CHICAGO (BP)–Dirtman steps out of the shadows cast by the dingy streetlights and saunters toward the two cars parked on Lower Wacker Drive. He often walks without shoes, but this frosty February evening is too cold for even him. Alerted by one of the other homeless men gathered around the trunk of the first car, Linda Caston has a hot plate of spaghetti and chicken ready for him.
Dirtman quietly takes the plate from Linda, a member of Rose of Light Missionary Baptist Church, and walks away. He prefers to keep to himself, and the others respect his privacy. They greet him, but they aren’t offended when he doesn’t answer back. He fades into the darkness as he walks away, illuminated by the occasional patch of light before disappearing around one of the concrete pillars in this section of downtown Chicago.
It’s the side of Chicago that few tourists see while they’re shopping at the glitzy stores on Michigan Avenue or checking out the attractions along Navy Pier. Even those who travel Lower Wacker Drive zip by too fast to notice the tattered blankets and frayed boxes carefully arranged into makeshift shelters.
But on this Monday night, as Charlie Jones Sr., pastor of Chicago’s Rose of Light, pilots the two-vehicle caravan along Lower Wacker, he’s looking for all the familiar hangouts of the people who live here. Spaghetti and meatballs, crispy fried chicken and grilled garlic bread stay warm in the metal serving trays in his car trunk. Cookies and dozens of bottles of fruit drinks are also stashed in back. The second car’s trunk has been loaded down with nearly 50 gray blankets.
Rose of Light, along with many other Baptist churches in Chicago, communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ to homeless and low-income people, who often don’t know where their next meal is coming from, by offering them a plate of food.
Mount Carmel Ridge Baptist, for example, has been feeding between 50 to 100 people on Wednesday afternoons. Some are homeless; others are low-income residents in the neighborhood, said Eddie Martin, the church’s pastor. Each meal begins with a 15-minute Bible study. “It’s about saving souls,” Martin said. “It’s very difficult to minister to somebody if they’re hungry.”
Evening Star Missionary Baptist prepares hot meals for 60 people on Monday nights. About 300 people receive food from the church’s food pantry program on Thursdays, said Vesta Dixon, Evening Star’s pastor. The church has held a Kids’ Café every other Wednesday afternoon for six months, feeding and tutoring 20 children. Another 30 to 40 churches and ministries pick up food stored in Evening Star’s warehouse.
Good Hope Baptist prepares hot meals for 25 to 60 homeless people on Lower Wacker Drive on Tuesday nights. Church members take food to shelters and to pantries almost every day of the week. “We don’t use this ministry just to feed people,” said Edward Clark, the church’s pastor. “It’s good evangelism. We ask people to trust in God.”
Rose of Light’s members, meanwhile, hit the streets every Monday night of the year, offering the food along with a gospel tract. They pray with the men and ask them about other needs. For Jones, this passion to take care of the hungry has been part of his family for as long as he can remember.
His mother would often take people in or prepare a good meal for them. At times, Jones said, “it would make me mad as a boy because we didn’t have much,” but sharing with others was a core value in his family that has stayed with Jones into his adult years. He has been involved with feeding the homeless for 27 years. He and others have fed as many as 285 on one night, and as few as 14 on another night. They have helped an estimated 400 people off the streets.
When Jones organized Rose of Light in May 1988, that family conviction became part of the congregation’s heartbeat, a ministry that involves more than just filling empty stomachs. Their mission is to tell people about Jesus’ love for them as they hand them plates of food, Jones said.
Many of the homeless on Lower Wacker Drive, mostly men, have an unshakeable camaraderie and keep track of each other. If Jones and his church members can’t find one of their regulars, they ask the other men, who usually know if someone has found a new spot. Jones has a commanding rapport with the men, many of whom call him “Rev.” He greets several with big, bear hugs.
Not only does Rose of Light reach the homeless population in downtown Chicago, which is about 15 minutes away from the church, they provide meals for the people in their surrounding neighborhoods. Last year, the church began the Lord’s Kitchen, a ministry that serves hot meals to anyone in the community who wants to eat in the church basement. The meals are prepared on Mondays, and a crew of volunteers prepares the same menu for the Lord’s Kitchen and for the homeless.
On this night, Kenneth Jones Sr. cuts up chickens on a wooden block in the center of the small kitchen. He turns up the heat on the stove to boil the water for the spaghetti. Another volunteer, Harold Jackson, is cleaning out the deep fryer so it’s ready for the chicken. Jessie Ramsey soon arrives to cut up vegetables for the spaghetti sauce.
About a dozen people are on hand for the meal; Rose of Light asks for a donation of 50 cents but also makes sure people know that they don’t have to pay even that much if they don’t have it. “That donation’s important,” Charlie Jones said. “People need to feel they are contributing something.”
As people enjoy their homemade meals, church members join them to talk about Jesus’ love for them and to invite them to Sunday services, said Jones’ wife, Roselle.
“This building is the base where the Lord lets us set up ministries,” Charlie Jones said. Those ministries extend beyond providing food, including a range of outreach initiatives from helping battered women, to holding sports clinics to reach gang members, to operating two massive block parties last year that drew 1,600 people.
“You have to do the ministries,” Jones reflected, “and let Christ lead you.”
Additional photo posted in the BP Photo Library. Photo title: SHARING FOOD.