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Church makes its home among the homeless

[SLIDESHOW=42325,42326]CONROE, Texas (BP) — Jeff Foshee was at the end of his rope. Haunted by depression, fear, and his own misfortunes, he felt he could not hold on any longer.

Thanks to a friend’s guidance, Foshee’s next step landed him at the Houston-area Under Over Fellowship in Conroe.

“When I first came to a Sunday service with Under Over, something clicked. It just felt like home,” Foshee says. “I have been here ever since.”

Jerry Vineyard, meanwhile, also found himself at the end of his rope. After nearly a decade of bivocational ministry, he had been on staff at two different churches and struggled with limitations of whom, inside the church, they were ministering to — both socioeconomically and racially.

When he became a lead pastor, thinking that position might offer more flexibility, he found himself stuck again. A nearly empty building was draining financial resources for outreach, yet members were not prepared to sell their assets, clinging to tradition and personal connections.

“Once again I found myself in a similar situation. I said, ‘Jesus, if this is really what pastoring is, then I don’t want anything to do with it,'” Vineyard recounts. “I didn’t know what to do. All of my problems seemed to be coming from owning a building.”

Then he began to realize that “maybe I could start a church without a building.”

“Another pastor in Conroe decided to sponsor me. They said they had never really heard of anything like this, but they would support me regardless. In 2011, we had our first service with 65 people [in Heritage Place Park downtown Conroe]. Today we have a membership of around 75. Half of those are either in transition or homeless.”

Plenty of issues came with launching a church under a park pavilion.

“I have had to learn a lot about drugs and prison life,” Vineyard says. “Many of them can’t get jobs or apartments because of previous felonies, so we decided we would make jobs.

“I was an art teacher before this, so I used my artistic abilities and we decided we would create shabby-chic furniture to sell. We just started fixing stuff up and put these guys to work.

“From there we started making crosses because some people didn’t have all the woodworking skills to make the furniture. We designed a simple cross they could make, paint and sell. LifeWay liked them so much, actually, they decided to sell them,” Vineyard says of LifeWay Christian Resources’ retail division.

“It has exploded from there. We are now the church without walls that owns two buildings,” he says of the facilities necessary to accommodate the growing ministry.

Under Over has expanded into two transitional houses with programs to assist men and women to re-enter society in positive fashion after a history of homelessness or drug addiction. The ministry seeks to aid all of its participants by providing everything from parenting courses to financial instruction and job training. Bible study and discipleship are also woven into every aspect of the outreach.

“Our goal is to produce a well-rounded person, spiritually, physically and emotionally,” Vineyard says. “We make sure they are all plugged into church and have a place to work before they graduate. We typically ask them for a six-month commitment, but everyone is a little different. We are about empowerment — not enabling people to stay where they are.”

Under Over’s buildings double as a food pantry and a place for men and women in the community to take showers and do laundry.

“One of the things we said as we looked for properties was that if we were going to purchase a building of any kind, we weren’t going to have a building that sat vacant six days a week.” In a typical month, he said, “in one way or another — people came to get food, wash clothes, take a shower, come to Bible study or receive counseling — we were able to touch about 4,500 individuals.”

But Under Over continues to have its Sunday services in the park.

Foshee, a graduate from the men’s program, says Under Over saved his life both spiritually and literally.

“After my wife died, I absolutely turned my back on God and went astray — that’s putting it lightly,” Foshee says. “I was in a very self-destructive mode.

“I have always had trust and abandonment issues. I guess most people do when you get down to it. I grew up in a really bad household. I always knew pain and suffering, but then I met my wife, and she was truly my first joy. When I lost that, I guess that is why I fell so hard. I let myself be defined by my bad childhood and circumstances.

“But now I know I am not chained to my past pain. The definition of Jeff today is a confident man who has been changed by God,” says Foshee, who now serves as the men’s coordinator for Under Over.

“I thank God that He led me here. To see where I was a year ago and to be where I am now — it’s amazing,” he says.

In the park, Under Over offers a fellowship breakfast and lunch before and after its services.

“They are going to sit at the table next to us no matter their condition,” Vineyard says. “We are going to love on them and eat with them. Our church is a reflection of our community. We are made up of people from all different types of backgrounds. At our Sunday service we have doctors sitting next to people who live in tents and are crack addicts. We are just a huge dysfunctional family, but God makes it work.”

Vineyard has continued to be bivocational since he planted Under Over Fellowship.

“I am just a former art teacher and high school football coach,” Vineyard says with a laugh. “I only had two seminary classes, so in no way am I a theologian. We just want to create local mission opportunities for the single-staff guy who wants his people outside the walls of the church.”

Under Over meets for their weekly gathering, rain or shine. Their name was inspired by Romans 6:14 — that since we are “under His grace,” Christ is “over our sin” and when we are “under His leading,” Christ is “over our fear.”

“It has been amazing to see God work and how He grows this ministry,” Vineyard says. “Every week is a fish-and-loaves scenario. God takes the offering of a homeless person and multiplies it.”

Under Over Fellowship is on the Web at underoverfellowship.com.

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  • Meredith Yackel