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Once homeless man makes the homeless his ministry

Once homeless man makes the homeless his ministry

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Once homeless man makes the homeless his ministry

Aug. 10, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0716}

An e-Review Feature
By John Michael De Marco**

Once homeless himself, Doug Brown has spent the last 25 years in ministry to his community’s homeless population. Photo courtesy of United Methodist Cooperative Ministries. Photo #07-0639.

The former mayor of St. Petersburg was so intent on getting Doug Brown’s ministry off his streets that he directed employees to remove trashcans located outside City Hall.

Brown, a member of First United Methodist Church in Pinellas Park, guessed that by removing the dispensers it prevented him from cleaning up after serving meals and sharing the gospel with the city’s homeless, creating an ostensible reason why the ministry was a nuisance.

At least that’s Brown’s take on why the trashcans would suddenly disappear around the end of the business day and show up again later in the evening. The City Hall location was one of many venues Brown and the homeless were prevented from utilizing for very long within the city.

Never deterred from his calling, Brown’s efforts are now part of an ecumenical network that includes approximately 21 churches working together at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul South Pinellas Center of Hope to coordinate daily evening meals for the working poor and homeless in the St. Petersburg area.

The churches offer volunteers who do everything from purchasing the food, organizing the cooking and getting the food to the center to serving it. In 2006 they served more than 68,000 meals, and an average of 280 to 290 men, women and children have been showing up on any given night in recent months.

Brown is there almost every weeknight after finishing his day job at an exterminating company. Donna Ratzlaff, executive director of United Methodist Cooperative Ministries in Clearwater, a social outreach ministry of the Florida Conference’s Gulf Central District, has worked with Brown through her organization and described him as “a man who has found his passion … we need five more of him.”

Brown first became involved in serving the homeless after the Rev. Herb Lang, his church’s pastor at the time, challenged congregants to reach outside the four walls of the church. After thinking and praying about how he would respond, Brown discussed with Lang an idea for helping homeless people and learned that a fellow churchgoer, Jim Bogan, had a similar vision.

Brown and Bogan began spending time on the streets of Tampa one night a week. “We’d go with a bag of baloney sandwiches and a container of coffee and try to build up trust with the homeless,” he said. “It took a long time to build the trust up. After we made some contacts, we continued going for probably a year.”

The area’s former district superintendent, the Rev. Gene Zimmerman, met with the pair and suggested they bring the ministry to the St. Petersburg side of Tampa Bay. Brown and Bogan picked a location called Williams Park and started going there every Sunday morning.

“We started with just a couple showing up,” Brown recalled. “We kept at it, kept being there on Sunday for them. It grew to six or seven, then 12 to 15, then eventually about 100 people on Sunday. We’d make coffee and grits and take it down to them or some kind of cakes or doughnuts or cookies. We’d give a short message to them, pray with them, talk with them if they needed it.”

Then issues with the city began. The city of St. Petersburg rerouted its bus system, and the homeless ministry had to find another location. Brown said he and Bogan tried using different parking lots, but were constantly being chased off by city employees. Brown said he remembers the former mayor once declaring, “If Doug Brown didn’t feed the homeless there wouldn’t be any homeless.”

Tension between a city’s homeless population and its residents and businesses is not unique to the Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg area. Last year Orlando passed a city ordinance requiring groups feeding more than 25 people at parks within a two-mile radius of City Hall to obtain a feeding permit, with a limit of two permits per group each year. This popular feeding site in Orlando’s Lake Lucerne neighborhood was fenced off and closed, with the homeless people’s belongings placed on the sidewalk for disposal if not claimed and removed. Photo courtesy of Orlando Food Not Bombs. Photo #07-0640. Web photo only.

After a year and a half of service within a building called The Refuge, the building was sold and Brown and Bogan found themselves back on the streets. That’s when they staged the ministry in front of City Hall, where the mayor accused them of “making a mess.” They took before and after photographs to document their efforts to clean up after they were finished. Shortly after that the trashcans began disappearing at 5 p.m. and coming back at 8 p.m. Not to be discouraged, Brown found an apartment complex owner willing to accept a small amount of money so Brown and Bogan could use his trashcans.

The ministry finally connected with St. Vincent de Paul about six years ago. “It’s worked out real nice,” Brown said. “We have indoors. The guys come in and can be a little warmer in the wintertime and a little cooler in the summer.”

