When I hear good stories of churches fulfilling Christ’s instructions to be compassionate, I want to share them as an encouragement for other churches to follow suit. The story below is such a story, taking place literally half a mile from the Inasmuch office. My source is the July 14 issue of The Call, the newsletter of the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church in East Tennessee.
It’s not unusual for people needing help to go to a church, but it rarely happens this way. Kamara and Seth, ages 25 and 23, literally coasted into the parking lot of Cedar Lane United Methodist Church, Knoxville, Tennessee. Their car broke down by the church and the parking lot was the best way to get out of the busy road. That was four months ago, and they are still there.
Seth and Kamara have not had permanent housing for months, unable to find rentals they could afford with minimum-wage jobs. They’ve lived in a friend’s house, weekly hotels or their car, moving from place to place. “The hotels drained us,” Seth says, describing the $500/week cost of staying in rundown hotels and the difficult family circumstances the eventually left them without a place to live. (For more about the plight of the working poor see last week’s blog.)
A church member looked in on the couple to make sure they were ok. Then the Pastor Richard Richter checked on them. “Richard has been super kind and very helpful and has made sure we’re ok,” Kamara says of Cedar Lane’s Pastor. “Sometimes he gets us to laugh so we don’t think as much about the situation we’re in.”
Speaking of his young friends, Richter says, “At first, they stuck to themselves, trying to be self-sufficient. It would have been easy to just have them towed out of the parking lot and to be done. But that’s not what we’re called to do.”
Because the church maintains a child-care ministry in their facility, they could not invite Seth and Kamara to stay inside the church. However, they allowed them to use the washer and dryer in the child-care center to do their laundry. They also stored their belongings in the church, used the restrooms and the Wi-Fi. Richter, his family and church members delivered meals to the stranded couple every day and invited them to worship and church activities.
Richard Richter is a pastor who understands the priority of compassion ministry. He prepares sermons like every other pastor, visits the sick, manages the church’s systems like any other pastor. And, yet, he makes time to serve Kamara and Seth. He has taken them each Thursday to visit their baby daughter who was born last November and immediately placed in foster care. He has spent hours on the phone and drove them all over town to help them jump through hoops to get on lists for housing and food aid and to take parenting classes.
“I’ve been through those poverty simulation activities, but it’s nothing like living with people who are actually going through it,” says Richter. “It’s incredible, to see the runaround they get. You don’t have a car, but you’re supposed to be here and there. You’re supposed to get a job, but then they schedule classes and meetings or want forms filled out when you’ve got to be at work.”
Richter describes a stormy night when he dropped by the church to check on a load of laundry. A police officer was shining a light inside Seth’s car and he and Kamara were crying and trying to pack, believing the pastor had betrayed them. Richter interceded and discovered that someone had called the police, claiming to be the pastor who wanted the couple removed from the church lot. In the end, the police officer apologized and shook the couple’s hands.
“I didn’t learn this in seminary,” the pastor says. “I didn’t learn how to deal with homeless young adults in my parking lot.” At one point in this relationship of compassion, the pastor said to the couple, “If you just want us to patch you up and get you out of the parking lot, we’ll do that. But if you want us to help you raise your child, we will. We want to stand with you.”
Richter has had a lot of time to reflect on this extraordinary experience. Out of that reflection, he says, “What would you do with people who are in your care? They’re like tomato plants, and we’re like the stake that’s supporting them. We want to protect them and help them grow.”
I didn’t learn compassion ministry in seminary either, and that is one way my seminary failed me. Fortunately, Jesus has a LOT to say about it . . . and I’d rather learn from Jesus than a seminary any day!
Why is this such a good story? Partly because it’s another reminder of the value of compassion for people in need . . . and partly because it’s unique. That is, Pastor Richter and Cedar Lane Church are exceptions to most churches when it comes to investing in the needs of people outside their fellowship. What I want to say about their response to Kamara and Seth is they are models of compassion ministry. They provide a compelling picture of compassion ministry, and they show what can happen when followers of Jesus understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel . . ., teaching them to obey what I have commanded you . . ..”
What do you think?
If this story inspires you, let me know. If it makes you want to be open to opportunities to serve people in need who “coast into your life,” let me know. Now here’s a tough question: What would your church do if Seth and Kamara had shown up in your parking lot?