MIAMI—The people of First United Methodist Church in Miami provide breakfast to the downtown homeless population three days a week.
Early Sunday, October 1, they added fresh showers to the mix.
|A plaque created for FUMC Miami includes the inscription "Whatever you did for the least of these you did for me." The artwork was dedicated to Dr. James Hutson and his wife, Miriam. Together, they started the congregation's first homeless ministry.|
The church, located at 400 Biscayne Boulevard, launched its new mobile shower trailer, making the much-needed amenity available to nearly 140 homeless men and women before serving breakfast.
“Having access to regular hygiene is a fundamental part of good health and well-being,” said Rev. Dr. Audrey Warren, senior pastor of FUMC Miami. “But it’s also part of personal dignity. It can create a turning point in someone’s life.”
Some of those who used the showers were visibly overwhelmed by the opportunity to get clean.
“One of the guys came out, and he just opened up his hands and lifted them toward the sky and said, ‘Thank you, God!’” Warren said. “One of our members was like, ‘That was totally worth it!’”
The celebration, attended by Florida Conference Bishop Ken Carter, also featured the dedication of “Homeless Jesus,” a sculpture by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz. The bronze statue, which Schmalz said is a visual depiction of Matthew 25, depicts Christ wrapped in a blanket and lying on a bench.
The life-sized sculpture was dedicated to Dr. James Hutson, a longtime FUMC Miami member who started the congregation’s homeless ministry when he opened a free clinic in a rented downtown storefront back in the 1950s. Hutson, who is the oldest member of the congregation, also attended the dedication.
“It was a really special moment,” Warren said. “It was definitely the culmination of years of hard work of examining who we are as a church and who we want to be for the future.”
‘Heartbeat of the church’
For First Church Miami, the mobile shower trailer is more than just innovation. It’s a reaffirmation of commitment to the congregation’s long-standing homeless ministry in the face of a major downtown redevelopment.
The church is selling its building to Property Markets Group, which plans to construct a 50-story residential high-rise featuring micro-apartments and some retail shops.
“We’ll be integrated into that (building), and we’ll have 24,000 square feet,” Warren said, adding that the church sanctuary and other spaces will be spread out across three floors of the new tower.
The new location will forever change the way First Church Miami serves the homeless, who currently come to the church parking lot and fellowship hall for meals three mornings a week. As more properties in the area redevelop, the homeless are slowly being pushed away from downtown and to the north and west.
Warren said the congregation has made it clear they will take the ministry mobile to keep the homeless a priority.
“It was very intentional for us,” she said. “We wouldn’t redevelop if we weren’t going to be able to take the homeless ministry with us. It really is the heartbeat of the church and what we really believe to be part of our witness as Christians.”
That’s also why the “Homeless Jesus” sculpture will remain at 400 Biscayne even after the new building is completed, Warren said.
“That was important to us,” she added. “We wanted a reminder every time we walk in the building that there are many who are less fortunate.”
|Dr. James Hutson is shown with the actual sculpture, "Homeless Jesus," which was unveiled in special ceremonies Oct. 1. Hutson is the oldest member of FUMC Miami and began the church's first homeless ministry by renting a downtown storefront in the 1950's.|
Although facing enormous changes, the congregation is thankful for a way to continue God’s work.
“More than anything, it makes a way for us to still be in ministry,” Warren said. “Without moving in a bold direction, I think we might have looked at closing in the next five years.”
One key to surviving the changing demographics and redevelopment has been a collaboration with other churches and businesses. The church purchased the used shower trailer for $30,000 from Live Fresh Inc., an organization that has taken the mobile shower initiative to Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. Partnerships with St. Philip’s Episcopal Church and Royal Caribbean, which donated $5,000 to the shower project, help provide hygiene kits, clean towels and clean underwear to every person who signs up to use the showers, she said.
The First Church Miami building is scheduled to be torn down in June 2018, after which the congregation will likely worship at a downtown Jewish Temple. Warren has already begun laying the groundwork for a partnership with another downtown church, Greater Bethel AME on Eighth Street, to host its regular meals for the homeless as well as the mobile shower trailer.
Warren also hopes to partner with other Methodist and non-Methodist churches that have food pantries and homeless populations around them that might benefit from the mobile showers.
Church members are confident that God will light their path.
“I think everyone feels really good about it,” Warren said. “This has given our congregation new energy and excitement about our mission to the homeless and a new excitement about reaching people downtown!”
--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance journalist based in Pensacola.