Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter

It started with a sermon. One of those sermons that at the time probably seemed like just another day of preaching but turned out to be a sermon that changed people’s lives.

There was no altar call, no great cries of alleluia, no flames of spirit descending from above. The preacher probably went home to lunch and the life-giving preacher’s nap, already releasing the words from his heart and mind.

But those words were deep at work in the hearts of the congregation, and within a few years the homeless would have homes and some lost in addictions and illness would find new life restored to them. 

It was an Ash Wednesday service in the spring of 1996, the preacher was the Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen and the congregation was Old First Presbyterian Church, in a San Francisco neighborhood that struggled not just with poverty, mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse, but also homophobia.

Long before The Castro, just a few miles south of Old First, became internationally known as a gay neighborhood, the area known as Lower Polk Street hosted businesses and bars welcoming to gay, lesbian and transgendered people when little else in the city was safe.

As the more affluent moved into The Castro, the people who lived on the margins remained behind, trapped in poverty, sometimes mental illness, and often drug and alcohol abuse.

The sermon’s message was simple.

“I pointed out that according to Matthew, the three disciplines Jesus taught that are at the core of Christian life were alms-giving, prayer and fasting,” Hart-Andersen said. “I challenged the congregation that Lent to take on the discipline of alms-giving to our homeless neighbors — or at least giving of their time in conversation with them, if they did not want to give money. I urged them not to pass a single homeless person without stopping to give them a greeting or a quarter or some acknowledgement that they were not invisible.”

The congregation took up the challenge. Some made sandwiches, some gave away quarters and some built more time into their commute to work in order to engage in conversations along the way.

Later that spring, the congregation put together a series of classes on the problems of homelessness led by social service providers, advocates and even the homeless themselves.

By 1997, a simple ministry began to develop, led by volunteers and seminary intern Susan Young and in partnership with neighboring congregations and organizations. Based on extensive conversations with neighborhood businesses, city government service providers and policing representatives, Old First began to host a Welcome Center on Tuesday afternoons in the church basement. A simple lunch of soup and sandwiches was prepared and served to the guests and one-on-one conversations were initiated.

“It became our M.O.,” said Barry Clagett, an elder at Old First and an early volunteer. “We called them guests and over a period of time the visitors and the volunteers would become acquainted with each other and develop some mutual trust till there was enough trust that a homeless person would let a volunteer help. When they are ready for us to help them, then we do.”

More than 10 years, four directors, and one 501(c) (3) incorporation later, sharing food and conversation remain at the heart of The Welcome Center’s ministry.

Two years ago, those conversations revealed a key that has helped nearly 300 guests get off the street and into long-term, stable housing: access to a government-issued I.D.

Everything from access to shelter, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, job training, jobs, food stamps or even the right to simply walk on the sidewalk depends on having and showing government-issued I.D. — a requirement that is driven by immigration and post 9/11 security legislation.

Because of their vulnerability and the fundamentally transient nature of their lives, it is difficult for homeless people to hold on to any possessions, including their I.D. Some never had I.D. to begin with, due to running away from (or being thrown out of) home in their teens.

In either case, without I.D., the leaders at the Welcome Ministry learned through conversations with their guests, there was little hope of getting off the street and into long-term solutions. Replacing one’s I.D. is time consuming, requires follow-through and money for fees and frequently some form of a permanent address, all of which is in short supply when living on the streets.

So, two years ago, the Welcome Ministry decided to concentrate on getting I.D.s for its guests.

“We hired a second person, Jay Wilson, who is a pastor and a social worker and who I call a miracle worker because he loves to fill out paperwork,” said the Rev. Megan Rohrer, executive director. “We hoped we could help 150 people get their I.D., and we helped 340 people. Of that group, 155 people got into housing just because we could help fill out the paper work. Listening helps us find the tiny little things that really make a difference.”

In May, The Welcome Ministry formally changed its focus from “Service to the Homeless” to “A communal response to poverty” because the guests were no longer homeless.

“To tell you the truth, the church benefits,” said the Rev. Maggi Henderson, Old First’s pastor. “We’ve got some really great members who have joined who first came through the (Welcome Ministry) program. Members volunteer at the Welcome Ministry and our people are integrated with the board.

“I’m proud to say that this is our church and this is what we do,” Henderson said. “We’re doing what the gospel very clearly tells us to do.

“It is a bit risky. It is a bit uncomfortable, but this is where the joy comes from. I think people are hungry to make a difference.”

Anitra Kitts is a freelance writer in Santa Rosa, CA, and a candidate for the ministry certified as ready to receive a call by Cascades Presbytery.