Ocala First United Methodist Church lies at two crossroads: Silver Springs Boulevard and Interstate 75 and the junction of hope and despair for hundreds of people searching for a new life.
Ocala, population 70,000, and Marion County, population 300,000, have a surprisingly large homeless population. And, if it’s Tuesday and you’re homeless in Ocala, you’re probably at First United Methodist Church.
|Many of the people who seek help at Tuesday Morning are looking for work and eager to get off the streets.|
Every week the church throws open its doors to welcoming volunteers—about 50 of them, nearly half from outside the congregation—providing a variety of services.
The ministry is known simply as Tuesday Morning. The church budgets $26,000 for the ministry, but most of the goods and services are donated.
Tuesday Morning started seven years ago under the previous pastor in response to people coming to the church for help.
“The church sensed we weren’t doing enough, just giving hand-outs, not engaging the full person,” said the Rev. David Fuquay, who has been co-pastor since August 2016.
The ministry has grown from a hand-out to a community reach-out. It is part of a local network of churches, nonprofits and government agencies that provide services to those in need. They include the Salvation Army, halfway house ministries, the Catholic soup kitchen and Open Arms Village—a transitional housing complex for men operated by St. Mark’s United Methodist Church.
“We do the front door piece, the immediate need,” Fuquay said.
When someone comes in on Tuesday they are asked to register, and their name is put into the regional database.
“That enables us to track them and see where they have been and what services they have received,” Fuquay said. “We provide open-door compassion, but we do it responsibly.”
Each week, the church provides a hot meal, shoes, clothing and necessities like personal care products. A barber offers free haircuts. Visitors are welcome, but not required, to attend a devotional service.
The church also gives away tents and sleeping bags to people who sleep in wooded lots or the Ocala National Forest.
Refurbished bicycles, usually three or four each week, are provided as well. In a city like Ocala, which has an inadequate public transportation system, the free bicycles are often the only way people can get to work, Fuquay said. Each bike has a ministry sticker so that if it is lost, stolen or pawned, it can be returned to the church. Karlie Harper, ministry director, says they have given away about 750 bikes.
|Ocala First UMC has repaired and given away about 750 bicycles at its Tuesday Morning ministry. Along with bike repair, the church offers hot meals, haircuts and free legal services.|
Volunteers also help people obtain their birth certificate or other identification needed to apply for work, school or social services through the ministry. A Legal Aid representative provides advice on civil issues.
They never know who is going to walk through the door on any given Tuesday, Harper said. Most weeks about 250 people are served a meal, but the numbers change with the season and the weather.
Some of the people are transients passing through, others are regulars like the homeless veterans who live in the Ritz Veterans Village across the street.
Many are single men, but there are teenagers, single women and families, too. Diapers are among the necessities that are available.
“We have some who are chronically homeless, but there are others who are in transition and just need some help to get back on their feet,” Fuquay said.
But the ministry is not just about providing social services.
“It’s the way we follow Christ by offering what we have. We love them and Jesus loves them…”
As it has evolved, the ministry has been a big change for the congregation of about 1,600.
“I feel like sometimes church folks get cynical about the homeless, thinking it’s all about trying to work the system and take advantage,” Fuquay commented. “There’s a different spirit here. Volunteers learn people’s names, recognize them from week to week, get to know them and learn their stories. That helps break through the cynicism.”
Harper said the best part of the ministry for her is watching relationships form between unlikely people. “You see lives changed on both ends,” she said.
Her own life has changed as well. “In the beginning, you see them as a homeless person or a drunk or a prostitute. Then you realize that Christ resides in them, too. It changes your reactions to them,” Harper said. “You get off your high horse and wrap your arms around them.”
And more than once, Fuquay said, someone who has been helped by Tuesday Morning comes back Tuesday morning as a volunteer. It’s their way of saying thank you.
--Lilla Ross is a freelance writer based in Jacksonville