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Homeless ministry revitalizes small inner-city congregation

BALTIMORE (BP)–A line of 100 men winds around Riverside Baptist Church in Baltimore every Sunday morning, long before members begin filing in for morning worship. The men arrive seeking food, fellowship and, in the winter, warmth. They’re homeless and on Sunday mornings the church is their haven.
William Kopp, pastor of the church, began the homeless ministry on Thanksgiving in 1996. Kopp said he noticed the homeless gathering in a park across the street. He, his wife, Carol, and other members began taking donuts and juice out to the park on Sundays.
At first no one would take the food, but then a few people started showing up.
When the weather turned colder, the ministry moved into the church.
“My wife decided that perhaps we could pack a bag lunch. We got about 10 or 12, then it started growing, and it kept growing and growing,” Kopp said.
“Now we’re running approximately 100 men every Sunday morning for breakfast, and we still provide the bag lunch.”
For three Sundays the men get muffins, cakes, breads, toast, boiled eggs, grits, oatmeal and coffee. Once a month, they get scrambled eggs and sausage.
“The Lord has done some wonderful things,” Kopp said. “It has really been amazing. We started out with about eight to 10 men. When 20 came, we didn’t think we could handle it — then 40 came. Every time we thought we had more people than we could handle, we always had enough food. We’ve never run out — just like the loaves and fishes.
“If I had told my people two years ago we would be spending about $6,000 a quarter to feed a bunch of homeless guys, they would have thought I was nuts.
“We are a downtown church in south Baltimore,” the pastor reflected. “There’s always an ongoing homeless population in the area — especially in the park across the street. When we started, everyone thought it would last a couple weeks … but it’s something that has literally transformed the entire church.
“The funny thing about it,” Kopp said, “is that prior to this we were struggling to make our budget. We weren’t making it, and we had to cut it. Now we’re spending money on the program and more than meeting our budget.
“The mission breakfast is over and above the budget. We’ve also broken our Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong mission goals. It’s made a major difference in the life of the church.
“The big thing is,” Kopp said, “the openness of our people to go to those who are radically different from them.”
Church members didn’t stop at breakfast and lunch. Kopp now has a Bible study for the men on Sunday mornings. About 40 show up and the class had to move out of the biggest classroom and into the sanctuary.
“Our original concept was we were going to feed, not preach to, them. We started at the park, giving them muffins and coffee and talking about everything — but Jesus. They got to trust us. Then they’d come to us with a struggle they were going through and we would share with them. After six or seven months we gave them the opportunity to study Scripture. I told them, ‘We’re going to have a Bible study. Anyone who wants to stay can stay.'”
Kopp said that as a result of the program so far, they’ve had six professions of faith and four have joined the church.
“That may not sound like a whole lot, but it’s something,” Kopp said. “We had one gentlemen who was divorced and estranged from his wife. After a year and a half he was baptized. He went back and reconciled with his wife and moved to another state with her.
“Quite a few have gone into drug rehab programs and turned their life around. It’s one thing to go into a 30-day program for a couple months, but you don’t know what the long term process is. A couple men have been going nine to 14 months drug-free or sober. That’s substantial,” Kopp said.
Once people in the area realized what the church is doing, they began to help.
“The Lord has worked things out amazingly. The people we were buying from started asking questions. They started donating things,” the pastor said.
Companies have donated cakes, pies, bread, cups, saucers, plates and eggs.
Kopp said he is very pleased with the way the leadership of the church responded to the mission.
“The leadership gave a model of friendship. The deacons have modeled it strongly. I flat-out preached on it. I said we will not have an upstairs-downstairs arrangement in this church — the less fortunate downstairs and the membership upstairs. If that happens, I’ll close the doors and start something else. I’ll be honest with you, we’ve had some people leave the church.”
Kopp and his family invited some of the men to their house for Thanksgiving last year.
“I have to give a lot of credit to the laymen who work so hard on this project. John Yewell is a retired businessman who has a heart and puts in so many hours a week laboring at this.”
Yewell was a plant manager for Haven Corporation in Northpoint, Md., before he retired. Now he manages the homeless program for the church. Yewell said Kopp spent a lot of time on Sunday mornings getting everything ready for the breakfasts before church services started. “He was there every morning. We have a small church. He’s not just the preacher; he’s also the chief cook and bottle washer. I helped him. I told him, ‘You have enough every morning without this. Would you mind if I take some of the responsibility?’”
Now, as coordinator of the program, Yewell arrives at the church at 5 a.m. on Sunday mornings to prepare and works until 9 a.m. cleaning up afterwards. He usually has up to eight people who help prepare and serve the meals. That’s just on Sundays. During the week he checks inventory and buys what he needs for the weekend. Other volunteers gather donations.
“It’s a small church without much storage space. I’m going from one Sunday to the next. You can’t build up much inventory. I might have two Sundays, but I’m usually running every week.”
Yewell said it’s been worth the effort. “I think we’re really blessed with it. We have a small congregation. To think we are spending $2,000 a month to feed them is a real blessing.”
“It has been so incredibly motivating,” said Kopp. “Things we’ve been putting off for seven years are happening in other areas of the church. People are coming to me and saying, ‘Preacher, what are we going to do next?’ I haven’t a clue, but I’m sure the Lord will tell someone in his good time.
“The Lord has wrought an amazing work here. It’s the kind of thing I read about in Mission magazine and never thought I’d be a part of.”

Mager is a staff writer for Baptist Life, newsjournal of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware.

    About the Author

  • Sharon Mager