By Jessica Brodie
ROCK HILL—Homeless men in one corner of South Carolina now have a place to stay year-round thanks to a group of United Methodists.
Since 2007, Bethel United Methodist Church has offered its facility as a safe and warm place for homeless men to stay during the coldest months of the year, mid-November to April 1. Called the Men’s Warming Center, Bethel’s shelter provides meals seven days a week, showers, underwear and socks, Christian fellowship and other things the men might need.
But a pointed question from one of their men became a catalyst for what God was steering them to do.
Now, as of April 1, the warming center is open all year.
“It’s taken off,” said Richard Murr, warming center committee chair. “Sometimes we’re just moved to tears about what’s happened. It’s just overwhelming.”
Murr and Bethel’s pastor, the Rev. Emily Sutton, said they’d heard talk for some time about the need for a year-round shelter in Rock Hill, but for whatever reason, talk never progressed.
Then, in December, Murr had what he calls a life-changing conversation with one of their regular guests at the shelter, a blind man who used a walker.
“He asked me point blank, ‘Why don’t you do this year-round?’ Not in an arrogant way, but I didn’t have an answer, didn’t have anything to say,” Murr said.
A month later, the man had a heart attack at the shelter, then a series of strokes, and was on life support at the hospital.
“I understood: We were his family,” Murr said.
That realization, along with their earlier conversation, hit him hard.
At the man’s bedside the day before he died, Murr made a personal commitment that he would do all he could to figure out why they didn’t have a year-round shelter and, if possible, do something to change that.
The Bethel team began to explore the possibility. When they visited the men’s shelter in Charlotte, Murr saw they were doing most of the work at Bethel already—just only for four months a year. They put their heads together, rallied the needed support and, just like that, they launched.
“All the pieces came together so fast,” Murr said.
Sutton said as soon as they decided to go year-round, their volunteer and financial base expanded. Support has poured in from church Sunday school classes, private individuals and many local businesses, all wanting to help.
“We don’t believe in coincidences,” Sutton said. “We believe in God’s prevenient grace going before us.”
The shelter is open from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. seven days a week. As of press time, they had just received some additional bunk beds, bumping their capacity from 35 men to about 45, and they hope to increase capacity even more.
Volunteers serve the men dinner from 6-7 p.m., then the men can read, play Scrabble, watch television or participate in a Bible study as they choose. Sleeping quarters open at 7, and a security officer stays with the men overnight.
“It’s really a wonderful mission in our church and our community,” Sutton said. “This was the right movement to go in within our community, the humane thing to do, and we were positioned well to make it happen.”
Murr said his involvement, both now and when he first began volunteering some years ago, has been extraordinarily affecting, changing his perspective about poverty, homelessness and the way Christians are called to be in ministry with people in need.
“Before, I always thought you can work your way out of your (homeless) situation, but it came to my attention that’s not the only need there,” Murr said.
Many of the men do work, but they don’t make enough to afford adequate housing, or they don’t have the mental, physical or emotional capability to live on their own—and don’t have family around who can help.
“It’s really a very moving experience,” Murr said. “Every day I feel God’s leadership in this.”
Sutton said what touches her especially is that what they are doing means a lot to the men, too. Many of them offer to help the church as they are able, and two of the men who have jobs recently approached her with some cash and said they’d gotten paid that day and wanted to give an offering to the church.
“They know this church cares for them, values them and sees them as God’s children,” she said.
Some of the men have started attending an early-Sunday Bible study, which the church recently shifted from its regular time to 8 a.m. so the men could attend.
Sutton said what is especially neat is how she has seen God’s hand on all of this. Almost simultaneously, other advocates in York County through the Catawba Area Coalition for Homelessness began pushing for longtime talk about helping homeless men to translate into action. Besides the shelter, the community now has single point of entry for homeless men, as well as bus service for the men.
The warming center is funded through church and community donations, as well as grants from United Way of York County and other groups. Beyond funds, its biggest needs right now are volunteers to help provide meals, as well as socks and underwear for the men. For more on how to help, visit http://www.bethelumcrockhill.org/mens-shelter.aspx or write to Bethel, c/o Men’s Warming Center, 1232 Curtis Street, Rock Hill, SC 29730.