Every year at Thanksgiving, many Miami charitable organizations offer meals to homeless people.
And every year, there’s only one place for the homeless on the edge of Overtown to go—the First United Methodist Church of Miami.
|Rev. Kipp Nelson of the First United Methodist Church of Miami.|
“They want to come to us because they consider our church as their home,’’ said Rev. Kipp Nelson, First UMC’s outreach minister. “It’s a very special and beautiful thing to see.’’
This homeless ministry is nothing new for the 123-year-old church. It had remained in Miami's downtown corridor, even when it was fashionable for other churches and businesses to flee to the suburbs.
The ministry began 40 years ago.
That’s when church member George Simmons, the owner of a junkyard, became dismayed when he noticed a proliferation of down-and-out folks on the surrounding streets.
Deciding to do what he could, Simmons walked up and down the sidewalks each Sunday, distributing 5-dollar bills.
“He was giving out $200 or $300 every week,’’ said Walter Baggesen, 83, a pioneer of the church’s homeless outreach program. “That went on for a few years.
Then George went on vacation. I happened to stumble upon the assembled group, and they wondered what was going on.
“Well, George left behind some food—crackers, cheeses, food that wouldn’t spoil—and we spread it out as far as we could with the group. That’s when we decided maybe we should continue like that. Instead of giving them a little bit of money, we gave them nourishment.’’
Baggesen, on behalf of the church's men's group, proposed serving coffee and donuts. That was approved. And it was more than food. Devotionals were also offered, and Sunday mornings became a particular time for everyone.
|Many, many First Miami volunteers serve the homeless.|
In recent years, the church’s homeless ministry has hit overdrive. Now it’s hot meals three mornings a week. Now it’s a trailer with six shower stalls so people can clean up. Now it’s the offering of clothing and hygiene products.
“I think way back when, the church said, ‘This is clearly a valuable thing, so let’s invest in it,’” said Nelson, an Alabama native who was transferred to the Miami church in 2017. “I think it’s truly amazing.
“The core of this church’s DNA is a heart for the less fortunate, particularly the chronically and continuously homeless. Many organizations try to get people transitioned to the next step. But there are a number of people in Miami who are very unlikely to get off the street. That is our niche. We love and serve those people.’’
There is a weekly service for the homeless. A few homeless people sing in the church’s choir.
“Our church has opened its arms to say, ‘You are a part of us, a part of our family,’ ‘’ Nelson said. “It’s just the love and gratitude of radical hospitality. This church does that extremely well.’’
There was even a time when the church’s homeless population formed a baseball team, issuing a weekly challenge to the men’s club at Bayfront Park.
“I think they beat us every time,’’ Baggesen said with a laugh.
How does such goodwill happen?
|First Miami volunteers sort through donated clothing.|
“Our church has committed people and always has,’’ Baggesen said. “We have lower class and upper class. We represent about a dozen nationalities. I just don’t see this in other churches, and I've been to a few in my time.
“If there’s work to be done, if there’s someone to be helped, people step up, no matter who they are. It’s very refreshing, wonderful and special.’’
Nelson said he immediately noticed the special nature of the church’s homeless outreach, including the small army of volunteers and corporate partners, such as supermarkets that donate a portion of the food products.
“At first, I was a little intimidated because I was put in charge of it and wasn’t sure how it worked,’’ Nelson said. “Then I saw the quality and quantity of the volunteers and how smoothly it worked.
“My feelings quickly evolved into a humility for this church for taking this on as its mission. We have our regulars, of course, but there are also new faces. It doesn’t matter. Everyone is welcome. And it has the feel of a family.’’
And it’s a family that knows its priorities.
First United Methodist Church of Boca Raton
Seven years ago, it began as a “shower ministry.’’
On Saturday mornings, homeless people would arrive at the First United Methodist Church of Boca Raton’s gathering center. Behind the gymnasium, where some congregation members played pickup basketball on weekdays, they could take a hot shower.
"I think it was a thing where they felt belonging, they felt love and they felt a sense of community,'' Pastor Marcus Zillman said. “That’s a lot right there. We had a lot of pride in birthing this concept. But you know what? It kept growing.’’
Pretty soon, cosmetologists were arriving to give haircuts. There were podiatrists and massage therapists. There were doctors giving checkups and company representatives soliciting job opportunities.
There was help from members of the Catholic and Jewish faiths. Businesses started chipping in. The Junior League of Boca Raton got involved. Light breakfast foods are often served.
“It has become a holistic health fair of sorts,’’ Zillman said. “Ninety percent of the people working are not members of our church. And that’s a blessing.
“We might have birthed the concept, but parts of the whole community have become involved. That means more resources and more people being helped. It’s amazing how God has provided blessings for this ministry.’’
Food is the traditional method that churches use to serve homeless ministries. Zillman said he knows that. But he also knows that Boca Helping Hands, another local organization, serves food six days a week and provides more than 20,000 meals on an annual basis.
To avoid duplication, FUMC of Boca has different offerings. They are appreciated.
“We’ve had many (homeless) people become members of our church,’’ Zillman said. “For those who receive these showers, they want to give back, too. They might not be in a position to give a tithe or offering. But we have found ways for them to give a tithe of their time.
“We have a contemporary service in the middle of our morning. Afterward, we have homeless individuals help pick up the chairs and reset the room. We’ve offered to pay them. They always say, ‘You’ve opened your doors for us. This is our way of supporting the congregation.’ Everyone can feel good about that.’’
Christ Church Pompano Beach
The church serves a hot meal each Sunday to more than 200 people and has been doing this for three years. The meal's participants have doubled in size since its inception.
The food is donated by members of the community and ministry volunteers prepare the meal. The meal is preceded by devotionals, prayers and scripture readings.
Haircuts are provided twice a month by a volunteer cosmetologist. The event also has included baptismal ceremonies, and many get involved with the church in other ways.
—Joey Johnston is a freelance writer based in Tampa.