PENSACOLA, Fla. (BP)–Situated on the corner of one of Pensacola’s busiest highways, a mile from Interstate 10, is Olive Baptist Church. With its close proximity to the interstate, the Florida church has been frequented by transients for years.
When Jean Rae began serving as Olive’s director of social ministries, she realized the need of a ministry designed specifically for interstate transients.
Believing the church has a social duty, Rae was led to Hebrews 13:1-2, “Let the love of the brethren continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” With that in mind, Olive Baptist began “Interstate Angels” under Rae’s direction.
Now, after several months of operation, an average of 20 transients a month exit onto Davis Highway and head to the doors of Jean Rae’s office.
“I told our pastor, Dr. (Ted) Traylor, that I was known from California to Miami,” Rae said.
“Mrs. Jean,” as the transients call her, has earned a reputation for the nonjudgmental and loving attitude of acceptance she demonstrates.
“Everybody deserves a chance,” Rae said. “I can’t turn my back on anyone.”
Because word of Olive’s ministry has traveled by word of mouth down miles of interstate, the church never has to advertise it.
As transients enter Rae’s office they are asked to fill out an application, which asks for information in order to assess their needs. After reviewing the form, Rae meets with each applicant personally and listens attentively. “I generally ask them why they are on the road and [if] they understand that there is a better way to live,” Rae said.
She noted most of the men are alcoholics and some are mentally ill.
“This opens a door for me to say, ‘I just want you to know that God loves you and we love you too, no matter what you do,’” Rae stated.
After the assessment, the transient is offered a hot shower in the church’s family life facilities. Olive provides each individual with a personal hygiene bag and a food bag containing Vienna sausage, pork and beans, crackers, canned fruit, oatmeal cookies, raisins, fruit, juices, eating utensils and a religious tract. Rae has organized a food pantry specifically for the Interstate Angels ministry. She relies on volunteers to restock and make hygiene and food bags in advance. They also prepare family bags that supply enough food for a week, Rae said. Depending on the need, transients also may be given a voucher to be redeemed at a local grocery store, she said.
Various groups in Olive’s children’s ministry have taken an active role in Interstate Angels by decorating canned goods with handmade labels with phrases such as, “Jesus Loves You. He’ll Take Care of You.”
Olive also has a clothes closet filled with donated items which are given to the transients. Each transient receives two to four different sets of clothes.
“This ministry doesn’t cost anything,” Rae pointed out. “The food and clothing are donated by request and I have volunteers that help put it all together.”
A Bible is included in the bag of any transient who doesn’t already have one. But a lot of them have a Bible, Rae said, and many have read theirs a lot.
Bus tickets with the city transit system are given in some cases. In some situations, Olive will buy a one-way bus ticket if the person is willing to go home and if Rae can contact a family member who will be responsible for caring for them once they get there.
“We don’t have a lot of requests for being sent home. But as a mother of three boys, I typically recommend going home,” Rae said.
Not all the transients who enter Rae’s office take advantage of what Interstate Angels has to offer.
“I send most of them back on the street,” Rae said. “They have the ability to survive. This is a chosen lifestyle.
“For those who want to change their lives, we refer them to a drug and alcohol treatment program and find them a place to stay.”
Whenever possible Rae will do follow-up assessments with the ministry’s clients.
“I read the obituary column and felony arrest [column] every morning without fail,” she noted. “Sometimes that’s the only follow-up I can do.”
“Matt” (not his real name) came to Olive for help after eight days of hitchhiking from another state. He had slept the night before on the grassy slopes of I-10’s Davis Highway exit and had not eaten in two days. He had only the clothes on his back. Matt related he was a certified electrician who had been laid off and had come to Pensacola after hearing jobs were easy to get in Florida.
“I’ve been all over,” he said, “and have never seen a church respond to me like this.”
Matt, who was an alcoholic and drug addict, was seeking food, shelter and clothing, but he also agreed to go into an alcohol and drug rehabilitation program.
“It is time that I get my life straight and settle down,” he said. Rae called and arranged for Matt to bunk at a rescue mission and registered him in a rehab program it offers. As he and Rae waited for the taxi to pick him up, Rae looked at him and asked, “Are you ready to die?”
Matt replied, “No.”
“Then you need to change your life,” she responded.
Matt is one of the few who actually has taken a step toward change. But Rae sends each client back into the world with the knowledge of a better way.
“Every transient,” she said, “is a soul loved by God and worth saving.”
Cooper is a correspondent for the Florida Baptist Witness.