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Helping Hands Clinic reaches out to Gainesville's homeless

Helping Hands Clinic reaches out to Gainesville's homeless

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Helping Hands Clinic reaches out to Gainesville's homeless

May 29, 2005    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando  {0302}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

GAINESVILLE — First United Methodist Church, Gainesville, may be an affluent church, but the homeless aren't forgotten in this downtown church. In fact, they are honored.

The church has a ministry designed to bring the often unappreciated, unwanted and unloved homeless people around the church into the family of Christ.

The church is doing that through its Helping Hands Clinic, held from 5 to 7 p.m. every Monday at the church. Local doctors, psychiatrists, nurses and other health-care providers gather there to meet the needs of the area's homeless individuals and families.

The Rev. Earl Parker, who has served as pastor of the church for three years, said 25 to 30 people routinely attend to receive the free services.

"One of our members retired from the V.A. (Veteran's Administration Hospital), and they talked to people and we get a lot of really neat people that volunteer their time," he said. "We give out over-the-counter medication and sometimes write prescriptions that one of our members with a pharmacy takes care of for them."

The help doesn't come solely from "the outside." Members are also there to disperse homemade chocolate chip cookies and just give a hug or smile.

"It gives us a really good feeling just knowing that we have done what the Lord asked us to do in looking after our neighbors," Parker said. "We are supposed to love our neighbors as we love ourselves."

The church's ministry to its homeless neighbors began more than 10 years ago when the church was offered as a cold night shelter to those in need. About five years ago the church began having Super Bowl parties with the homeless as guests of honor. A big screen television is placed in the fellowship hall, and a free catered meal is provided. This year a local barbecue restaurant donated the meal to the 117 people who attended.

And they didn't leave empty-handed. JanSport, a leading backpack manufacturer, sent backpacks to the church. Then, church members filled them with two bags — one containing personal hygiene products and the second with candy and fruit. They also left with new warm-up suits, socks and underwear.

In April the church held a banquet — complete with candlelight, linen tablecloths, fresh cut flowers and silverware to compliment the seven-course meal  — for its homeless neighbors. About 120 attended. The main dish was chicken cordon bleu. A group of 25 people joined Parker in the sanctuary after the meal for a communion service.

"It was really a good thing," Parker said. "Our members greeted them and waited tables. What a great way to minister to them."

It doesn't stop there. An indoor picnic is planned for July, as well as a fall festival.

Parker said the church isn't doing anything that other churches can't attain in their communities.

"It's all about loving your neighbor," he said. "The homeless are our neighbors. Eventually, I would like to have a church service for them. They are welcome at our services, but feel they have to have the right clothes to come. I don't care about that stuff."

The Rev. Geraldine McClellan, superintendent of the Gainesville District, said what the church is willing to do to reach out to this community of people "speaks volumes about its commitment to the cause of bringing homeless people into the family of Christ."

"Historically, this is a population where the church wasn't there to meet their needs," she said. "Many times they weren't treated as humans. This is a phenomenal ministry where you can see the joy of the members bubbling over to be of service."

McClellan said this is a ministry that can and should be duplicated at other churches. "These people are seen as outcasts many times, and here they are not only accepted as they are, they are loved," she said.

The church was also one of the founding churches of the local Interfaith Hospitality Network, which is a group of area churches that each offers a week of lodging and meals to homeless families four to five times a year.


This article relates to Outreach Ministries.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.