Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Gathering Shalom Coordinator Brings Extra Touches to the Homeless this Christmas Season

This week, The Gathering had the pleasure of being a host church for SHALOM—a ministry that “Serves the Homeless with Alternative Lodging in Middletown.”  This year, our Gathering Shalom coordinator had a unique reason for wanting to serve.  Just one year ago, he was a Shalom guest himself.
         “I’ve been there,.” he said.  I know what these people are going through.” Roger Bush came to The Gathering one year ago, found a welcoming church and a place to grow in his faith.  Then ,he answered God’s call to “comfort in the way that he had been comforted” through the ministry of Shalom.

          Shalom is a multi-denominational coalition of 11 churches that was started in 2003 to respond to the growing homelessness in Middletown.  Beginning in November through March, each church provides shelter, hot meals, and transportation for the homeless. The homeless stay one week at each church and then rotate to another church in the network.  While staying at the host church, the guests receive two hot meals a day, a bed and bedding, laundry facilities, and the fellowship of church members who visit in the evening— with gifts, games, and conversation.  “We want to make it a home-like atmosphere for people who feel very isolated and alone during the winter months.” Said one of the volunteers.  This week, The Gathering provided space for 5 women, 9 men and 2 children.

          While I have been a part of this ministry for 11 years and have watched hundreds of servants give of themselves, I was struck last night by the extra touches that Roger brought to the people of Shalom—extra touches that help them to see themselves as Christ sees them:   loved, valued, and accepted.

Extra touch #1   Every Shalom guest was given their own cup with their name on it for the week. When you have very little or nothing at all to call your own, these little possessions mean a lot.

Extra touch #2   Every guest was assigned cleaning duty for one day of the week.  I have never seen the church so spotless!  Every person staying in Shalom knew that they played an important part in giving back to the church that served their needs.

Extra Touch #3  Every night, even though it was cold outside, the fire pit was filled with donated kindling and a campfire was started in the back parking lot for roasting marshmallows and s’mores—an extra touch of childhood memories to warm lonely hearts.

Extra Touch #4  Padded mats were arranged on the floor so that everyone slept with carpeting underneath them.  "It will keep people warmer tonight", said Roger.  “There’s nothing like sleeping on a cold tile floor.”

Extra touch #5  Salad was served at most every meal—a rare delicacy for people who have little access to fresh fruits and vegetables.  Every morning, a bowl of fresh fruit was placed on the table before they left for the day.  “You’ve gotta eat your fruits and veggies to stay healthy!”, said Roger to each person on the way out.

         Tonight, the guests will be arriving at about 5:30 and Roger will be ready.  He will be organizing the servants in the kitchen, putting out more beds for the newcomers, and more than likely, looking for the next “extra touch” that will bless a homeless person’s heart this Christmas season.

Monday, December 2, 2013

“What the Poor Have to Say About Responding to the Poor.”

Recently,  a friend sent me a blog written by Shawn Smucker titled, “35 Years in Church and I Still Don’t Know How to Respond to Poverty.” As I read it, I was struck by its candor, its honesty, and its heartfelt confession.   Shawn writes about encountering multiple opportunities to reach out to someone in poverty, but not knowing how. He said, “Thirty five years going at least once a week…to a place where people meet who have dedicated their lives to following Christ.  Yet, after all those years, I still don’t know how to respond to poverty.”

I believe that Shawn’s feelings are shared by many people both inside and outside the church today, particularly around the holidays.  As a pastor who has served in an urban setting for 7 years  I sometimes struggle with knowing the best way to respond even though the needs of the poor are right outside my door.  How should we respond to the poor?   I believe that the best answer to that question comes from the poor themselves.  Here are some of the insights that I have learned from listening over the years.

1      Relationships Heal--If you ask most middle to upper middle class people,  “What are the biggest problems facing the poor and homeless today?” They will usually say, “money, housing, and jobs.”   And they would be right.   But if you ask the homeless the same question,  they will say, “Loneliness, Fear, Depression, and Worthlessness.”   Jesus knew that relationships heal.  That’s why he did not just give handouts and send people on their way.  He took the time to sit with them, to listen to their stories and to see their worth as human beings.  That’s why the seating at The Gathering is arranged with round tables rather than pews.  Because we believe that relationships are formed around the table.  How can your church’s outreach to the poor provide not just relief, but relationships?

