtown St. Cloud is accomplishing huge things for the area’s downtrodden. Pastor Wilma Reyes of First United Methodist Church calls their ministries nothing short of a miracle.
The church, with about 100 active members, is home to four outreach ministries for the homeless and at-risk families, all run on donations and grants. Not a penny comes from the church’s tiny budget, Reyes said.
“That is the heart of the church,” she said. “The church is the oldest, or one of the oldest here in town, established before the town was St. Cloud. It is 104-106 years old; it’s an institution here in St. Cloud.”
The effort began many years ago with the church handing out lunch bags once a week to the homeless.
“The homeless community here has been around for many, many years,” Reyes said. “Before I was a pastor … I was a member, since 2007. When I first got here, I saw the ministry and was touched by it. I have a heart for social justice.”
But the church fell on hard times of its own, having to consolidate to one building in 2010, eliminating all the staff. From there, it became an all-volunteer effort. Reyes knows how that works. When she worked in the office as a volunteer, she made up the lunch bags and began to develop relationships with the people who came by.
“We not only gave out a lunch bag, but started to get to know them and listen to their stories,” she said.
Soon, volunteers started helping fill up the bags. It began to build from there
“At one point, we started cold-night shelters in which we opened the church when temperatures dropped below 40 degrees. Some of the people here have no heat in their homes,” she said.
Some of the homeless landed in St. Cloud after fleeing from Orlando because police in Orlando would not allow them to stay in the woods. Orlando shelters are always full, so many lived in tents in the woods.
“We also helped them get food stamps and connected them with other agencies in the community that could assist them with getting jobs or mental health counseling. That started becoming a big ministry that just came out of our office with the help of volunteers,” Reyes said.
But it didn’t stop there.
Next, the church began offering showers to the homeless in its fellowship hall.
“I saw there was a need and said let’s allow them in,” she said. “Just providing the dignity of a shower, that’s big.
“When they go to look for work they need to shower and a change clothes. We partnered with a local ministry, A Place for Grace, to get clothing for a job interview or just because they need clothing.”
Around that same time, Covenant House for homeless youth, a large Orlando agency, was looking for a place in St. Cloud to provide services and came knocking on the church’s door.
“We became the Osceola County Outreach Center for Covenant House and that has been going on for many years,” Reyes said. “They continue being here and provide classes for youth 18-21 to get their GED. And we also partnered with Valencia College, so they can continue their studies.”
Volunteers from the community come to tutor the young people. Others bring food for the homeless ministries. Lives began to change.
Covenant House also provides training for the young adults on how to go on a job interview, and they teach social strategies to help them learn to deal with other people, both inside and outside of business.
Young mothers of same age group get help at the church, as well, and the opportunity for shelter in the Covenant House Orlando facility.
It hasn’t always been a clear path for St. Cloud UMC.
Some of the congregation was ready once to shut the doors to the homeless. They were in fear and cited safety issues because so many of the visitors were dealing with mental health issues.
“Sadly, the people working in the office didn’t know how to deal with it,” Reyes recalled.
But the homeless ministry didn’t end. Others in the congregation stood up, realizing the Elmer’s Meal Kitchen, the Bags of Love Ministry, the Cold Night Shelters and the Covenant House Homeless Outreach had become the heart of the church.
“From that situation, the ministry became stronger, and it became a full-fledged ministry and even more people from the congregation stood up to say this is what we do right in this church,” Reyes said.
A number of those the church has helped are now church members, helping others.
“Many have become church leaders,” Reyes said. “We’ve given them a family.”
—Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.