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Expanded homeless outreach results from doctoral studies

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Tobey Pitman never intended to come to New Orleans. Now, 27 years later, he cannot imagine leaving.

When Pitman graduated from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1980 with a master of divinity specialization in psychology and counseling, he began working full time for the Brantley Baptist Center, a homeless shelter sponsored by the North American Mission Board. On May 15 Pitman, director of the Brantley Center since 1989, graduated from NOBTS again. This time, he left the platform of Leavell Chapel as Dr. Tobey Pitman.

At first, he said, “God’s call on my life was never exactly clear. There was not a road map or signs telling me which way to go.

“But over time it became very clear that God’s call upon my life was not to work in the traditional church setting as a traditional church pastor,” he said. “So I work basically as a pastor to the guys on the street … but God revealed that to me after I came to New Orleans.”

Pitman and his wife, Cathy, completed their 25th year of ministry at the Brantley Center in February. His work there has never been boring.

“Something we know about the Brantley Center is that no day is the same; every day is different. There are no ruts when you work with homeless people; there’s always something new,” he said. “The D.Min. is intended to help you increase your ministry proficiency. So I was able to take a new look at my ministry. I took a great interest in homeless people especially regarding their church relationships.”

This new look at ministry became Pitman’s doctor of ministry project.

“For 20 years in my ministry I’ve been trying to force a square peg in a round hole, trying to get homeless people to feel comfortable in traditional churches, and that just has never worked,” he recounted. “There are people who are not comfortable with homeless people sitting in their church pews, but that’s not the end of the story. There are homeless people who are not comfortable sitting in the church pews as well. It’s a two-way street.

“So I began to look at models [and] to develop models and strategies for helping homeless people to have fellowship among themselves,” Pitman said. “The direction I took in my D. Min. studies was finding a way to help homeless people to congregationalize in their own church setting.”

The Brantley Center currently hosts a Sunday morning worship service specifically designed to meet this goal. Clay Corvin, NOBTS vice president for business affairs, serves as a volunteer pastor to the special congregation.

“The purpose was not just to create a church, but to create an avenue for homeless people to enjoy the ordinances like other Christians,” Pitman said. “A place that they can call home and fellowship with other believers without feeling like second-class Christians. They can be discipled and fellowship within the context of the needs of homeless people.”

At the Brantley Center, discipleship classes include Bible study, but they also address the major needs of homeless people such as addiction and joblessness not regularly addressed in traditional churches.

“In New Orleans there are 6,400 homeless people in any given day…. Those who come to the Brantley Center are street homeless. In other words, they’ve burned all their bridges, they have no more resources at home, they’ve lost their jobs, they are really on their own,” he said. “They are the most desperate of homeless people, so it takes much more work to get them stabilized and motivated and back on a road to recovery.”

The need for discipleship of homeless Christians is growing, evidenced, for example, by the nearly 1,300 decisions for Christ made at the Brantley Center last year.

“Without an outlet to send them into to bolster their faith and to build them spiritually, there was something missing,” Pitman said. “By providing a church setting for them we can help them be discipled and become mainstream Christians, and ideally move into a mainstream world where they are no longer homeless living on the streets.”

Although the addition of a Sunday morning service at the Brantley Center has expanded the scope of its ministry, Pitman noted other ways the center is working to meet the needs of homeless individuals in New Orleans.

“We’ve taken a more global view of ministry. Traditionally we were focused on sheltering ministries and recovery ministries; now we are looking at ministering in a more global way. For example, we’re not just doing the church ministry, we’ve also established a healthcare ministry in our center,” Pitman said. “What we’ve learned in doing the global view is there are many partners in the community who also have an interest in homeless people.”

One of these partners in the community is the New Orleans Police Department. Traditionally, when a homeless person committed a crime, the only option officers had was to incarcerate the individual. Now, the Brantley Center is working with the police to provide rehabilitation alternatives.

“We work with the police department,” Pitman said. “We have three of our staff who work on the police van two shifts a month, and they like to rely on the expertise of the staff at the Brantley center to help deal with homeless issues on the street.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: SEEING SUCCESS.

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  • Katherine Albers