2      Cash is Not King— Our church has adopted a “no cash” policy when it comes to giving relief. Why?  Because our downtown community, like many urban settings is plagued with addiction and cash is the currency of choice. Therefore, when someone asks you for cash, respond with caution, but be prepared with an alternative.  Consider carrying gas cards,  bus tickets, gift cards, or coupons from local fast food restaurants. In addition, once a month, our church holds a special prayer service and takes an offering for the poor.  All of the money collected from that offering supplies our church office with emergency needs. And remember:  Once you’ve helped someone, make sure to invite them to church or to the next event at your church.  Find a way to feed the poor in your community both spiritually as well as physically.

3    Give the Poor a Way to Give Back—If we are not careful, the church can become an enabler of dependency by not giving those who receive assistance a chance to give back.  When Haiti was devastated by an earthquake in 2009, our church was new and worshipping about 45 people in the basement of another church.  Most of the people who came were living in homeless shelters, were unemployed and were consumed with worry about how they would get by.   That Sunday, we looked at the pictures of the devastation in Haiti and the tremendous loss of life there.  I told them, “if you have a roof over your head, you have more than the people in Haiti today.  If you have a hospital to go to, you have more than the people in Haiti.  If you know where your next meal is coming from, you have more than the people in Haiti.”  Then I asked,   “How can we give of ourselves to help these people in such great need?”  The rest of that morning, everyone at The Gathering pitched in to pack emergency health kits to be shipped to Haiti the next morning.  The people who came to church that Sunday with heavy burdens and worried faces, consumed with their own problems, left with smiles, expressions of thanks and a newly found purpose.  One man said, “ I never realized that I had so much to give.”

Rev. Carrie Jena is the Pastor of The United Methodist Gathering in Middletown, Ohio. She may be reached at   The Gathering worships 125 people from the downtown Middletown community on Sunday morning and over 100 for Christ-Centered addiction recovery on Monday nights.   Donations may be mailed to PO Box 30 Middletown, Ohio  45042

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Good Sunday Morning"

(November 2013)

I am pleased to share a blog written by  Nancy Petro, wife of Jim Petro, author of False Justice and former Ohio State Attorney General. Nancy was a childhood friend of my oldest sister. 

Nancy says...

"We are so pleased to know that your ministry through God's grace at The Gathering is making such a difference in the lives of people too often overlooked. Thank you for all you do and for answering God's call on your life. Here is a blogpost that I wrote about you and your inspiring work:

Changed People are Changing the City

(An address to the Middletown, OH, City Council, November 2013)

I’m here to talk about something that is on the forefront of many people’s minds in our city. And that is downtown revitalization. Having served as a Pastor here for 7 years, I join many people who are grateful to see the revitalization happening in our city. I remember the days when the only option for lunch was a sandwich I brought from home and warmed over coffee from the previous night’s meeting. But things are changing in our city and that gives me great hope for the future of Middletown.

But I believe that there is another reason for hope today. There is a different kind of revitalization that I have the privilege of seeing every week. It is the kind of revitalization that is not just about changed storefronts and new businesses, but it is also about changed lives. In 2007, my husband Jeff and I were taking a walk around our neighborhood one morning. I had just made the decision to leave a career as a golf professional and go into ministry. I was having some doubts about whether it was the right decision. I said to him, “There just aren’t that many churches that are doing what I think they should be doing”, I said. I think the church should do a better job of revitalizing people’s lives—especially the poor. Without skipping a beat, he looked at me and said, “Why don’t you start one?” And then I laughed at him!

A few months later, as God would have it, First United Methodist Church where I was serving on staff gave us permission to use its basement to start a new kind of worship service—one that would attract the poor who were living around the church. That first night, we had no idea if anyone would come, but we put a band together, served Subway sandwiches and opened the door. And they came. 25 people that night—mostly for the food. But after a few months they kept coming for the message of hope that we delivered every week. A year later, one man who came that night told me, “A Subway sandwich saved my life.”

