Shelter from the storm

Greenwood church provides winter refuge for homeless, hopes to help other churches do same

By Jessica Connor

GREENWOOD–Before, when it was cold and he didn’t have anyplace to sleep, Scottie McKee would find shelter in a portable toilet or the library’s gazebo, maybe gulp a bottle of liquor just to feel the warmth rush through him.

He’d shack up with friends or in an abandoned house when he was really desperate–the police don’t call it vagrancy anymore; they call it breaking and entering.

His life was bleak, hopeless.

But since The Men’s Shelter at St. Mark United Methodist Church opened in November, McKee is feeling something new: hope.

For the first time, he thinks he just might rise out of the dark pit he’s been living in, maybe find a job planting flowers or cutting grass.

“I’m a recovering addict, and I want to make it,” McKee said. “It’s a wonderful place to be.”

Pure, Christian love is what The Men’s Shelter is all about–and it is entirely laity operated. While St. Mark’s pastors support their efforts, the lay leaders came up with the idea, did the research, raised the money, got the volunteers and opened its doors.

“It makes me very emotional,” said the Rev. Barrett Alewine, St. Mark’s senior pastor. “They have become the hands and feet of Jesus, and I’m so excited to be part of a congregation that takes seriously the least of these.”

The shelter opens every night that temperatures are forecast to dip below freezing–including Christmas–and serves any homeless man in Greenwood. (Nearby Main Street UMC serves women and children.) Volunteers arrive at St. Mark’s Rivers Street Worship Center around 6 p.m., and a two-man team heads to the Greenwood Soup Kitchen to pick up that evening’s guests in the church bus.

Back at the shelter, the men enjoy a meal, fellowship, a hot shower and a good night’s sleep, plus breakfast the next morning before they depart.

On average, five to seven men come to the shelter each night, though they’ve seen as many as 10 and can accommodate far more.

Shelter volunteer Cathy Trevino, who coordinates intake and administration, said she had been praying for a local mission she could help regularly.

“Everyone’s always saying, ‘Somebody needs to do something, somebody has to open a shelter.’ God told me, ‘You are that somebody,’” Trevino said. “Nobody else would, but somebody has to.”

The eight-member group of core volunteers running the shelter say they now have a deeper mission – in addition to helping these men, they want to inspire and assist other churches in starting shelters of their own.

“There shouldn’t be homeless people wandering the street when there’s a United Methodist Church in every town in South Carolina,” said volunteer Dodie Conley. “You can’t do everything, but you can do something. We thought, ‘This is something we can do.’ And you don’t have to be a large-membership church to do this. You just have to open the door.”

Guests, not clients

It takes a lot of people to run a shelter–eight to 10 volunteers a night working in shifts, including cooks, drivers, intake and setup workers, servers, innkeepers and a cleanup crew.

When the bus pulls up at the Rivers Street Worship Center, the men file in and wait in line, where they provide their name, picture identification and Social Security number, if possible. The shelter has a strict no drugs, weapons or alcohol policy, and they wave a security wand over every man, even if he’s been there every night since it opened, like McKee.

The men put every item from their pockets into a plastic bag, which is labeled, stapled and locked up until they leave the next morning.

Then, they make their beds, fix a beverage and take a seat at a table, where servers soon bring their dinner.

But make no mistake–they are considered to be “guests,” not customers or clients.

“We put a mint à la Marriott on top of their pillow every night,” said Jim Conley, who led the shelter’s founding but takes careful pains to be “just one of the volunteers.”

The volunteers do all they can to make the men feel special, cared for, loved–just as Christ loves us.

Kitchen coordinator Chris McCoy, who nicknamed herself “the fudge lady,” said the men are served really good food at the shelter: a beef roast, pork chops, homemade chicken noodle soup, sausage biscuits, grits, eggs, breakfast casseroles, once steak and salad and a baked potato. She vividly remembers the night her spiritual formation group provided fried chicken for the men.