Getting back on their feet

Bogan moved to Orlando, but Brown continues to address the plight of the homeless in St. Petersburg. About 25 homeless “regulars” have participated in his ministry since the early days at Williams Park. He says many have gotten their lives in order.

“All of a sudden we won’t see someone for two months, and suddenly they’ll come through the door and shout, ‘Mr. Doug, look!’ … and they’ve found a job and have somewhere to live,” Brown said. “A lot of them go to work for waste management or for construction people. They always come back and thank us for helping them and showing them there is some hope. A lot of them come back and volunteer their time. I’ve never had a homeless person ever say no to volunteering.”

Brown said any formal or informal evangelism or discipleship that takes place during the feeding program is contingent upon the church that provides the workers. Many congregants come to the center with prayer cards and pray with the homeless.

“We always have at least a prayer and a little bit of time with them,” Brown said. “Sometimes there is a short message before the meal. A couple of churches have brought communion down. All of the churches have a list of the agencies that can help people. There’s not much you can do at night, everything is closed, so we’ll give them a number of someone to contact during the day.”

Addressing perceptions that people may have about the homeless, Brown said the main reason for homelessness used to be a person lost his or her job, setting in motion a downward spiral that led to the loss of a home.

“Now, it’s a variety of different reasons,” he said. “A lot more have drug problems, alcohol problems, than we had before. We try to get them to at least an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting somewhere where they can get some help.”

Brown said many are what he describes as street smart, looking for something free. “You’ve got to really read into them,” he added. “When the volunteers find someone who says they want to get off the streets, they’ll bring them over to me to talk to them. … After more than 20 years, you can really read into which one is being truthful and which one is not.”

Connecting through experience

In addition to intuition honed by experience, Brown has another advantage that enables him to effectively minister to the homeless: his own story.

Volunteers at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul South Pinellas Center of Hope prepare the next meal for the homeless of St. Petersburg and surrounding areas. Photo courtesy of Society of St. Vincent de Paul South Pinellas Center of Hope. Photo #07-0641. Web photo only.

“I usually start my talks off by asking if anyone is afraid of me,” he said. “At the end I tell them a lot of people have a bad idea about the homeless, that they’re going to attack or hurt them. I tell them I was one of those homeless that you were afraid of in the 1970s. I was there for about two years, from 1972 to 1974, in St. Pete. When we started the ministry a lot of them thought they knew me … ‘Yeah, we shared a bench.’ I think that’s why this ministry has probably continued to grow.”

Brown was one of those people who lost a job, a house, and “fell through the cracks.” He then started drinking. One day, Brown met a man named L.C. Whalen, a Christian, at a diner and was offered a job on the spot. Whalen sent Brown first to Miami, then New Jersey and then Ohio for weeks at a time with his trucking company, prohibiting Brown from drinking alcohol at any time.

“He gave me a chance, and I took it,” Brown said. “I came back to St. Pete clean, ready to go to work.”

His stint with Whalen’s company completed, Brown, still homeless, walked into a Chevrolet dealership and said he was looking for a job. He gave the dealership the phone number of the diner where he had met Whalen, and by the time he arrived at the diner to eat, a phone call had been received. Brown was at work the next day and spent 12 years with the dealership. In the meantime he met Jackie, his wife of 25 years, and gradually got back on his feet, moving from renter to homeowner once again.

“How many wives would believe that two guys are going to St. Pete or Tampa at 10 p.m. to feed the homeless? She’s stood beside me all these years,” Brown said of Jackie.

Brown said Whalen had given him a New Testament and encouraged him to pick it up and read it some night. Brown did not get too into his faith at first, but Jackie was already a devout Christian by the time the couple met. She began attending First United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg and took Brown there despite his “kicking and screaming.”

Brown turns 59 this summer, and has no plans to slow down.

“What encourages me? I know that we’re never going to save everybody,” he acknowledges. “But if we can turn somebody’s life around and get them back on the norm as L.C. did for me, we’ve done something. So we continue doing it. That’s what keeps me going. I went through it. There’s hope. A lot of them have just given up on life.”

“It’s one of those ministries that I don’t think is ever going to lose its congregation,” Brown adds. “I’m going to keep going until I can’t go on any longer. I’ve already promised that to the Lord.”


This article relates to Church and Society.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant.