Jacksonville Grace UMC addressing homeless problem


JACKSONVILLE – It all began with a sermon, a YouTube video and God’s timing.

Mike Fender, pastor of Jacksonville Grace UMC, said a sermon on baptismal vows in which members of the congregation were challenged to live out in mission what it means to be support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts and witness.
The following Sunday, while preaching on the text from John in which Jesus is calling his disciples, Fender shared the viral video of Ted Williams, the homeless man with the golden voice. The video, which was filmed by United Methodist layman Doral Chenoweth of Dayton, Ohio, a homeless advocate whose telling of Williams’ story vaulted Williams to national headlines.
“I simply asked the question in that sermon: ‘Would you be willing to do something to help the homeless? It would cost you nothing. Would you be willing to just say yes? And 75 to 80 percent of the congregation said yes! At that time, I realized I had a consensus.”
God’s timing came into play later that same day when Fender saw Alan Bradish of the local Salvation Army. Bradish told Fender about a group called New Directions and their need for an emergeny warming station. Fender told Bradish about his congregation’s response that morning and both men prayed about it. When the church council met the following evening and discussed the issue, the vote was unanimous to move forward in providing the space.
Since February, more than 2,000 bed nights have been provided in two Sunday School rooms that have been converted into men and women’s dormitories – each with 10 beds and a third room, which is a commons area. The ministry operates from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. seven days a week.
“The ministry is not designed to become home. It is a transitional shelter that enables people to get the help they need,” Fender said. “There are individuals from the Jacksonville Correctional Center that are paroled, having paid their debt to society. But in order to be released, they have to have a place to go and have a job. A rural transportation system provides a ride to Beardstown-based Cargill where they can find employment and get a couple of paychecks in hand so they can transition into an apartment and the shelter provides a place for them to be able to get on their feet.”
The church, which was equipped with showers several years ago to provide overnight accommodations for persons participating in the Conference biking events, is now able to use the facility to provide for the needs of its clients.
“People at Grace are looking for places to plug in,” Fender said. “People are starting to practice radical hospitality. We are getting ready to put in a laundry but in the meantime, we have some ladies doing six to eight loads of laundry at their home for the residents and the hospitality is capturing the community, not just Grace.”
Because the facility does not have a kitchen, it cannot serve prepared food. However, Fender said, nothing prevents the church from holding a nightly potluck. “If we prepare the food onsite, we fall under the same guidelines as a restaurant,” he said. “But you know what…even restaurants are calling and saying, ‘we have prepared too much food. Can you use it?’”
The radical hospitality of the church is also seen in how the church has responded to other needs. When First Christian Church sustained a fire in its facility in November 2010, the congregation became nomadic, moving from place to place. Grace extended an invitation and on Palm Sunday, both congregations began utilizing Grace’s facility and both provide worship services on Sunday morning with Grace having a 9 a.m. service and First Christian a service at 10:45 a.m. A combined Easter Sunday morning worship totaled 868 in attendance.
In addition, an Eastern Orthodox Church uses the Grace Chapel once a quarter for a vesper service with a priest traveling from Quincy to officiate for a small group of believers.