By Jessica Connor
GREENVILLE—It’s daytime in Tent City 2. Safe time, when a so-called privileged woman like this writer can dig her low heels in the loose gravel and clay as she makes her way among the tents, cardboard boxes and wood planks, looking for stories, photos. Anything to show people what it’s really like to walk in these residents’ shoes.
“Don’t come here after dark—you’d get eaten alive. Eaten clean up,” a man warns, his eyes soft as one hand clutches a giant-sized bottle of beer. He shows off the bruises on his face, bruises from when he himself was beaten up two nights before. “The days are OK, but the nights, well, it’s awful.”
A dog, Baramas, roams the little tent village, belonging to anybody and nobody, his tail wagging as he noses a morsel near the garbage cans and snubs the black-furred tent cats who nuzzle random scraps of clothing and lick themselves clean, blatantly ignoring the humans in their midst.
The humans gather in loose circles on collapsible folding camp chairs or around the lone picnic table. They tease each other, sometimes chastise each other and pick fights, or just sit and keep company, waiting the day out. Thick graffiti peppers the concrete piers that hold up the bridge above them, proclaiming “Ferb Stamp,” “Ghost-n-Miss New York,” or tribal symbols meant to say everything and nothing at all. One tent declares “God is great, deal with it” and “He came, He died, He arose, He Ascended, He’s Comin’ Back.” The one next door simply says “Go away.”
And like the cats, the ministry people walk there, too—sometimes ignored, sometimes not. A Salvation Army worker talks with some of the men, trying to see if anyone is willing to go clean and enter a program. A woman from United Ministries wanders, chatting amiably with a few people. A man hugs her; another starts yelling. Two Christian servants from Buncombe Street United Methodist Church are there, too, building relationships and doing their part to show God’s love.
Resident Steve Hurt watches the flurry of action with quiet eyes from his chair toward the back.
“It’s all right,” he says, motioning to the tents around him. He’s lived there a little more than a year, surprised it’s actually been so long. “It’s not the best place in the world, but I stay to myself, stay quiet, don’t mess with anyone. I look for work. Hopefully I can get a job and just get out of here.”
That’s the idea—getting them out of there—that keeps countless ministry workers coming back, day after day, in the hopes that they can tug even one soul out of Tent City and into a new life. And for them, it’s all about relationships.
Showing up and being real
The Rev. Jerry Hill, minister of social ministries and mission outreach at Buncombe Street UMC and senior pastor at Dunean UMC, Greenville, is one of those day-in, day-out Christian servants who walk among the residents, helping them find work, food, resources and the light of the Lord.
Hill and other Greenville District servants reach out through programs that form intentional relationships with people to try to offer real, empowering assistance: The Methodist Family Partnering with Families, a district-wide ministry that works with families in poverty to offer mentoring, alliance, friendship and mutual goal-setting; Crisis Ministries of Buncombe Street UMC, which has helped approximately 9,000 people over the last several years with rent, utility bills, bus tickets and other emergency assistance; Triune Mercy Center, a Methodist-founded and now nondenominational church that works alongside the homeless and provides emergency relief services; the Greenville Area Interfaith Hospitality Network, which provides homeless families with shelter and emergency assistance thanks to help from United Methodist and other volunteers; Frazee Dream Center, a free preschool, afterschool and summer program for under-resourced children in the downtown Greenville; and many other outreach groups and services.
“With relationships, be consistent,” Hill said, pointing out homeless enclaves as he provides a poverty tour of the city. “They say 90 percent of life is showing up. It’s showing up, being there, going where they are. It doesn’t take special skills. It just takes showing up and being real.”
And it’s not just the Tent City residents these Christian servants try to help; they seek relationships with individual families and even random backpacked passers-by walking the “Homeless Corridor” in downtown Greenville.
People like Patrick, a paranoid schizophrenia who now lives in a shelter, his disease under control with proper medication.
People like Lisa, who lives in Tent City 1 and won’t enter a shelter for fear her cats, Callie and White Face, will fall victim to neglect and starvation.
People like Big Mike, a self-described crack addict from Georgia, who desperately wants to turn from stealing and enter a rehab problem right away—if he can only make it through the night.
The ‘Girl Power Team’
It’s people like those Hill has dubbed the Girl Power Team—Kimberly Smith, her two daughters and her three grandnieces—who all live together in a poorly air-conditioned trailer off Poinsett Highway. But the six females enjoy a deep faith in God and a deep conviction to get out of poverty and make a better life for themselves. Smith and her children have been somewhat “adopted” by Buncombe Street UMC, and church members take turns ferrying her children to vacation Bible school, Sunday worship and other church activities; Smith has no car, and one of the girls has autism. Her disability check supports the family.
“They’re playing a big role in our lives,” Smith said of the church, three of her girls surrounding her in the living room, which is dark to keep them cool and save on power bills. “They’re just been such a blessing—they treat my kids so well and they take time with us. They don’t seem to look at our struggle; they treat us like they’d treat anyone.”
Not only are Smith and her daughters more determined than ever to succeed in school and in life, but they’re also even more firmly committed to walking side by side with the Lord, serving Him, relying on Him and trusting Him in the midst of their hardship.
“I want to walk with God all the way to the end,” Smith said, summarizing a recent sermon that has been seizing her heart. “Not temporarily, but till the end.”
Mercy, dignity and empowerment
It’s also people like the Brock family, who are plagued with financial troubles along with disabilities, both physical and mental. Jennifer Brock, the mother, depends on a power chair after a blood infection almost took her life; her son, Anthony, 8, has severe autism; grandmother Katie and brother Bobby also live with them, helping as able. The UMC helped them find an appropriate home and built them a wheelchair ramp; the family has been attending Dunean UMC’s smaller services, which suit them better.
“If it wasn’t for the church, we wouldn’t be here,” Katie Brock said, gesturing to the modest home around them.
Daughter Jennifer nodded. “We’ve been helped enormously by the church.”
Things are looking up for the struggling family—Bobby has realized he’s patient and good with his nephew, Anthony. Anthony has blossomed during “guy time.” Jennifer is beginning a new friendship with another mother in the church. Katie feels content watching her family begin to thrive and settle down in their new home.
“We have to empower people to be who they want to be,” Hill said, noting serving with those in poverty requires mercy, dignity and empowerment.
And sums up Howard, a client sitting inside Triune Mercy Center, unable to see through his eyes but trying desperately to see and love with his heart, “God can make all things new—even you.”
For more on how the Greenville District is stepping up to serve with people in poverty, visit http://greenville.umcsc.org, call 864-233-3611 or email [email protected].
By Jessica Connor