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Nashville church gives homeless a church home

The Rev. Don Shockley, a retired United Methodist pastor, tutors children in the afterschool program at Sixty-First Avenue United Methodist Church in
Nashville, Tenn. UMNS photos by Ronny Perry.

By Lilla Marigza*
Oct. 1, 2008 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Even homeless people deserve to have a church home, says the Rev. Paul Slentz, who has dedicated his life to serving an unconventional congregation in a low-income area of Nashville.

Sixty-First Avenue United Methodist Church holds its weekly services on Saturday evenings to accommodate working poor families and homeless members who are picked up in the church van.

"Our membership, which is right around 70 now, is almost all poor folks," says Slentz, "from people who are working hard but not making very much money working to folks who are living on the streets and who are homeless right now."

The church's ministries are an outgrowth of Slentz' work with nonprofit organizations aiding Nashville's homeless before he became an ordained minister. He realized many of the people he served would not feel welcome in church.

When he came to Sixty-First Avenue in 1999, he set out to meet the spiritual needs of the city’s poor in an environment where they could feel comfortable.

"Our membership … is almost all poor folks," says the Rev. Paul Slentz.  aaaaaaaaaa

Slentz conducts church in a simple fashion, aware that many participants prefer to listen and follow his lead. "Not everybody can read," he says. "We do have a number of folks who are just not able to follow along in a printed bulletin."

A sense of belonging

In keeping with this oral style of worship, the hymns are familiar ones that most people know by heart. On this night, the congregation eagerly joins in to sing "Jesus Loves Me" and "Jesus Loves the Little Children." Families with children sit next to men wearing the orange shirts that are standard issue in the county jail. Yet no one seems uncomfortable or looks out of place. This sense of belonging is just what "Pastor Paul" had in mind when he answered his call to serve.

"He doesn’t look at how we’re dressed, if we’ve shaved, or even if we’ve had a bath," says Jerry Andreasen, a church member who lives "under the stars" with his wife, Karren. "His only concern is our souls and safety. Each week he asks how we’ve been or how we’re doing, and what we need."

Other church members share similar stories of how such one-on-one compassion is making a difference.

"I came from using drugs, drinking and all that," says church trustee Calvin Ticey, who went from living on the streets to getting a home and a job through the church. "When I came here, I was down and out. But now, since I done met Pastor Paul, my whole life done changed around."

Changing lives is a full-time job. The church is open seven days a week to serve the unique needs of the community and offers summer and afterschool programs for children and youth.

Instead of going home to an empty house, kids can come to the church every afternoon for a snack and a listening ear from volunteers. Tutors read with children and offer homework help. Recreation includes basketball in the gym and playing on the playground.

"It’s more about a safe place. It’s about an alternative to what they could be doing in the neighborhood after school," says Nita Haywood, children and youth director, who herself grew up in poverty.

Year-round, Haywood and volunteers make sure children are cared for. They see to it that families have groceries and children have school supplies, and they operate a last-minute toy store at Christmas where parents can shop aisles of donated gifts. In 2007, the store distributed 16,000 toys to 3,902 children and teens. "It’s a relief because they know Santa will come to their house or that they’ll have toys for their children for Christmas," Haywood says.

The church is located in an
impoverished area of Nashville.  aaaaaaaaaaa

The needs are constant, but the resources few. While the pews are packed for Saturday worship, there is never much money in the collection plate. Funding comes from the church's Tennessee Annual Conference and Nashville District, complemented by partnerships with area United Methodist churches.

Spirit of giving

Despite hardships faced by members, a spirit of giving radiates from this humble congregation. Recently, the church launched a Nothing But Nets campaign to raise money for insecticide-treated bed nets to protect children from malaria-carrying mosquitoes in Africa. In four weeks time, the church raised $440.

The Rev. Nancy Neelley, who is appointed to the church as a deacon, recalls a donation from a homeless man named "Cowboy" who lives in a tent along Nashville’s Cumberland River. "He gave me $20 and said he had only planned to give me $10 and spend the rest on a drink," she recalls. "But he changed his mind saying, 'I figure they need nets more than I need booze.'"

A $40 donation came from Jerry Andreasen, who sells homeless community newspapers for a dollar apiece. Andreasen is saving money to rent a home for himself and his wife but pledged to buy one $10 net a week to help "those less fortunate."

Saturday worship services always culminate with a "family" dinner in the fellowship hall as partner churches provide food and members catch up with their church family. Many look forward to the evening all week, knowing that both bodies and spirits will be fed.

"It’s just a warm feeling inside, you know," says Ticey. "… You know you’ve been blessed and everything.”

While the church has seen lives turned around through its ministries, Slentz believes that people of faith should serve the poor with no conditions.

"I have come to realize that some of the people that worship with us, who are homeless for one reason or another, will never be otherwise," he says. "And yet, they have a place where they can come and have an opportunity to love others and experience love and be a part of the body of Christ."

*Marigza is a freelance producer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org

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