MOBILE, Ala. (BP)–A convoy of cars leaves the warmth of the campus of the University of Mobile each Wednesday night, filled with college students who embark on a journey to face a cold night, some cold stares, some warm hearts, and very hungry souls. These UM students, equipped with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Kool-aid, coats, blankets, smiles and the love of God, walk the streets of downtown Mobile to share the love of Jesus Christ with area homeless men and women.
“For special occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas, people go downtown to the homeless people once to make themselves feel better, but these people need the consistency to see that somebody cares,” said Catherine Carlson*, a sophomore pre-medicine major from Moss Point, Miss.
Chandra Barton, a sophomore communication major from Mobile, said making the weekly trip is a priority for her.
“We know they’re out there and we may have tests, we may have homework and we may have all this other stuff going on, but God can totally bless the fact that we’re giving our time to go and serve him and to help these people,” she said.
The ministry began almost a year ago when a group of four UM students returned from an Urban Plunge trip, an outreach of the university’s campus ministries program. Urban Plunge is a 48-hour mission trip in major U.S. cities where UM students share their faith through street ministry and working with homeless people. After returning from their Urban Plunge trip in New Orleans, Carlson, Barton, Amber Gaines, a junior elementary education major from Mobile, and Edwin Attaway, a junior religion major from Birmingham, Ala., saw a need closer to home. In February of this year, the group of friends began visiting downtown Mobile each week to spend time with and feed the homeless.
Barton said they take their lead from the words found in 1 John 3:17, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” For nearly a year, these students have continued to share their possessions with those in need.
The group started with only four members but has grown up to 26 UM students who now travel downtown between two and four nights a week. No matter the weather, whether cold or rain, or what papers or tests are coming up the next day, nothing has deterred them from ministering in downtown Mobile.
Carlson feels the trips are of utmost importance.
“Whether we go or not, there are still hungry people down there; that’s their life. We can’t ignore their life just because we have things to do,” she said.
Barton feels their consistency is vital for the ministry to prosper.
We have received indifference from some of the homeless people, but if we continue to minister to them, if we are consistent, we show them that God loves them and he is consistent and always there for them,” Barton said.
The group is sometimes greeted with indifference, but most of the time with gratitude. On one such night they experienced both.
As a group of 15 eager UM students converged on Bienville Square in downtown Mobile, they joined hands, standing in a circle, in prayer for the night’s endeavors. Then they split into two smaller groups to cover more ground. One group of six traveled around Mobile by van and searched for area homeless; the other group of nine walked around Bienville Square and prayed for the homeless people.
The group in the van ministered to homeless people who were sleeping on the doorsteps of churches, in alleys and curled up on benches in parks. They dispensed sandwiches, coats and copies of the Bible to all those who would accept it. They shared the love of God not only through their deeds, but in word also.
After talking about God’s love with one man, Ronald, two of the students returned to the van with downcast faces and troubled spirits. Yogi Taylor, a senior religion major from Mobile, stopped the van just a block down the road. He was visibly moved to tears as he started to pray, “Lord, I ask you to not give up on Ronald. I pray that you continue to work in his heart. I know that he is the epitome of what this world is teaching, free love and sex, but Lord I know that you love him. Lord, every time I wanted to give up because of his indifference toward you, I said, ‘No, I want this man to hear the gospel…. He deserves to hear it.'”
After the prayer, Taylor spoke of his experience the week before.
“Last week I met Bob and Mike. They were in a ditch. I suddenly realized while I was witnessing to them that they weren’t just sleeping there; they were living there. I couldn’t believe that I was going back to school to crawl in my bed, curl up under my blanket, close my eyes and wake up all warm early in the morning, and they were living in this ditch,” Taylor recounted.
The conditions these people are living in have caused these students, if nothing else, to become aware of how blessed they truly are, said Aaron Hague, a freshman religion major from Calera, Ala.
“When I first started going I just thought it was going to be like some other sidewalk ministry, but it was really an eye-opener for me. I’ve come to realize how blessed I am. I have a roof over my head and a warm bed to sleep in; these people don’t have anything. They don’t even have a place to take a shower,” Hague said.
Carlson, one of the founding members, agreed.
“After ministering with the homeless people downtown, everyone goes away saying that they’ve never realized how blessed they are. Often when trying to go to sleep, these students have said they imagine themselves sleeping on benches…. It always affects them,” she said.
When a group of students approached one bus terminal that they have been visiting since August, they were greeted with warm smiles and hugs from the six people there.
One of the homeless women at the bus stop, Sue, expressed her joy in the students’ arrival. She called them by name as she rushed to give them a hug. Stephanie Caddis, a sophomore microbiology major from Tuscaloosa, Ala., sat down on the sidewalk and read to Sue and her husband, Frank. Caddis opened the Bible as Sue leaned in and followed along with Stephanie as she read the words from Isaiah 43.
After approximately 45 minutes, the students traveled to another nearby bus stop and were greeted by two smiling older men. Over the past few months, these two gentlemen had been sharing their stories with the group of students. James, a Vietnam veteran, told of falling on hard times after the war. He told the students that he usually had a job but had been without work for a few days. He told how thankful he was that God had continually provided for him each day with just enough money to eat.
“We wish that we could do so much more for the homeless people, like find them jobs, places to live, but we can’t,” Barton said. “However, we’re doing what we can do…. We’re just out there sharing God’s love and helping to meet their needs.”
Government Street Baptist Church in Mobile has helped the group by donating food items. The group has recently petitioned Wal-Mart to assist in donating canned foods. The group hopes that in the future they can see more area churches become involved in the ministry. At the campus of the University of Mobile, the students have placed drop boxes to collect coats, blankets and canned foods for the homeless. They hope area churches likewise will place drop boxes in their facilities.
Hague said there is a place for everyone to get involved in the ministry.
“I don’t expect everyone to go downtown and be the hands and feet of this ministry, but everyone can contribute in some way,” he said.
Most of the homeless in downtown Mobile need someone to talk to or just to listen more than the clothes and the food they are being provided, Carlson said.
“I can’t imagine not having someone to talk to and share my frustrations with,” Barton added. “Some of them don’t even think God listens.”
That evening, the group ministered to 13 homeless people from 10 p.m. until after midnight. When the group ran out of the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches they had made using the funds from their meager collegiate budget, they pooled their money and went to a nearby Wendy’s to purchase hamburgers to ensure that each of the homeless had something to eat.
Before the group left each stop, they asked each individual if there was anything they could pray with them about. One man answered, “Yeah, just pray that I’ll be warm and that I’ll wake up in the morning.”
James, the Vietnam veteran, with a tear-streamed face, smiled at the group as they were leaving, turned, and said, “Y’all pray for me, and I’ll be praying for you. Thank you so, so much. Y’all are my angels.”
Since the inception of the ministry, the group has encouraged and uplifted these hungry souls on the streets of Mobile. They have had the privilege of leading one man in a prayer for salvation. Barton noted that the group has continually been encouraged by verses in the Book of Matthew.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me…. The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me'” (Matthew 25:35,36,40).
Morris is a public relations writer in the University of Mobile office of public relations and a junior majoring in communication. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: PRAYING WITH JAMES and SHARING A NEW BIBLE.
*Name changed for security concerns.