La Mesa United Methodist Church sees the homeless as part of the community it serves

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Every city in San Diego County has its share of homeless people living on its streets, La Mesa included. At La Mesa United Methodist Church, the screening of “Tony–the Movie” a few weeks ago provided an eye-opening, heart-wrenching first-hand look at what living on the streets is like, and how much work it is just to survive.

Every city in San Diego County has its share of homeless people living on its streets, La Mesa included. At La Mesa United Methodist Church, the screening of “Tony–the Movie” a few weeks ago provided an eye-opening, heart-wrenching first-hand look at what living on the streets is like, and how much work it is just to survive.

But La Mesa United Methodist Church was already well acquainted with homeless people trying to get by day by day. Pastor Elbert Kim helped to initiate the Fresh Start Saturday program in November two years ago. The program offers breakfast and showers for homeless people.

Because the church is located in the heart of downtown La Mesa with the trolley tracks across the street, LUMC has always had a large contingency of people in need come to the church requesting funds and food. The church collects offering on the first Sunday of each month specifically to meet the needs of those who come to the church asking for help. The church also gives out lunch bags during the week. Those two ways of ministering to the homeless preceded Pastor Kim’s arrival.

However, Kim wanted LUMC to move away from merely giving out charitable handouts to engaging in real relationship by getting to know the people that it serves.  Each year the church hosts a Christmas Dinner where we invite the community to come and share a meal together. 

The Fresh Start ministry is an extension of that ministry of not just serving food but eating together. 

“Our main purpose of the ministry was to break the stigma of interacting with the homeless. Therefore, rather than just serve the food, we set up round tables where we invited our church members to sit and have breakfast with our homeless guests.  It was a way to ‘break bread together,’” explained Kim.

Today, the Fresh Start ministry has evolved. Volunteers from a local cosmetology school give haircuts, representatives from Cal-Fresh help sign-up for food assistance, nurses provide Hepatitis vaccinations and health checks, and semi-new clothes are available from the local thrift store. 

But at the heart of the ministry is still getting everyone to sit at a table and share a meal, both volunteers and homeless guests alike.

Gene Carpenter, a member of LUMC, is currently leading the Fresh Start. He said that the church is approaching its busiest outreach time to the homeless during November and December. As leader of the group of volunteers, he makes sure they have what they need to give the best possible experience with focus on taking the time to spend one-on-one time with guests. “So that we can establish something that isn’t initially easy to get: trust.

“One quickly learns that tit isn’t the food or shower that is the most valued asset we offer. It’s the opportunity to sit down with another person and establish a genuine and mindful face-to-face meaningful conversation with someone that cares,” Carpenter said.

Bonnie Baranoff, a founding member of La Mesa Conversations, agrees. She volunteers often with Fresh Start Saturday.

“Speaking from a volunteer standpoint, I see it as an opportunity for me to listen, learn and do what I can to help a fellow human being in that moment. 

“I find there are a lot of people out there willing to complain about the issue–especially behind the veil of social media, e.g. Nextdoor–but they don’t seem to be on the ready to do anything proactive about the issue, which includes learning more,” Baranoff said.

Pastor Kim also had prior experience in helping the homeless. Before he came to La Mesa First United in July 2015, he had been associate pastor at First United Methodist Church. That church—along with La Mesa United Methodist—participates in the Interfaith Shelter Network. 

The Interfaith Shelter Network provides temporary shelter during the colder months of the year.  

One of the members of LUMC members came out of the shelter program. Due to difficult life circumstances, he found himself homeless with a place to stay. After sleeping outdoors at parks, he was determined to get himself re-established. So he entered the shelter program, found a job and saved up during the six months. He now has his own apartment and works full time. 

“He often helps with our Fresh Start program and gives testimonies to encourage others,” Kim said.

There is no one-way of helping the homeless, Kim explained. Some people are comfortable giving out money, while others hesitate to do so. When the homeless approach Pastor Kim, he asks them what they really need. Most often, they are hungry. Rather than simply give them money, Kin walks with them to purchase the meal for them.

“I once had a guy who said he just needed some money to have a beer. So I walked with him to a store, got two cans of beer and sat with him. I listened to him as he told me his story of what he did before being on the streets, the various tours he served in the military, and what he does now to get by.  

“When we were done, he asked why I was being so nice to him. And I said, “It’s because we all need a break,”” Kim said.

Kim says that the best thing to give our homeless friends is respect and a sense of dignity.  

“They are people, like you and me. Some are down on their luck and need a little boost; others choose to live on the street. Either way, I pray for them and see them as a child of God,” he said.

For more information on the Fresh Start Saturday program at LUMC, go to http://www.lamesaumc.com. 

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