Six years later that worship service has grown into an independent chartered United Methodist Church called The Gathering, with a very unique congregation. It is a congregation where the rich and the poor serve side by side overcoming the barriers of race, religion, and other things that divide people. People who visit The Gathering leave the church saying things like “This is a church where Jesus would hang out.” From that first night in the basement, we have grown from 25 to 125 people and now have our own building. Every week, we hold two Sunday morning services and a Monday night Recovery service in addition to Bible studies, Book studies, Support groups, Craft groups, music groups, talent nights, leadership development, money management, and many other opportunities for the people in our downtown community.

Every Sunday after church, I walk out wanting to pinch myself that I get to serve this amazing church. Our mission today is the same as when we started – to change lives, heal the community and grow the kingdom of God one life at a time. What makes The Gathering unique? I believe it is our radical hospitality to all people and the power of God to revitalize lives. One of those stories is the story of Greg.

Greg walked into The Gathering a little over two years ago as a recovering addict with six months of sobriety. At the time, Greg was living at Hope House and had heard that there was a church that radically welcomed people regardless of their past. The Sunday that he came, we announced that we were looking for a new worship leader. Greg, who was an accomplished guitarist and who had a heart for worship leading, offered to give it a try. Two and a half years later, Greg is still serving as our Passionate Worship leader, is two years clean and sober, has his own home, a heart to reach out to other recovering addicts, and sits on our leadership board. When Greg talks about what The Gathering means to him, he doesn’t talk about church doctrine, or committee meetings or worship style. He talks about His growing relationship with Christ and how his friends at The Gathering have changed his life. “I have never met a more loving, accepting, and authentic group of people than the people at The Gathering. They truly are my family.”

When our church moved from the basement of First, to a storefront on Central, there was a business owner that made it clear that they were not happy that we were there. “It’s the poor people who hang out at Governor’s Square with nothing to do all day. They drive away my business. They get in the way of the revitalization of our city. “I understand that,” I said. “I was once a business owner myself. What if I were to help you clear Governor’s square of those people? What if there was a place that they could come to and learn about God’s love for them and find purpose for their life? Would that help to revitalize downtown?” Six months later, he said, “You know, I didn’t like you at first, but now that I see what you are doing with the people, my wife and I want to know if there is any way that we can help.”

If a city is to be truly transformed, storefronts are important—new businesses are important, but a city is defined by its people. And “people change” is what we do best. People change happens when people are welcomed into a life of faith, spiritual growth and healing relationships. Now that’s what I call a downtown on the move!

There are hundreds more stories that I could share with you. But until now, few people have known about us and about what we do. And that’s why I’ve come today. We want you to know that we want the same things that you want. We want to be about downtown revitalization. We want to participate with you in the future development of this great city – beginning with its people.

We would love for you to come any Sunday and experience The Gathering. Our services are at 9am and 11:15 with a very lively community Bible study at 10:15. I would also like to invite you to a special event that will be held at BeauVerre studio on December 5th where you can learn how you, your family, your church group, or your business can participate in changing lives through the ministries of The Gathering.

So, if you see a person walking the streets of Middletown early next Sunday morning, don’t be surprised if the tell you they are on their way to church. Better yet, follow them! Your life might just be the one that is changed for the better.

Loving Life

(This Week at The Gathering - November 2013)

On Sunday night we held our monthly Wesley Love Feast. The Love Feast is intended to be a time of scripture reading, worship, testimony, and taking an offering for the poor. For the past year, the offering that we receive has gone directly to assist people from our community who are in need. This night, we had a smaller group than normal. With just six of us around the circle, however, the prayer and testimony time was powerful and real. Tears flowed and praises were lifted up for over an hour as we told our stories of how God is transforming our lives.

