By Stan Friedman
SPOKANE, WA (June 6, 2013) – After watching a video on global poverty during their worship service, attendees at First Covenant Church spontaneously decided to take up an offering through which they would purchase items through the Covenant Cares Catalog.
As the congregation sang “How Great is Our God” at the end of the service, the people came forward and dropped their contributions in the offering basket as an act of gratitude for all they have, says Pastor Rob Bryceson.
“They just kept coming and coming,” Bryceson says. “I don’t think a single person remained in their seat.”
When they were done, the people had contributed $300, an incredible sum for a congregation whose weekly offering rarely reaches $400. Some $200 of the special collection was donated in denominations of $10 or less.
Another $43 was in quarters – those had been donated by the many homeless people who regularly attend the church.
“I’ve got to tell you that you have never really understood the story of the widow’s mite, which Jesus told in Mark 12, until you’ve seen ragged homeless people come forward in the clothes they’ve been camping in all week to drop a few coins in a box to help an African family.
The church spent $100 to construct wells to provide clean water in Sudan, $125 for farming tools and plants for a family, and $75 for a solar panel that will provide electricity at a clinic in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Roughly one-third of the 90 attendees at First Covenant are homeless people who have found a spiritual home at the church, Bryceson says.
The director of the Union Gospel Mission says First Covenant is one of only three churches in the area that the people he serves will readily attend. The homeless know they will be welcomed.
“They consider it their church,” Bryceson says, adding, “We try to avoid us-them language. People are community together.”
The area homeless show respect for the church, Bryceson says. In recent years, they have made sure there are no beer cans or needles on the property.
The church had considered closing as long ago as 1972. When Bryceson arrived in 2009, only a handful of families were actively involved. The congregation wanted to sell and move, but could not find a suitable buyer for the building, which was constructed in 1905.
Growing the church remains a daunting prospect. Located within just blocks of the church are a federal corrections work-release facility, a halfway house, several missions, and a mental health center. Most of the neighbors are homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes, and those who are seriously mentally ill.
The ministry to the homeless began in 2009, when Bryceson’s wife, Tonia, baked a pan of cornbread and made a pot of chili. Rob went through the alleys and streets, inviting people to a free dinner and to watch football. The first night, 35 came. Soon, 150 came.
Some of the guests show up drunk or stoned at the dinners or church services, but are allowed to attend as long as they behave. At times the odor associated with bodies that have not bathed for weeks can be difficult, but the church at large – as well as First Covenant – is called to welcome them, Bryceson emphasizes.
Throughout the year, the church hosts about 150 people for meals on Sundays other than the first Sunday of each month. Most of the $300 it takes to provide the meals is raised from the outside, Bryceson says.
People who don’t go to First Covenant often serve the meals. Click here to read a story on how the homeless attendees responded to the death of one server who died in a military plane crash.
The general ministry to the homeless operates under the name of Street Wise. The church budget is aided by a $10,000 contract from the city of Spokane to open its doors as a warming shelter when the temperature drops to 17 degrees or below.
National and conference ministries have provided money that has enabled the church to remodel its building and provide assistance with operations, but Bryceson says becoming self-sustaining will be difficult.
The church is in the process of obtaining nonprofit status for Street Wise. The status would enable it to obtain more funds from outside groups.