A warm risk: Opening wide the church doors

By the Rev. Darlene L. Kelley

Most folks thought Mr. Clyde was crazy in a bad way. They were afraid of him, but the brave volunteers in the food pantry gave him a warm bowl of chili and as many hot dogs as he could eat, and he came back the next Saturday and the next. And after a time, Mr. Clyde didn’t feel the need to yell as much or bang his overstuffed bags, heavy with want, against the walls and doors and street signs on his way to the church. And after a time, volunteers understood Mr. Clyde was nearly blind, and all his banging and yelling was fear.

Then conversation turned to the weather, and volunteers worried about Mr. Clyde and his friend, Marion, and Dusty and Dylan, and the young man who never gave his name but was always polite and wiped down the tables and said “thanks so much.” They worried many of the folks the food pantry volunteers served on Saturday would be cold, left without adequate housing, sleeping in sheds and under the benches in the park without sturdy walls and windows to keep out the frost, and folks worried.

So, the pastor made a phone call to the Methodist mayor of Newberry, Foster Senn, and he made a few phone calls, too. Pretty soon the donations started to pour in, and the church and the community went to work and prayed and marveled at the generosity and compassion of the community.

And on a night when we read the story about no room at the inn, we were able to open our hearts and our church basement to any who needed shelter. Temperatures dropped, the wind howled and at times freezing rain pelted the wet ground, turning the grass into tiny, glistening shards, confirming predictions by the National Weather Service of a record-breaking cold front. But inside the church, it was a warm and cozy Christmas with cots, bulky with donated pillows and blankets lined up against the wall and a kitten sleeping in a carrier by the door.

“I didn’t see my family,” chair of the church council Lewis Lee remarked, beaming. “I was here at the church, helping take care of folks, but somehow it was just the best Christmas ever.”

Lee and his wife, Nancy, were among the many volunteers who cooked, cleaned and provided entertainment for more than a dozen souls at the O’Neal Street Warming Center on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Indeed, the warming center stayed open for the three worst days of the holiday storm. Mary Beth Heath and Monica Stinson fed all the guests and worshippers Christmas Eve dinner and, along with a handful of other volunteers, did the lion’s share of the kitchen duties, feeding guests and volunteers three meals a day for three days. No one went hungry, and no one was cold.

Not long after the new year began, Mr. Clyde landed in the hospital with pneumonia and told the nurse he would have died if the O’Neal Street United Methodist Church hadn’t taken him in.

“That’s my grandmother’s church,” the nurse replied.

A young soldier on his way to serve in Iraq found himself out of money and stranded away from home. When he called the sheriff’s office, he found a ride to the church’s warming center. With the help of local city councilwoman Jackie Holmes, the soldier was able to contact his commanding officer and secure passage to his assignment, but not until he returned to the church to volunteer.

It wasn’t a Christmas full of beautiful pageants and breathtaking cantatas; it was a Christmas of service, of serving and loving the least among us, and it made a young woman working hard one night at the hospital proud to be a Methodist again. It made a soldier return to help care for others.

It made for one of the best holidays the church could remember, but it wouldn’t have happened without the courage to take risks.

“I know it’s what Jesus wants us to do,” confessed Patsy Mays, lifelong Methodist and 90-year-old member of the church, “but I am a bit worried.”

She was not alone in her concerns. Opening the doors to the community takes courage and cooperation. There are risks involved, and it would be difficult for any church to do this alone. Fortunately, we were incredibly supported in our mission by everyone from the mayor and city council members to law enforcement, town officials and average folks willing to give. It took a village, as the saying goes—lots of people working together to take care of the community’s most vulnerable.

Moreover, the work didn’t stop when the temperatures improved. Stephanie Thanabouasy, from Newberry Helping Newberry, and retired mental health care provider Heather O’Dell followed up with care plans for each of the guests who stayed at the church, and their work yielded great success.

One man agreed to substance abuse counseling and residential treatment. Others have addressed health and housing issues that will have long-term effects on the quality of their lives, and consequently, on the quality of life in the community.

The O’Neal Street UMC opened a warming center during the winter’s coldest days, and it opened up a myriad of possibilities for the church and for the community. Relationships and friendships were forged, and plans for a better Newberry were inspired, all by those who came together to help warm a few souls.

Kelley pastors Mount Pleasant and O’Neal Street United Methodist churches. The names of those who stayed at the Warming Center have all been changed to protect their identities.

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