“I’ve never seen people eat so much food in my life–six pieces of chicken apiece!” McCoy said.

McCoy said she does all she can to make sure the men feel comfortable and appreciated: “They are deserving; they deserve this,” she said. “They are guests, and it can never be abstract.”

After dinner, the men shower, talk, play cards or read before settling down to sleep.

And the next night, if it’s cold, it all begins again.

“It takes a lot of planning and a lot of manpower,” said volunteer Jonathan Creswell. “You can’t do it every night or all the time, but if you have a lot of volunteers who can put in a little bit of time, you can do it.”

Giving and receiving

Many of the volunteers said they have grown as Christians because of their involvement with the shelter.

“The last three or four months I’ve probably been more emotional than I have in my life,” Conley said. “I get a lump in my throat just telling a story about something happening here.”

Creswell is especially touched that the men always greet him by name even though he sometimes can’t remember their names.

“It’s opened my eyes to people you wouldn’t normally come into contact with and allows you to grow as a person, to see people in a way that opens your eyes to the blessings you have,” he said.

Carroll Burch, volunteer bus driver, said it helps him appreciate his own, more comfortable life: ˆ“It helps you not take for granted your hot thermostat and warm bed.”

On nights the shelter is not open, McCoy wonders about the men–where are they? Have they gotten enough to eat? Do they have a warm place to stay?

“I am always looking now,” she said. “I see someone with a backpack, and I want to say, ‘Do you have a place to live? Can I help you?’ I don’t only because I don’t want to embarrass them in case they’re not homeless.”

Alewine said that when Conley approached him about starting a shelter, his gut reaction was doubt about the group being able to pull it off.

But organizers rose to the challenge, raising funds and mobilizing volunteer support. Nine churches from several denominations are partnering with St. Mark, many sending people to help weekly. Volunteers said not a penny of church money
has been spent on the shelter, and they plan to keep it that way.

Karen Wright, a member of Church of the Resurrection, the Episcopal church in Greenwood, said she grew up poor, so she has an idea of what these men are going through. She is grateful to be able to help them: “It’s a blessing and an opportunity to be able do this – to pay it forward.”

‘The ultimate foot washing’

Shelter volunteer George Martin said his experience has deepened his faith and helped him truly understand the concept of brotherly love. He said he is not as judgmental as he used to be.

“Our charge as Christians is a great one – love God with all your heart and love your brother,” Martin said. “When I see these gentlemen there, I look at them as brothers. What can we do to help this brother who’s down on his luck? It doesn’t really matter what happened a year ago or a month ago or a year ago. They have a need right now.”

One way he helped meet that need was through what he and Conley have dubbed “the ultimate foot washing.” One of the shelter guests, confined to a wheelchair, hadn’t had a shower in weeks. His only caregiver was his grandmother, who had unexpectedly died, and the man was physically unable to wash himself.

Martin helped the man, washing him from head to toe and helping to dress him in a brand new sweat suit. Then, Martin arranged for a former barber to come to the shelter and give all of the guests a free haircut and shave for Christmas.

Martin said he was deeply touched by the gleam of newfound confidence in the disabled man’s eyes.

“I saw this gentleman as my brother in the truest sense,” Martin said. “We’re here for a purpose, to reach out. We need to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves.”

Helping other churches

Volunteers want to do all they can to help other churches start shelters, too.

Many times, people have a misconception of homeless people, Conley said.

“Some people see them on the streets and think they’re lazy,” he said. “After meeting and getting to know individuals, we find that many are not trying to beat the system, but they are living it.”

His wife, Dodie, agrees.

“One of my favorite stories is about the beach that is littered with starfish, and a boy is walking the beach, collecting the sand dollars and throwing them back out to sea,” she said. “A man came by and said, ‘What are you doing? You can’t possibly help them all.’ The boy threw one more back in a said, ‘See? I made a difference for that one.’”

For advice and information on starting a homeless shelter like the one at St. Mark UMC, call Jim Conley at 864-389-1230.

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