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Ministering Effectively With Homeless Persons

by David Apple June 15, 2004

  1. Tenth Presbyterian Church is celebrating its 175th Anniversary. Where is it located? What is the membership look like? What are Tenth’s ministries?

Tenth is located on the corner of 17th and Spruce Streets in Center City Philadelphia, just two blocks from the Kimmel Center. It has a membership of 1,600—8% are Asian, 5% African-American, the rest Anglo and European. 55% are residents of Philadelphia. The remaining numbers live up to 50 miles away. Tenth has a large outreach to international students, college campus outreaches and a ministry of mercy called ACTS.

  1. You mentioned ACTS Ministries which you direct. Is ACTS an acronym? What does it stand for?

ACTS is an acronym for Active Compassion Through Service. It is an outreach to many people who are usually not welcome in churches or who fall between the cracks and are forgotten or ignored. ACTS Ministries include our nursing home neighbors, single parents, separated and divorced, at-risk children, homeless and addicted, people with AIDS, and incarcerated men and women.

  1. I see that ACTS began in 1984. How did ACTS get started?

On a cold, snowy night a bible study group was leaving Tenth and discovered a homeless person sleeping on the front steps of the church building. As a chorus they all exclaimed, Look. We need to do something. So they prayed and then approached the deacons who very wisely empowered them by asking, “What do you want to do?” That led them to more prayer and searching out successful ministries of word and deed. Following a time of exploration they established a food and clothing closet, invited their homeless guests to their first Thanksgiving community dinner and began a literacy ministry.

  1. How is ACTS Ministries different from other services in the city? What makes it unique?

We have identified and make use of many, many government and private resources. We try to be an alternative to what these secular agencies provide but don’t duplicate what is already available. For instance, we have a hospitality ministry with our homeless guests. Unlike a soup kitchen where people come in, eat quickly and leave, we have a restaurant-style banquet for up to 120 guests. Each table is hosted by Tenth Church members, the food is served by a variety of church youth groups. The actual ministry is to sit, eat, talk and establish relationships where God can work.

  1. Leaders usually bring life experiences into their ministries. How have your experiences shaped your ministry?

I was raised in a non-religious home and after suffering the effects of a severe skull fracture as a child was filled with despair, self-hatred and hopelessness. In high school and college I was befriended by several members of an inner-city mission in Paterson, NJ. They showed me mercy as each had received mercy from Jesus Christ. They were recovering addicts, former prostitutes, blind, crippled and poor. While each appeared to have nothing they one after another shared their riches-in-Christ with me. The blind person told me of new sight, the crippled man how he had been made whole, the poor woman who was rich and so on. God spoke to me of his mercy through their mercy and after four years time I came to saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

  1. I understand you call the homeless persons “guests.” Can you explain that?

In order to establish healthy relationships we seek to turn strangers into guests we believe Jesus calls us to remove the stranger-ness and stigma attached to such words as homeless, addict, HIV disease, AIDS, etc. By practicing Christian hospitality we are able to welcome our neighbors in and care for them as guests.

  1. I’m sure you’ve seen many homeless persons in the fifteen plus years you’ve served at Tenth. Can you share any special “people stories”?

Moses was homeless and addicted for eighteen years. He was a “walking dead man” who became a Christian, overcame his drug addiction, joined this church, was reunited with his wife and children, got a job, bought a house, and is helping people who are still in their addiction to drugs. He was served well and is serving others with God’s amazing grace. I remember the day Moses came in to see me. It was summer and very hot. He had slept on the street the night before and when he came in—ready to surrender his life and let Jesus help him—he was filthy, he smelled terribly and he was crying. He had new hope.

  1. What about stories from the Nursing Home Ministry?

Annie was a nursing home resident who regularly attended our worship services at her facility. One Sunday not long ago she was unable to dress herself or to get help in dressing. Because of that she missed the worship service. Soon after she recognized the worship leader as he was passing her room. She called out hoping to get his attention. The leader heard her and entered her room. She shared the facts of the morning that she was unable to get to the worship service and was sad she missed the sermon, the singing and the fellowship. She asked what the sermon was about. The worship leader not only gave her a summary but shared with her the entire sermon. At the end they discussed the meaning of the sermon and Lillian said she would like to pray to receive Jesus as his savior. That night she died.

  1. I guess you have a story from the prison ministry. What is that?

Frank was an inmate in the prison where we serve. Frank had become a believer through one of our bible studies and had just heard he received a 27 year sentence for his crime. Now he was questioning God. According to his bible study leader he felt angry and abandoned. But as the weeks went by Frank began sharing his faith and inmates were being saved. Frank had received the spiritual gift of evangelism and was being used by God as an “inside minister.” And Frank rejoiced in God’s plan for his life.

  1. Has any relationship assisted in the establishment of new ministries?

Becky was a member of a community for people with AIDS who during her illness has become a believer and attended Fellowship Bible Study. Two years later she died from complications of HIV disease. Several Fellowship Bible Study members attended her memorial service at an agency called we the people with AIDS. The service was led by a cult leader and he offered no hope whatsoever and no mention of Becky's faith in Christ. Following the service I asked the agency director if we can have a Bible study at this agency. He said he could not make the decision — it was something the staff and clients would have to agree upon together. He arranged a meeting the following week. There were gays and lesbians, intravenous drug users and cross-dressers at the meeting along with agency staff and several members of ACTS Fellowship Bible Study. I explained our relationship with Becky, how Becky had become a believer and how she had new life in Christ and the hope of eternal life. I said that our goal was to teach the Bible and to establish relationships with those who attended the study. As if no one heard what was said there were a series of hostile questions. Among these questions were Will you try to change us? Are you're going to make us Presbyterian? Are you going to forbid homosexuals from attending? Will transvestites be allowed to attend? To these questions I repeated the reasons already stated for the Bible study: we want to share the hope and new life which we believe is found in the Bible and we want to develop relationships with those who attend the Bible study. We said that we could not change anyone's behavior — only God has the power to do that. We said we were not teaching any denominational doctrine but only the word of God found in the Bible. We said everyone is welcome to attend and that the Bible study would not be a platform for "gay bashing." We referred again and again to our relationship with Becky and the new hope that she had as a person with AIDS. The response of those we met with, I believe, was combined in the statement one person who said, "Why not. We need all the help we can get." As a result a weekly Bible study was established and later, at their request, a worship service.

  1. Have any of your homeless/addicted guests died as a result of drug use? How do you deal with the loss of your guests through death?

We actually lost five guests a few winters ago. One died of an overdose, another was murdered, one fell drunk down a flight of stairs, one died of AIDS, and another froze to death clutching an empty bottle of vodka in each hand. This last one Joey had attended our bible study for 8 years. He wasn’t saved but was an incredible database of bible information. We don’t know what his last moments on earth were like and we don’t know whether he came to salvation in Christ before he died. We grieve when a sinner is lost, but we serve God out of obedience and out of gratitude trusting him for the timetable of people’s lives and their salvation.

  1. Mercy ministry must be very difficult? What is your perspective?

All ministry is difficult if Christians act independently of God and expect results. My philosophy of ministry is become involved, establish relationships and offer hope. Nothing could be easier than just showing up and trusting God to work through me. That’s what service is all about.

  1. You bring a wealth of experience to the table. What are you doing to share it with others?

I train deacons and do mercy ministry seminars. I also oversee The Clergy Committee, helping urban ministers and ministry executives work smarter and more effectively for the benefit of their neighborhoods and the glory of God.

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