James C. Biggers
On a cold February day in the mountain town of Prescott, Arizona, Pastor Charles Perkins received a visitor. The man was not the usual church caller, but a homeless person. Explaining that he had no place to get out of the cold, he asked if he could sleep on the floor of the church that night. He had already stayed the maximum allowed time at the shelters in town, and now he had no other place to go. Considering the falling temperature, the pastor agreed.
Shortly afterward, the man again approached the pastor and asked about his good friend who was still outside. Could he stay, too? Again the pastor agreed, but told them that they had to leave early the next morning to avoid conflicting with church activities. This soon became a daily practice, and before long about six men were involved. The session at Prescott Presbyterian Church (OPC) became aware of this situation, and considered a plan to shelter as many as seven men at the church.
I attended the session meeting where the ministry was being considered. Many negative issues filled my mind. How would the congregation react to people sleeping in the church? We did not even know these men. What if they stole things from church? Wouldn't they make a mess of the church? What if they smoked inside? What if some of them came in drunk? Where would they shower? They would probably smell bad, and the smell might linger after they left. We are a small church, so who could take charge of this ministry? We are not wealthy, and what would it cost? Finally, could our church actually reach out to these men?
I raised all these issues with the session, and they approved the ministry anyway. Then I shook my finger in their faces and said, "You better put someone really in charge of this thing you just created!" Guess whom they chose? Me!
I am happy to report that I was totally wrong in objecting to the establishment of this ministry. This thing really worked to the glory of God!
As the deacon in our church, I was assigned overall management of the ministry. Day-to-day operations were put under the authority of an on-site coordinator-one of the homeless men appointed by me and approved by the session. Based on these guidelines, the homeless men and I developed a program. The most important goal was to "do it God's way." We started with the most simple statements, and added to them and modified them as the need arose. The details of the program were developed jointly by me and the men served by the ministry, and approved by the session.
The basic policy statement that we developed was:
All of the participants signed a statement that they had read, understood, and agreed to comply with our policies, rules, and procedures. We filed copies of their identification cards or papers.
Other programs typically allow men to stay at a shelter for only a few days, after which they must move on to make room for others. Our program enrolls men who stay until they either "graduate" to full-time employment and a place of their own, or move on for other reasons. This continuity is a strong advantage of our program.
As a result of our commitment to these men, they developed a sense of family among themselves and with the church. They also contributed to the maintenance of the church building, and did lots of painting, plumbing, and general repairs.
Most of the men had sleeping bags, and slept on the floor around the church building. The men were allowed to use the kitchen for dinner, under the supervision of the on-site coordinator. The on-site coordinator was Ted Anderson, and some of the men were Rich, Mike, Don, Paul, Bob, and Tony. The men and I took several hikes in the beautiful mountain areas surrounding Prescott. This further cemented the relationships between the participants.
The men did daily chores to maintain and clean the church and the areas they used. They were required to attend church services and a weekly Bible study. All participants had to seek employment every day except Sunday. Each man was interviewed and documented upon entry. Each was asked for five dollars per week to help pay for the additional electricity and gas costs we incurred.
The word got around Prescott about our ministry, and we gained a good reputation. As we gained experience, we refined our rules and procedures. The reputation of the men grew, too.
We even had a young couple in the group for a time, while they were looking for work and a place of their own. We allowed them to sleep in their rental car while seeking employment. When they had to return the rental car, they slept in an abandoned van behind the church. They were both very helpful to the church and this ministry, and eventually moved to another town where construction work was available.
The ministry became like a family to all of those in it. They even adopted me and fed me some good meals while my wife was away. We held a Bible study every Tuesday evening, and the men looked forward to each study. We studied two videotape series by R. C. Sproul, and started studying discipleship. The men became known as "The Deacon's Crew," because of all the work they did around the church in addition to their work outside the church.
We defined success in this ministry as getting closer to the Lord and ultimately becoming an independent, contributing member of society. One man who spent a few weeks here is now working full-time at the Grand Canyon. Another found full-time employment with a local business, and he often found part-time work for our other men with his employer. All the others found occasional work at various jobs in the area. We established a prayer log, where we kept track of what was prayed, when, and what the answers were. After we put employment on the prayer list, lots of part-time work came to them.
The program was not totally successful, however. A few of the men were asked to leave because of continued drinking, taking drugs, or other problems.
The Crew has asked the church if they could do additional major tasks, including repainting the entire exterior of the church building. They have already started preparing the window frames and puttying the cracks. Two members of the congregation have volunteered to buy the paint.
We found a combination of policies, rules, and procedures that worked well for the men in our program. The continuity provided by keeping the same men for extended periods allowed them to get to know each other and become like a family. Yes, we had a few problems, but we learned how to handle them God's way.
On August 20, 2000, the program ended because the entire group "graduated." They now have a place of their own, partly provided by Nancy Phipps, one of our church members. She bought some "fixer-upper" houses, and had the Crew fix them. From that they had lots of employment, and gained a good reputation as a work crew. They now have a backlog of work, and will continue to do such jobs as gardening, manual labor, and house repair. Praise God for what he has done in the lives of these men! Until another good leader like Mr. Anderson comes on the scene to be the next on-site coordinator, we will have to turn away new applicants.
Other churches desiring to start such a ministry may write to us, and we will forward information on what we did. Also, please pray for a shelter for homeless women in the Prescott area. The only shelters for women here now are restricted to those who have been abused or who have crisis pregnancies.
If you can help or have ideas for us, contact Pastor Perkins or me. You may reach the pastor at 520/778-2538 or me at 520/717-0077. Our church address is 137 N. Marina Street, Prescott, AZ 86301. You may e-mail Pastor Perkins at email@example.com, or me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mr. Biggers is the deacon at Prescott Presbyterian Church in Prescott, Ariz. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2000.