We did not do a week long mission trip this summer for the adults. Instead, the Mission and Witness committee decided to find several other opportunities closer to home to allow people who have not been able to go on a week long trip to get a feel for what it could be like. Today was the first of those experiences. We met at the church at a ridiculously early hour (ok, 7:15), stopped for water and braved the traffic down to Atlanta. Our destination: the Outreach and Advocacy Center at Central Presbyterian Church.
After finally finding the parking lot (the Google directions said to turn – really we were supposed to go straight) we found our way to the center. I was moved that the staff and volunteers begin each day in prayer — sharing joys and concerns. They celebrated the 14th anniversary of one volunteer and prayed for the medical needs of the father of a staff member. Then the center opened for the day. We went in and had an orientation with the center’s Operations Manager, Kimberly Parker. She led us in a discussion of homelessness in Atlanta, and we took a quiz to see what we knew. I was stunned to learn that the number of homeless is around 20,000 and that 30% of them are children — women with children make up around 70% of the homeless population. The entire morning was one spent breaking down the stereotypes we carry around about homelessness. So often we see these individuals and think “dirty” “sad” “to be pitied” (these were our words for it). Yet at the end of the day we were thinking in terms of “persevering”, “resourceful”, “someone with a story.”
Today I met a woman who was in the Navy for 12 years, divorced her husband who was in the Marines and somewhere along the line came back to her hometown of Atlanta. She left the Navy because after her divorce and the death of her mother, she had no one to care for her children while she was deployed. She is now living with friends while she looks for a job – she is participating in a work program and getting interviews. I met a man who was working for IHOP in another town who had to move to Atlanta to care for his ailing father. He was unable to transfer his job, and became homeless. He has found a job and while he catches up on making ends meet, was using the food pantry and hoping to receive MARTA bus passes so he could get back to work. The center had used their supply for the month. He was in good spirits.
In the food pantry, we gave out food. The system here is that guests can choose for themselves from the items on the shelves what they would like to take (within limits – -up to 2 of this and 4 of that). Kimberly said “we get to choose what we want from the grocery store, so this way they can pick what they want to eat as well.” There were items I recognized from our own shelves that we have at church – -we both purchase food from the Atlanta Food Bank.
It was a day of learning as well as a day of mission. I’m not sure how much service we actually performed. Some of us filed and stapled, some of us played Bingo and passed out food. We all listened and we all learned. Maybe that was the point – -to go and see and hear. I was asked by a member of our team “what are we hoping to do with this as the next step” and I answered honestly “I’m not sure – -I would like to come down one night and stay at the night shelter when they open, but I’m not sure where we go from here.” I saw the Holy Spirit light some sparks, change some minds and shatter some stereotypes. I spent the day with some folks from church that I had not spent time with before, and we shared a good day and good work together. It was a good day, and a good trip. We still have spaces for the next 2 days -call the church office if you want to go.