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Church models Christ’s compassion in ministries to reach down-and-out

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–I was hungry, and you fed me …
I was a stranger, and you invited me in …
I needed clothes, and you clothed me …
I was sick and you looked after me …
“Here at Olivet Baptist Church, we want to do what Jesus would do for a lost and hurting world,” said pastor Steve Kern.
Olivet, located just northwest of downtown Oklahoma City in a deteriorating area, has an emergency food pantry and referral to a mission which distributes food; it has a clothing room which is open daily; and in cooperation with Integris Baptist Medical Center the church provides space and volunteers to house and staff a free clinic to meet the health needs of the community.
And Olivet’s newest ministry, opened in November, is a home for displaced single women and their children.
Kern, who has been at the inner-city church two years, has a vision not only for his church but for Oklahoma City: to eliminate homelessness.
”With the elimination of a lot of government welfare programs, churches can make a big difference,” Kern pointed out. “Our vision at Olivet is not necessarily to grow a huge ministry where we are trying to reach all of Oklahoma City, but to encourage other churches to help the homeless. If we had 300 churches just taking one homeless person and touching that person, we could eventually eliminate the homeless problem.
“If a small church has a house and just one mother living there it is ministering to, it’s really a very inexpensive kind of ministry to be involved in,” Kern said.
He said instead of taking homeless people and putting them in a crowded shelter, Christians need to get them out of the community that’s reinforcing their lifestyles and offer them a church environment where they can change their way of living.
Olivet has been given four houses to use for ministry. The Mary West House for displaced women, named for a longtime children’s worker at the church, was renovated by church members.
“We probably put $25,000 into it, but it is a six-bedroom, four-bath house worth $60,000,” Kern said.
Two of the other houses house homeless men, some of whom are in an alcohol and drug rehabilitation program. A fourth house will be used as a food and clothing area and for meeting rooms for community rehabilitation.
Kern said he hopes eventually to have more donated houses for use in a “CPR” (community property renovation) program.
“We would remodel the houses and sell them to those who can’t afford conventional means of buying houses,” Kern explained.
He said there would be no down payment and cost of the houses would probably be what the church put into them in renovation, making for low monthly payments. The church also will provide classes on home ownership.
“By improving the community, not only spiritually, but physically, in time the makeup of the area is going to change,” he said.
Kern emphasized those living in the church’s houses, which are part of a nonprofit organization sponsored by Olivet and called Heart and Hand Ministries, must agree to some things before they move in.
“They must be involved in church and Bible study and enroll in ‘New Focus,’ which involves six weeks of steps to change, teaching people to make right choices,” Kern noted. “Then they are involved in steps to financial freedom where they are taught to use a checkbook, work out a financial system of paying bills and have a person who sits down with them to pay the bills. They learn to make right choices so they can avoid getting back in the same situation that brought them here.”
Olivet is using Oklahoma City’s Cornerstone Ministries, headed by Scott Manley, as a clearinghouse to screen people, discover their needs and refer them to the ministry that best meets their needs.
The Oklahoma City church is no stranger to ministry opportunities. Besides the housing, food, clothing and medical facilities, Olivet is involved in a “Big A” program for neighborhood children, a mentoring program for students at Eugene Fields Elementary School, G.E.D. and English-as-a-Second-Language classes and preschool/parent training through Even Start.
In addition, the church supports a Hispanic mission which meets in its facilities and pioneer mission churches in Michigan and New York, along with a full-time staff member, Bob Waddell, associate pastor of ministries, who oversees community missions projects.
Kern said Olivet members believe if they are going to help people come to understand who Jesus is, they have to do things that are practical and need-oriented.
“We believe the way to get to a person’s spirit is through their physical and emotional needs, letting them know we think they are valuable and that we’re concerned about them,” Kern said. “By doing those things, they begin to open their hearts to hear what they really need to hear.”
Kern said Olivet established the Heart and Hand ministry because the church, which runs somewhat less than 300 in Sunday school, could not totally support the program.
“A separate nonprofit status gives people an opportunity to donate without giving to the church,” he said. However, Olivet members gave $30,000 the first three weeks after a $100,000 challenge to start remodeling the Mary West House.
A concern of Kern is that evangelical Christians are not helping the poor and needy “the way we could.”
“I’ve been reading through the Old Testament, and I’m amazed at the number of times the words poor, needy and orphans are used,” he noted.
“I believe the church has excused itself from getting directly involved with down-and-outers because they are seen as nothing but takers,” he said. “But a lot of these people, because they are grateful for what has been done for them, become givers.”
Kern admitted a lot of people in churches have a real fear of the homeless because they are stereotyped.
“Church members may have the idea these people are just lazy bums who don’t want to do anything, and they are in the position they are in because they choose to be there,” he said. “That is true of a few, but not all. There are those people out there who, if you give them some sense of self-worth and some sense someone cares about them and wants to help them get out of their situation, are impacted tremendously.
“We’re supposed to be like Jesus, and when he healed the leper, he reached out and touched him,” Kern continued. “I believe God is saying, ‘You touch them, too.’ If we are going to be an expression of who Jesus is in a lost and hurting world, we have to reach out and touch directly, not indirectly.”
Kern said for too long Christians have been willing to send their money to missionaries in Africa and let them “touch” because they know how to touch.
Kern related a story about a 10-year-old boy he was mentoring.
“School officials told me to keep my distance from him because there was a possibility he had lice,” Kern said.
The boy’s dad died last year of cancer, and his mother left the family before he died. After the father’s death, the children had to return to their mother, who didn’t want them.
“After our visit, when I started to leave, he reached out and hugged me,” Kern said. “I was taken back, but thought, so what, and hugged him back.”
Kern said his hope is that God can use Olivet as a spark in Oklahoma City for other churches to say, “God, how do you want to use us?”
“I hope anyone who looks at Olivet’s ministry will be able to say, ‘That’s what Christianity is supposed to be.’”

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  • Dana Williamson