Do you ever visit downtown Mobile on Friday nights? If you have any time in the last six years, several Mars Hill church members were down there too. But, probably not where you might think. About six years ago some college students at the University of Mobile wanted to serve their city. Ryan Parazine (now a staff pastor and manager of Mars Hill Café) and I were two of those students. Our initial plan was to find one homeless person in a park downtown, get him some dinner, listen to his story, and share the love of Christ with him any way we could. And that is what we did. At the end of the night we asked if we could return the next week and our new friend said yes. None of us had ever done anything like that before. We had stepped way out of our comfort zones in an attempt to do good works for God.
Fast forward six years, the people of Mars Hill Church have adopted this ministry and it still continues today. Every Friday a few church members, usually including Ryan and Rusty Roberts (Mars Hill college pastor) meet in a church parking lot downtown to serve the homeless men and women of Mobile. The model is simple. Show up, talk to people, build relationships, intentionally spread the hope found in Jesus Christ, give them a burger, provide for physical needs when possible, and pray. The weekly crowd varies from 1 to 50. Many mistakes have been made, lessons have been learned, and some strong relationships have been forged.
Serving the homeless can be both disheartening and encouraging. Many of the people on the street need help that far exceeds the scope of what can be done by a few people. Their issues are complex and far-reaching. Sometimes it is simply not possible to help beyond a simple cheeseburger. But, at times, we have been able to do more. Several individuals have been helped off the street and others have found stability through other organizations. I wish that I could report that many people have come to know Jesus Christ as their Lord through these Friday night meetings. I can't do that. But, I can share some of the stories of how God is working through these relationships.
Douglas is a kind, soft spoken black man with matted dread locks. He turns 65 years old on Christmas Eve and is a veteran of the Navy. Whenever he is downtown and someone asks him how he is doing, without fail he gives the same response, "staying out of trouble." Douglas rarely misses a Friday night and is always extremely grateful for anything provided. According to others, Douglas likely suffers from schizophrenia or something of that nature. Apparently, his demeanor can swing quickly and he is prone to vulgar yelling. But, amazingly, no one has ever seen that side of him on Friday nights. He has never even spoken above a kind, soft voice to any of us. His change in persona has made an impact on some of the other homeless people. Our presence around Douglas seems to help him and they have taken notice.
If you have visited Mars Hill on a Sunday morning over the last several months you may have met Steve. He also goes by the nickname Hogan because of his white horseshoe mustache resembling the wrestler Hulk Hogan. Steve has struggled with addictions for much of his life. He was one of the first guys that we met and the relationship has grown ever since. Steve is one of the most honest men you will ever meet. He willingly admits his shortcomings and knows that his friends at Mars Hill truly have his best interest at heart. Ryan, especially, has had many meaningful conversations with Steve about God's love for him and the gospel. It brings me, and many others, great joy to see Steve at our Sunday gatherings each week. A few young men in the church pick him up and go out of their way to make him feel welcomed. Thanks to their faithfulness Steve hears the gospel and experiences the love of the body of Christ. He has not yet surrendered to Christ, but God is using the positive influences in his life to slowly prepare his heart. Let's pray for Steve to experience the freedom found in Christ. And until that day comes, let’s continue to show him the unconditional love of God through our actions as the church.
Kenny was someone who I didn't know, but Ryan and others knew him well. He came around for a time before moving off to Las Vegas a few years ago. Ryan had shared burgers and the gospel with him, but never saw much fruit from their conversations. Even after he moved away, Ryan kept up with him periodically through Facebook. One random afternoon Kenny messaged Ryan to inform him that, according to Facebook, Rusty appeared to be working with the Mormon church in Utah. He was concerned that Rusty had left his Christian faith. This is funny because Rusty was actually there to dialogue with Mormons in hopes of leading them to faith in Jesus Christ. After the confusion was cleared up Kenny sent the following words.
"I will always love you guys for putting me on the right path and will always say what I feel is right. God bless you and praise Jesus forever. If you don't think you impact people's lives by just a cheeseburger use me as an example. See you in heaven my friend."
If we are honest, those who go downtown to serve every Friday night probably receive a greater blessing than the homeless. The main reason for this is people like Justin Patterson. For anyone who met him though, he was "Pat!" The friendship we developed with Pat cannot be overstated. He was a large black man with a love for life and a knack for making people laugh. I couldn't begin to tell you how many hours we sat on a park bench, after everyone else had left, just laughing at Pat telling stories about anything and everything. We trusted Pat and considered him a dear friend. So much so that when Emily and I got married, Pat was one of our groomsmen. He stayed with me for the last few days leading up to our wedding. He liked to joke later about how I treated him like a king for a few days then kicked him out for a pretty girl.
Unfortunately, Pat passed away a few years ago. But, his memory will not soon fade from the minds and hearts of everyone that knew him. He taught us what it meant to be filled with joy even when life was difficult. Pat's joy was the true joy that comes only through faith in Jesus Christ. Pat loved the Lord. During our time knowing Pat we saw his affections for the Lord grow and overflow to everyone around him. When we passed out food, he was always the last one to take anything. He would even give away his food if someone showed up late and there was nothing left. He taught us all what Jesus truly meant when he said "it is better to give than to receive."
Created for Good Works
So what is the point of these stories? It is certainly not to point out the righteousness of those who serve in this area. We each are flawed and this ministry is far from perfect. In Ephesians chapter 2 the bible teaches us that our salvation comes only by our faith in Jesus Christ's saving work on the cross. He covers our sins by grace and grace alone. We can do nothing to earn any part of our salvation, it is simply the gift of God to us who believe. Because we are so loved, and yet so unworthy, our natural response will be to do good works.
My aim is simply to share some of the ways that people in our church are doing good works around our city. My hope is that you will be encouraged to seek ways to serve Jesus Christ right where you are. Maybe you will join this ministry or start something similar. At the very least, I hope that you will brainstorm ways that you can serve those around you. Please do not read these words and feel overwhelmed, like you need to add something to your busy life. Rather, consider how you can show God's love right in your daily life. God can use even the smallest acts of faithfulness to change lives, even the simple offer of a cheeseburger. We all have different gifts, passions, and influence. How are you using yours to help build the kingdom of God?
James 2:14-17 says,
"What good is it, my brothers, if someone has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead."
How are you working to serve Christ in your city? How has God uniquely gifted you to influence the people around you who need to experience the love of Christ? Let's challenge each other to do good works that garner eternal rewards. Let's serve others selflessly, love unconditionally, and pray unceasingly to see God bring dead men and women to life. He alone is worthy because of the indescribable grace he has shown each one of us.
P.S. I want to share more stories about how the people of our church are serving our neighbors to the Glory of God. Maybe you or your community group serves college students, refugees, retirees, or your kid's soccer team. Please contact me with stories of how God is using our church to transform lives and I would love to learn about and share them.