New Hope United Methodist Church in Brandon took on a weekly meal for the homeless in a run-down church building and transformed it in to a community Dinner Church, reaching out to families who might otherwise never cross a sanctuary threshold.
This Fresh Expression of church—New Hope Café—project began after New Hope incorporated Grace United Methodist Church into its fold about a year and a half ago. They began to expand the homeless meal, with volunteers providing the meals and the weekly Jesus stories.
Initially, New Hope committed to continuing the homeless dinner for six months, Pastor Vicki Harrison said.
|Johnny Daniels, who lives across the street from New Hope UMC, hosts a Dinner Church each Monday.|
“It is in a very distressed neighborhood in East Tampa. One thing that church had done, though it was very much a dying church, is started the Monday night homeless dinner. They asked us please not to stop it,” she said.
“We went through a period of discernment and felt very strongly this meal was supposed to remain but needed a much stronger spiritual component. It was just mainly a feeding. People would come in any time during the hour. There wasn’t any relationship building going on.”
That has changed as word has gotten around.
The dinner still attracts homeless individuals and families from the neighborhood, but now visitors are encouraged to stay after dessert for a story about Jesus. Some leave, some stay—but the message about the Savior’s grace is constant.
On one recent Monday, attendees heard the story about how Jesus healed a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years.
“I read through the passage, and we talked a little bit about the meaning: what that woman’s life must have been like, her loneliness, her exclusions, her sense of desperation, how it relates to our lives. Jesus called her ‘daughter.’ She’s part of his family. I tried to use that to show when we say yes to Jesus, we are part of God’s family and no longer excluded,” Harrison said.
Coordinator Melissa Kordewich said signs have gone up around the neighborhood and on the church to get the word out.
“We are working with the local elementary school that is next door. Some of the teachers volunteer at the dinner, and the principal came one night and visited with the children,” she said.
“When school starts up again, we plan to put an invitation to the Dinner Church in with the school email announcements. We put out flags when we are open.”
This Fresh Expression didn’t just happen. It began with a planning session in June 2017.
“We started the meeting with introductions: ‘Who I Am and Why I Care.’ Every participant spoke of the calling of Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in their desire to make a difference in Orient Park (the neighborhood where the café is located),” said Paul Brooks, a member of the Grace discernment team.
With the team in place, it set four goals:
- Evolve the feeding ministry into a Fresh Expression of Church;
- Partner with Kenly Elementary School for the benefit of the children, parents and teachers;
- Partner with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office to build positive relationships and reduce the presence of drugs and other related activities;
- Reopen the community center in Kenly Park across the street; it had been closed by Hillsborough County. The hope was to turn to into a gathering spot for the entire community. New Hope is still working with the county, trying to come to an agreement so it can use the old community center in place of the old church, which would cost too much to renovate.
The ministry is starting to grow, usually attracting 30 to 35 people.
“We have definitely made a connection with the Jesus stories,” Harrison said. “When you gradually see growth, we have people now who are asking for prayer that never did before. Some are really listening and asking questions, and that’s really exciting.”
Kordewich said it’s about providing hope and the unconditional love of Christ for those who are hurting.
The power of that love is illustrated in the story of a man who came to the dinners but was aloof and usually had been drinking.
A problem occurred one evening when the man appeared to be extremely drunk and combative. He had trouble walking, was using foul language and got into an argument with another guest before leaving the building.
When he didn’t return, the guest who had been on the receiving end of the argument suggested that maybe someone should check to see if he was okay. Brooks found him passed out by a building.
Brooks called 911, and paramedics discovered the man was having heart problems and was almost in a diabetic coma.
“We really felt the presence of Jesus in this incident,” Kordewich said. “I think we are reaching people because our guests feel welcome and cared for by the great group of people who volunteer their time and talents. The Holy Spirit is present and works through our volunteers to open up the hearts of our guests to hear the Jesus stories.
“I think all of our guests feel accepted and loved, and I think that is the first step to knowing Jesus' unconditional love and accepting Him as our savior.”
—Yvette Hammett is a freelance editor based in Valrico.