One year ago, our new church was just starting to form and trying to flesh out our identity. We spent the first seven months “doing church” in a large classroom on the local university campus, where we focused on cultivating a safe space for each other to express our church hurts, trauma, aspirations and dreams.
We had a firm conviction we were to be “the presence of Jesus in the world today,” and we were striving to do that, but something tangible was missing.
During the summer of 2022, we learned of rental space available in the downtown area of our small city, Rolla, Mo. (population 20,000). The available space formerly was home to a church that closed a few months earlier, but the basement of the property also was home to The Rolla Mission, a homeless shelter and case management center birthed by the former congregation as a laundromat for the unhoused in 2014. For rent was a sanctuary space and three classrooms on the ground floor — perfect for our budding congregation.
A “homeless” church seemed a natural fit to come alongside a homeless shelter.
What was more appealing than the space was the opportunity to be in such close proximity to the amazing work of The Rolla Mission. Already serving on the board of the shelter, I was aware of the transformation that occurred every day in the lives of the patrons there.
In just a few years, the shelter grew to house up to 43 people a day, offering three meals, case management, self-improvement classes and overnight accommodations. To bring our congregation alongside this ministry to the marginalized was a very tangible and practical way for us to live in and to walk out the love of Jesus.
“We purposefully come dressed in casual clothes so everyone feels at home.”
Our first Sunday worship gathering occurred Sept. 4, 2022. Every week, the unhoused of our community sing, pray and study the Bible alongside some of the most prominent members of our local community. We purposefully come dressed in casual clothes so everyone feels at home. We intentionally worship through a variety of secular and sacred music. There is no membership process or exclusion of any kind (no guest recognition, passing of the offering plates or invitation). All are welcome at the Communion table and at every other table (game nights, activities, parties, Bible studies). We strive to be a welcoming space for everyone.
Sharing space with the shelter has not just given us an opportunity to help others, it has transformed our church. Here are a few of the lessons that continue to resonate in our church community:
We tend to take our blessings for granted. Sometimes we hear and tend to believe broad and oversimplified stereotypes about the homeless population. Uninformed speculation abounds in our community and across the country as to why people are homeless and their assumed unwillingness to do what is necessary to succeed in life.
However, through spending time at the Mission, we are learning while there are some who are unmotivated and unwilling to move out of homelessness, many are there as a result of adverse circumstances beyond their control and need assistance to get back to a productive state in society. They have experienced a different reality than many of us, and we likely would be where they are if we were not so blessed.
All human beings are beautiful people and of great worth. From the staff to the volunteers at the shelter, I have witnessed tremendous sacrifice and heartfelt concern for those on the fringes. Amid the ever-changing circumstances of the patrons of The Rolla Mission, I have seen firsthand a brother/sisterhood of support, encouragement and compassion.
“In this space, they are not homeless, they are beloved.”
They weep with each other and rejoice with each other. For example, every month they have an open mic karaoke night, where patrons, volunteers and staff perform some of their favorite songs, read poetry and tell jokes. No one is a professional, but there is a great vibe in the room as they cheer for each other. In this space, they are not homeless, they are beloved; and it is beautiful!
Every person has a story. As I sit beside my friends who are working toward writing new chapters in their lives, I hear the stories of the previous pages. Wow! They have such amazing stories.
Full of valleys of tremendous hardship and mountaintops of great triumph, these stories are a window into their lives, their families and even our society. My unhoused friends are sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers; they are people just like you and me. Their stories need to be told, and many of them are willing to share if others will see them, sit with them and value them.
Redemption is more about today than the afterlife. In all honesty, I lack full comprehension of what the afterlife will be like for saints and sinners. The Bible gives some emotive imagery for sure, but the specifics of the reality are beyond my finite grasp. I think this is intentional.
The Bible seems much more concerned about us bringing heaven to earth than about us getting to heaven. If that is even somewhat true, then it means we need to bring the values of God and the character of Jesus into our everyday lives in the brief moments we have on this planet.
Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, there is a direct correlation between one’s devotion to God and compassion for the poor, needy and outcast. We are to embody the divine in our interactions with others, and that especially includes those deemed “least” in our neighborhoods.
Life in the shadows is a dark and scary place. Imagine having no family around to care about you, no job or prospect for employment, no roof overhead in the extreme cold, no medical insurance when you are sick, no certainty about the future. It is a rational fear to be anxious in such dire circumstances.
Yet I could tell you dozens of stories about people who came to The Rolla Mission and found hope. I’ve been privileged to sit with them on the curb, chat with them in the commons and pray with them at some of their darkest moments. I’ve seen the Light of the World shine into the darkest corners and illuminate a path of recovery, freedom and newness that is nothing short of miraculous.
True love is active and relational. I’ve lived too many years saying I love everyone from the sidelines — or even the pulpit. I no longer believe telling someone you love them is enough. The church must roll up our sleeves and decide to get dirty.
“I no longer believe telling someone you love them is enough. The church must roll up our sleeves and decide to get dirty.”
Jesus touched people who the religious said were unclean. He ate meals with the socially outcast; he sought after, found and valued the people others said were worthless dregs of society.
The true love Jesus modeled does not say: “Come, join us at church so we can clean you up and make you like us.” Rather the love of Jesus is “pitching a tent” in the midst of the broken places of the world and actively showing the compassionate kindness of God to others right where they are.
In 2022, The Rolla Mission reported aiding 178 individuals in getting proper identification, 116 homeless people moved into housing, 212 people through case management, 14,427 overnight sleep accommodations, 18,286 loads of laundry furnished, 43,832 plates of food served, and 63,875 volunteer hours to help make all this happen.
Our church gets to be a part of making this happen. Individuals from our community of faith interact with patrons, host at the entrance, cook meals, make repairs, tutor in GED classes, process food donations, teach yoga, provide counseling and life-coaching, lead Bible studies, and help provide many other events. We work in tandem with the staff and other community volunteers to support their goals and the vision “to inspire futures for those most vulnerable in our community by providing an environment of support through relationships, resources and a sense of belonging.”
“We prioritize treating people right over always being right.”
CrossRoads is a young church of imperfect people. We get things wrong, and we fall short. However, we prioritize treating people right over always being right.
There are a lot of things we do not know or have not figured out, but we find Jesus’ call to “love God” and to “love others” to be straightforward. By doing church alongside The Rolla Mission, we believe we are raising better kids and becoming better people. We believe we are sharing a refreshing cup of cold water to those our society says are of little importance. We believe through doing life together we are experiencing the kingdom of God coming to earth in a way that mirrors heaven.
Perhaps we are the lost sheep when we wander off thinking we know better than the Good Shepherd. Thankfully, he is patient with us, pursues us, retrieves us and returns us to the fold of his eclectic sheep. His flock includes us all, not the least of which are the unhoused, the vulnerable and the needy.
Yet, it is oftentimes those who are without who are perceptive enough to realize the value of doing life together rather than independently. I’m thankful they let me, a weary stray, back into the beauty of community and that we get to journey again around the feet of a Savior. It is heavenly.
Patrick Wilson has served as a pastor for 25 years in Dallas and Austin, Texas, and most recently in in Rolla, Mo., where he now leads a new community of faith, CrossRoads. He is a graduate of Baylor University, earned two master’s degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Logsdon Seminary.