North Florida churches: a hand up instead of a hand out


The Big Bend Front Porch Ministries at Calvary UMC in Tallahassee has a Clothing Closet each week. This was Coat Day.


Editor’s Note: This is the last in a series of stories about churches ministering to the homeless in Florida. Click here to read the first story, here for the second, here for the third and here for the fourth.

​The program began ten years ago with a few boxes of clothes, stored in a church closet, waiting for distribution to Tallahassee’s homeless population. Now it includes a few hundred people who visit each week, not only for clothes but also for food, fellowship and hearing more about Jesus.

The effort nearly teetered on the brink of collapse a few years ago because volunteers from the dwindling congregation at Calvary United Methodist Church couldn’t keep up the pace. But the Northwest District, knowing the work’s true value, quickly huddled and acted.

Shoes are offered through the Big Bend Front Porch Ministries.

Now churches from all over the Big Bend area are contributing.

And it’s growing.

It’s all under the umbrella of the Big Bend Front Porch Ministries—the weekly clothes closet, the Listening Cafe for food and fellowship, a Farm Share and a partnership with Wisdom’s Wellspring, a residential community that offers mentoring and instruction for independent living.

Calvary UMC remains the hub. But it’s strengthened by a solid group, led by pastors Justin Barfield (Good Samaritan UMC) and Mike Toluba (the Wesley Foundation at Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College).

Rev. Bob Gibbs, the district superintendent at the time, gathered some church leaders and brainstormed on ways to keep Calvary’s homeless ministry afloat.

Now it’s thriving.

Rev. Mike Toluba, director of Wesley Foundation at FSU and TCC, is one of the driving forces behind the Big Bend Front Porch Ministries.

“It’s rewarding,’’ Toluba said. “It’s very collaborative. Instead of a single church, it has become a mission for the entire district. We’re excited about where we’re going with this. It has so much potential.’’

Barfield conceived the Listening Cafe concept. Instead of people doing a quick church visit on Monday morning to pick up a few shirts and a sack lunch, now they have a reason to stay.

“We were certainly providing a service to people, but we had the feeling that it should be more,’’ Toluba said. “Justin had the idea, the vision of a fresh expression of church for people. They might not come back for a Sunday service. But can this Monday morning community be their church community?’’

The resounding answer: Yes!

“The original thought was instead of handing out a bunch of stuff, let’s really listen and see what people need and want,’’ Toluba said. “It’s an opportunity to build relationships. It’s something that has become a lot more special.’’

There’s a conversation, prayer, and hymn singing. There is Bible study.

The Big Bend Front Porch Ministries offers a Listening Cafe each Monday morning.

“It’s just beautiful,’’ said Calvary UMC volunteer Pam King, who instituted the clothes closet. “It’s absolutely phenomenal. People come here to pray. The Listening Cafe is something people love.

“Yes, this all started with an organization wanting to know if they could store some clothes at our church. Now we have people coming here every week to share the word about Jesus and feeling his love. Sometimes, you wonder how all of this has happened. It’s God’s work.’’

King said she’s amazed how it all unfolded at a church that sometimes has only a few dozen people attending its worship service. Changing demographics and population has chipped away at the membership.

But the area’s needs never diminished.

In the beginning, the clothes closet was opened one day a month. The demand grew to the point where volunteers bought some low-budget clothes to keep up. There were additional donations from the congregation and local consignment shops.

“It got to the point where we had tons of donations and people were waiting in line for clothes,’’ King said. “A few of us looked around and said, ‘There’s no way our church can sustain this. Only a few of us can do this.’

“Before long, we had all sorts of churches joining us—and not just United Methodist Churches, either. We have the people we need. And it seems like the donations we get are always the right thing at the right time. God has provided for us. People want to be part of this.’’

The clothes closet is now named McKenzie’s Clothes Closet in honor of McKenzie Bailey, an infant who died just short of her second birthday after being born with medical ailments. The Listening Cafe continues to grow.

And there are great hopes for the partnership with Wisdom’s Wellspring.

“It’s going to help people with the resources they need,’’ Toluba said. “People will learn how to live independently in a holistic kind of way. We’d like to tap into after-school programs and job training. We want to get much more organized and help grow this to new levels.’’

It began with a few boxes of clothes, stored in a church closet.

And now?

“God is good,’’ King said. “I can hardly believe what has happened.’’

San Marco United Methodist Church

The Wednesday night service for the homeless at San Marco Church attracts a crowd.

When Steve Painter was appointed pastor at Jacksonville’s San Marco Church, it had a small Wednesday night Bible study group. Painter wanted to extend the church’s outreach but wasn’t certain how to accomplish that.

So, on one Monday night, accompanied by the Northeast District’s outreach coordinator, Painter drove around the church neighborhood.

They prayed together.

God, show us where you’re working, so we can partner with you.

“The previous Wednesday night, there were six people at the Bible study, one of whom was homeless,’’ Painter said. “The Wednesday night after our prayer, 20 people showed up and 15 of them were homeless. That’s how it started. And it has grown from there.’’

Now, on a typical Wednesday night, San Marco ministers to about 80 homeless people. There’s a meal, a full worship service with music and a sermon.

Volunteers prepare the meal Wednesday nights at San Marco Church in Jacksonville.

“It’s not just a feeding service,’’ Painter said. “We have become their church. As the numbers grew, it became clear that we weren’t just a Bible study group. We needed something larger. We became a community.’’

In 2017, San Marco Church was hit hard by Hurricane Irma. The sanctuary was flooded and needed major renovations.

“We had about eight pallets of flooring being shipped, and I asked the Wednesday night guys if they might help,’’ Painter said. “Anybody available, I asked, if they could show up and help us unload the truck. When I pulled into the parking lot, there were 20 people waiting for me to help unload the semi. That showed us how much they care.

“When the flooring was being installed, we were out of the sanctuary for about three or four weeks. A few people were asking, ‘When can we get back in the sanctuary? We love worshipping there.’ That helped us to understand how important those Wednesday nights are to the group.’’

Painter said there is a solid core of Wednesday night regulars, although about ten new people rotate through each week. The newcomers quickly learn about the group’s standards.

“There are very protective of what they do,’’ Painter said. “Every now and then, there might be somebody who feels entitled or causes a bit of an issue. They will say, ‘Look, if you’re going to behave like this, you need to go to one of the shelters. That’s not how we are here.’

“There’s self-policing. There’s a lot of pride. It’s a good, strong Wednesday night church community.’’

—Joey Johnston is a freelance writer in Tampa.


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