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Open arms

Greenville breakfast ministry feeds homeless, no questions asked

By Jessica Connor

GREENVILLE—On a chilly March morning, the downtown streets just beginning to clog with commuters fighting traffic, the halls of John Wesley United Methodist Church begin to clog with a different kind of commuter.

Some with backpacks, some with pockets crammed with a handful of possessions, they pick their way from several homeless shelters to the refuge of the church, where they file into the ground-floor fellowship hall. Outside in the city, the mood is fast-paced, hectic, somber “ Monday morning business as usual, the haves and the have-nots moving in separate spheres of life.

Inside, it’s a different world.

Warm lights beckon along with cheerful piano music and the aroma of eggs, grits, sausage and ham, all clamoring for attention amid a clatter of voices and laughter.

Rows of mostly men sit companionably, eating steaming, fragrant food piled high by volunteers from John Wesley and other nearby churches.

At least this morning, they have care and fellowship. They have food. They are loved.

For 12 years, the Breakfast Ministry of John Wesley UMC has been serving the homeless and poverty-stricken by providing a hot meal. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 7 to 9 a.m., anyone in need is welcome within, no questions asked.

All we require is that they behave themselves and wash their hands first,  said Bobby Burch, who coordinates the ministry with his wife, Crystal. It’s open arms—all are welcome. 

For some of the men and women who frequent the year-round breakfast ministry, it is the only decent meal they will get that day.

It s a blessing,  said Derrick Faulkner, a regular who lives at a nearby homeless shelter. We can get food, sometimes clothing. The churches are trying to help the people, and they are God s people trying to help the people. 

You get a good start,  said Robert Burns, who has been living on the streets nearly two years and said he appreciates the good food and the care John Wesley UMC provides. They re really trying to help us. 

Spirit of Christian service

The breakfast ministry feeds an average of 80 to 140 people a day and served 17,000 people last year, mostly from shelters within walking distance, Burch said. Self-sustaining thanks to grants and private donations, and with an all-volunteer staff, the ministry also ministers to other needs beyond food: medications, clothing, decent shoes and pastoral counseling.

Two major athletic stores in Greenville “ Run In and Mast General Store “ donate to the ministry tennis shoes that have been discarded by runners, who often break in new shoes and then toss them every few weeks.

The ministry also tries to help those in transition, who have managed to get an apartment but still need help with power or telephone bills.

Some have managed to make it, like a man who now works at Buncombe Street UMC and just returned from a mission trip to Haiti, but used to be homeless himself.

He s our poster boy, comes in every day,  Burch said. He never forgets where he came from. 

Others remain the least of these,  coming three times a week to the only place they can get a solid meal and comfort amidst the pain that is their daily existence.

Volunteers from John Wesley team with volunteers from Advent, Bethel and Travelers Rest UMCs and nearby Episcopal, Baptist and non-denominational churches to cook, serve and clean up.  Some come every day; others come when they can. All come with the spirit of Christian service in their hearts.

The Rev. Robin Dease, senior pastor at John Wesley, said the breakfast ministry epitomizes the connectionalism of the UMC and Christians divine call to service above self.

As the government cuts monies for programs that help the poor, it challenges the church to live out our Wesleyan heritage of meeting the needs of the poor and those on the margins,  Dease said. This program keeps me grounded and humble, realizing but for the grace of God go I. 

Power of God prevails

It started thanks to the vision of Dr. Norman Brown, former John Wesley pastor who began a noon T-shirt/sandwich/soup ministry there more than a dozen years ago. But no more than 10 or 12 people were coming regularly, so he asked the homeless what they recommended.

˜What we need is a breakfast, they said, and so he changed it,  Burch said.

Word spread, and 12 years and a lot of hard work later, the breakfast ministry is now a fixture in the city.

It s the power of God who moves this,  Burch said. God keeps blessing us. 

But it hasn t been easy. Like other good works of the Lord, the ministry has been tested.

For example, Burch said, seven or eight years ago, the ministry was having trouble. It was creating turmoil at John Wesley, and some didn t want those people in our church.  Burch said one person asked the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to assess the ministry for code violations.

What could have ended the ministry ended up being a blessing, Burch said. DHEC told the ministry what they needed to change to be in compliance with state regulations. Susan Ingram Carpenter, a student from the ministry s partner church Christ Church Episcopal, decided to take on the compliance as her senior project. Carpenter ultimately helped raise $126,000 from her family and the community to gut the room and completely refurbish it in full compliance: a new water heater, sinks, new ceiling, wash basin for the staff, new floor, tables and chairs, private pastor s office for ministering to the homeless, etc.

God prevailed in spite of people s efforts to undo the good work of the ministry, Burch said, pointing out the Scripture, But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good  (Genesis 50:20).

Indeed, organizers say the ministry does so much good, not only for the people receiving the food, but also for the people doing the serving.

Dease said it affords her an opportunity to be in ministry with the homeless, as well as build relationships with judges, lawyers and other outreach organizations.

I have developed a compassion I did not originally have,  said Dease, who now spends her spare time seeking housing for veterans and helping men back into the workforce by partnering with businesses who can use their skills. It was through listening to their stories of how they became homeless that moved me to be an advocate. 

His hands and feet

For many of the volunteers, serving in this way is the ultimate way they can help fellow humans.

Barbara Ware, of Advent UMC in Simpsonville, is a new volunteer, and she has found the ministry to be contagious.

That ˜feed my sheep Scripture? This is it right in front of you: Jesus at work,  Ware said, calling the experience humbling. You see these people s eyes, see them face-to-face. This is one of the best examples of being Jesus hands and feet that I can think of. 

You have to love people,  said Crystal Burch, who thought she was going to volunteer just one day but could
n t bring herself to stop. It s hard sometimes “ most don t have jobs, they re on drugs or in and out of jail, and you try to get them going in the right direction. 

Working so close with the homeless has made her understand how difficult their lives can be: The men and some women are often mistreated and abused, up against a system with no end in sight, no way out.

They see you out there sleeping, and they arrest you and charge you $800, $1,500 just for sleeping on a bench!  Burch said, shaking her head. How are you going to pay that when you don t have a job? 

Rosa Byrd, a member of Bethel Bible Missionary Church who volunteers regularly, is astounded at some of the extremely talented people who live on the streets.

One regular, Henry Davis, is a gifted artist, often painting scenes of downtown Greenville while he eats. A handful play the piano regularly, like Melvin Andre Jerome Simpson Jr., a homeless man who was playing the morning the Advocate visited. Simpson said his music comes from God, and he composes a different song at least every week.

Bobby Burch said he understands what these people are going through.

A lot of people don t believe me, but I grew up in a situation where I didn t eat every day, from birth until I was about 18, and sometimes I only had one or two meals a day. I know what it feels like not to eat,  he said.

But citing Galatians 6:10, Burch said all Christians should reach out to people and serve any way they can regardless of how they grew up or whether or not they can relate.

His wife agrees.

All these people are God s children,  Crystal Burch said. We don t know what shape we ll be in one day, and we have to learn to take care of one another. God fed over 5,000 with a loaf of bread and fish, and he didn t ask for your Social Security number, did he? 

For more information about the breakfast ministry at John Wesley UMC, call the church at 864-232-6903.

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