 Of the six there, two are currently homeless, two were formerly homeless, and one lives in section 8 housing downtown. One person named Rick who came to The Gathering about a year ago and who had just celebrated 208 days clean and sober, told the group about his former life. He said, “I used to hang out with a group of guys who robbed houses. We would pull up in a van and ring the doorbell of a house. If nobody answered, we would kick in the back door and steal from them.”  Two weeks after I left those guys, all three of them were arrested and are still doing time in prison today. Since I have come to The Gathering, God has completely turned my life around. I don’t have a place to live right now, but God is changing me. I’ve never been happier in my life.”  

The last thing that we did before ending the service was to take an offering for the poor. A small basket was placed in the middle of the circle and I invited people to give as God led them. As I got up from the circle, I noticed $40 in the basket—a generous offering from such a small group! I spent some time talking with a few people and then headed to my car to leave. Just as I opened my car door, Rick came running out of the church. Pastor Carrie, you forgot something!  Don’t you want to do something with this?  It was Rick holding the basket with the $40 in it. With such a small group that night, we had failed to follow our usual procedure of designating two people to collect the offering and place it in the safe. 

I thought to myself, “Here is a man who used to rob houses who because of an encounter with Jesus through this church is now bringing me $40 in cash—cash that could have just as easily been put in his pocket. Isn’t it just like God to show Himself this way?  It was as if God was saying to me, “Just in case you wondered if all this talk about life change is real, let me show you that it is.”

“Thank you, Rick,” I said. “Let’s go take care of this.” And together, we walked back into the church, presented the offering to a member of our admin team who counted it, sealed it and secured it. 

Praise be to the God who forgives, redeems, and transforms us all. Thank you. Jesus for changing lives in real ways every day at The Gathering.

Baptisms, Bugs, Bikes, Bottled Water, and the Bible

(This Week at The Gathering - September 2013)

On Sunday, September 8th, we celebrated 9 baptisms and re-affirmations of faith. We also welcomed 7 new people as members of The Gathering. (Pictures attached))  One person, Elizabeth Rundle (mother of 4 and wife of Mike Rundle whose van broke down en route to The Gathering from New York) came forward out of the grateful thanks to God for the many ways that she and her family have been blessed through the ministries of The Gathering. Mike and Elizabeth are meeting with Pastor Carrie weekly to work on conflict management and budgeting in order to stabilize their family situation. With the help of Ken Heaton from Easter Seals of Miami Valley, Mike is going for a job interview this week.

On Sunday evening, we welcomed 20 people to our monthly Wesley Love Feast. We brought our folding chairs, bug spray and bottled water out into the Gathering Community garden and formed a circle to lift up our praise and testimonies to God, prayers for our community and to collect an offering for the poor. In addition to the many people who rode by on bikes or drove past, one man named Tom who lives behind the church decided to leave his front porch and “go and see what these people were doing.”  As a result, Tom met 20 new friends and is looking forward to coming to The Gathering for the first time this Sunday.

On Thursday, September 5th, Pastor Carrie received a check through the Middletown Community Foundation in the amount of $20,000 for the purchase of a 2010 Ford F350 12-passenger van. The van is a gift from the Patrick family and will help us provide transportation to The Gathering on Sunday mornings, our Celebrate Recovery service, Threads Clothing ministry, Seedlings children’s ministry, and assist people with transportation to job interviews. Additional donations through the community foundation will pay for insurance for the year and a sign for the van. The van will be unveiled on Sunday, September 15th. (Pictures to follow)

As The Gathering moves into the final quarter of the year, we are looking forward to a new class called Faith and Finances which was presented by the Chalmers Institute. This class is a Biblical financial management class that is specifically geared to those at or below the poverty level. Beginning in October, Pastor Carrie will offer a 6-week sermon series called, “It’s All His” that teaches biblical principles for money management and giving. Following that series, we will hold support and mentoring groups that will help couples and families stabilize their finances and increase their giving to The Gathering in 2014.

We continue to thank all of you who support us with your prayers and giving as we watch God perform miracles every day at The Gathering.

