Church works to provide for homeless

Lifehouse West's Soul Food Ministries offers food, clothing and dignity

Lifehouse West's Soul Food Ministries offers food, clothing and dignity

September 24, 2009|By ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN -- On a day in early April, a state correctional officer and a recovering alcoholic who served time in the county jail walked side by side through the woods on a mission to serve those less fortunate than themselves.

The two men, both members of Lifehouse West church on Salem Avenue, joined the small but growing number of church members who minister to the homeless. They don't run a soup kitchen or shelter, but go into the woods, to the library and to a local shelter to find the homeless.

Members of the church group ask what the homeless need -- often tents or shoes or blankets -- and try to provide it. They also offer to pray, and many of the homeless join in.

By the end of the summer, the mission had obtained a name -- Soul Food Ministries.

"Someone has to go to them and love them," said Justin Repp, pastor at Lifehouse West.


The correctional officer, who works at one of the three state prisons south of Hagerstown, asked that he not be identified for this story.

The recovering alcoholic, Daniel Prosser, used to be homeless. On Wednesday trips to the woods last winter, the church group often walked past the spot where he once slept.

Repp has a two-pronged mission.

"I want to help them with things that help them survive. I don't like when people go hungry, I don't like when people are cold," he said.

And then there's his less-tangible mission.

"Give them some dignity, treat them like human beings."

Venturing into the woods allows group members to begin a dialogue with those they are serving.

"It gives them the sense they're not these subhuman creatures that live out in the woods. They're human beings with dignity," Repp said.

Some of those who receive bag lunches and tents from the church have attended Sunday service there.

"Those spiritual connections are just as important as making sure someone's stomach is full," Repp said.

The homeless ministry began after one of his church members heard about a homeless man who died of exposure last winter. Church members wanted to do something to help, and "my role is to facilitate the call God places on people's lives," Repp said.

Cathy Ridenour, who's been ministering to the homeless with the Lifehouse West group for seven months, called it a "humbling experience."

On a Wednesday evening in September, Ridenour and five other church members chatted with, and gave bag lunches to, several of the men waiting to check in to the Hagerstown Rescue Mission for the night.

Food for the sack lunches was donated by church members. The Lifehouse West people talked with the men, and knew many by name. They asked one man about his recent hospital stay for a leg infection.

Ridenour and another Lifehouse West member, Carl Booker, said they believe most Hagerstown residents don't realize the extent of homelessness in Hagerstown.

"People just see them as bums, alcoholics," Booker said.

Some of the homeless aren't able to work because of disabilities, but need somewhere to lay their heads, Booker said.

"You think you got it rough at your house. See what they got. They got nothing," Ridenour said.

On this September day, the group is in the Mission parking lot when a man comes to them looking for help. He said he's from Pittsburgh, has stomach cancer and came to the area for a doctor's second opinion. He doesn't have the bus money to get back home, the man said. The Mission is full that evening, so there is nowhere for him to sleep, the man was told.

The man gets agitated. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and has a son serving in Afghanistan now, he said.

Where is his country for him when he needs it, he asked.

A Mission employee contacted the next day by The Herald-Mail said the man was able to spend the night because one of the transient homeless people who had a bed there didn't show up that evening.

The Lifehouse West members listen to his story, but can only wish they could offer him assistance. Two of the men talk to Mission officials, who said the Mission is at the capacity ordered by the fire marshal. There's no other shelter open this time of the year.

For instance, the REACH Cold Weather shelter is open only during cold-weather months. It is set to open Oct. 25 this year.

REACH's mission is to save lives, and people just aren't at as much risk when the weather is warm, said Jodie Stock, REACH's executive director.

Matthew Sargent, the Mission's men's ministry director, said up to 30 men can take part in the 13-month residential program. Another 30 transients can stay the night, he said. Those beds are filled on a first-come, first-served basis. Once a man lays claim to a bed, it's his for 30 days. Lately, the shelter has been running at capacity, he said Sept. 3.

"Every case is heartbreaking. We hate turning people away," Sargent said.

Repp admits that initially, the homeless might have looked on his group with a bit of suspicion, might have thought there were strings attached.

"As you work with building relationships with them, you make friends. And that's the cool part," he said.

For more information

Anyone wishing to assist Lifehouse West may call Carl Booker at 240-291-2648 or contact the church through its Web site at

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