God’s Great Gifts

(This Week at The Gathering - August 2013)

On Tuesday, July 30th, the Ohio River Valley Mission Foundation contacted Pastor Carrie to let her know that they had purchased a piece of property adjacent to their building in an auction for $1 for the future expansion of The Gathering. Members of The Gathering leadership team along with Mike McNamara’s fund-raising team and Diana Caldwell of our newly formed advisory board gathered in the empty lot to lift up prayers of thanksgiving and praise to God for this generous gift. We thank all of the members of the mission foundation who worked together to make this acquisition possible.

On Saturday, August 10th, Brandon Rogers and his team from the Middletown Art Central Foundation began work on a mural facing the Reynolds Street side of The Gathering building. This beautiful mural will feature our community garden with pictures of hands holding seeds that produce fruits and vegetables and celebrate God’s bounty.
The front wall of the building (facing N. Verity Parkway) will feature faces of the people of The Gathering congregation. This mural project is the third mural done by this artist and serves to connect the downtown community together with similar style of artwork. 

On Saturday, August 8th, Digital Visual company of Middletown completed the signs on the front column of The Gathering (visible to traffic on N. Verity Pkwy), on the Reynolds street side of the building and in the rear of the building facing the community garden. These signs have greatly improved the visibility of The Gathering from all directions in the downtown area.

On Friday, August 2nd, Mike Rundle, a member of The Gathering since June of 2012 and his friend Alan Fugate began a trip to upstate New York to pick up Mike’s wife and their four children between the ages of 5 and 11 and bring them back to Middletown to be re-united with him. Mike was formerly homeless before coming to The Gathering and was baptized and joined The Gathering in August of last year. As a result of joining The Band of Brothers men’s group and engaging in weekly Bible study and worship, Mike’s life changed dramatically leading to reconciliation with his wife and children. 

On Saturday, August 3rd, Pastor Carrie was in Cleveland to perform a wedding of her nephew and received a text that Mike, his wife and children were stranded on the highway because the friend’s van broke down. Immediately, Pastor Carrie and various members of The Gathering began praying for Mike’s family to be rescued. At 8pm, Pastor Carrie began driving home and received a text that the family was still stranded about 90 miles north of Columbus. After talking with Mike, Pastor Carrie realized that she was only two exits away from the stranded family. Within minutes, she located the broken down van, loaded Mike, his wife and their children in her car and got them safely home three hours later. Mike and his entire family were in church the next morning. Since them, Mike and his wife have been attending Celebrate Recovery and have started marital counseling together. Mike’s children are now enrolled in Highview Elementary School in Middletown and start school August 14th. Praise God! 

On Sunday evening, August 11th, The Gathering had its largest attendance at our monthly Wesley Love Feast. This worship service consists of informal testimonies, prayer, music and an offering for the poor. With 23 people sitting in a circle, we lifted up prayers and praise to God for his grace in our lives and told the stories of God sightings from the past week. Roger Bush shared that he was celebrating one year of coming to The Gathering for the first time. Formerly homeless, Roger wandered in to the Gathering because he heard there was free lunch. He said, “I didn’t expect to be met with loving people who greeted me and found me a place to sit. Then, the band started playing music that didn’t sound “churchy”. The message seemed like it was speaking right to me. After the message, I was invited to stay for the Bible study. During the study, Pastor Carrie asked me what I thought about the scripture that we were studying. Nobody had ever asked me what I thought. After that, I knew that I had found my church.”  Since then, Roger has been clean and sober for one year, serves on our hospitality team, and as a member of the Band of Brothers. Roger will be giving his testimony at Celebrate Recovery this Monday night. 

On Monday August 12, The Gathering celebrated our largest attendance at Celebrate Recovery with over 80 adults in attendance and 26 children!  Thanks to our children’s leaders, we were able to offer free child care for these children which allowed 23 women from the Women’s Center of Hope (homeless shelter) to attend the program for the first time. There were 6 women’s small groups and 4 men’s small groups. We thank Pastor Mike Bailey from Faith United in Middletown for offering his church to handle the overflow and for Grace Point Nazarene Church for providing transportation. 

We continue to be amazed at the movement of the Spirit of God and are extremely grateful for people like you who are making it possible for lives to be changed through the ministries of The Gathering.