RICHMOND — Home is where your mailbox is and for some homeless residents in Richmond’s historic Oregon Hill neighborhood, that’s now Pine Street Baptist Church.
The recent addition of 50 lockers and 25 mailboxes is about more than a safe place for the homeless to keep belongings and a mailbox with their name on it, said Jennifer Turner, director of the Oregon Hill Baptist Center. It may be the first step in transitioning to a more stable lifestyle.
For more than 200 years, Oregon Hill has been a working-class neighborhood, overlooking the James River in a wedge between downtown and the city’s iconic Hollywood Cemetery. The expansion of Virginia Commonwealth University since the 1970s has increased its student population.
The alternative folk rock band Cowboy Junkies described the neighborhood in a 1992 song : “A river to the south to wash away all sins, a college to the east of us to learn where sin begins, a graveyard to the west of it all which I may soon be lyin’ in.”
The Oregon Hill Baptist Center, a ministry of the Richmond Baptist Association, has been located at
Pine Street Baptist Church since 1974. The 160-year-old church works closely with the center and volunteers from RBA churches to provide inner-city ministry.
“Over the past couple of years, Pine Street Baptist Church entered a ‘Pursuing Missional Faithfulness’ process to help the church identify who we are in light of where we are, and the theme of hospitality continued to rise up in our gatherings,” said pastor Philip Turner, Jennifer’s husband.
“The homeless population around our church has increased — along with the number of students attending Virginia Commonwealth University,” he said. “The church felt that a ministry of hospitality to both the students and homeless needed to be part of our mission.”
Funding for the locker ministry followed the closure of SynerGeo, a non-profit organization located across from the church that provided ministry to neighborhood children through the arts, education and cultural awareness.
“With a declining number of children, their ministry was coming to an end and they wanted to pass their assets to other organizations serving this community,” said Jennifer.
Pine Street Baptist Church received funds to supplement its community meals for the homeless, as well as college students, and begin a locker ministry for the homeless.
“While there are other organizations and agencies that allow the homeless to use their address to receive mail, Pine Street Baptist is the first church in this area that I am aware of that offers a locker ministry,” said Jennifer. “The large lockers are for people to store their belongings — a change of clothes or backpacks that frequently get stolen on the street. The small lockers are for mail and the storage of important documents.”
The Oregon Hill Baptist Center assists the homeless in obtaining birth certificates, ID cards and other documents required to apply for jobs, get into local shelters and receive assistance.
“Many times these documents tend to get wet or lost or worn when a person is outside in the elements, so the lockers provide a safe place to keep these,” said Jennifer.
The missions committee at Pine Street Baptist coordinated the purchase of the lockers and set regulations for their use. Those receiving a locker or mailbox are registered and assigned a space. Jennifer said as word spreads she anticipates all lockers will be taken and there will be a waiting list.
“Every Monday and Thursday between 10 a.m. and noon, they can drop by to pick up their mail and have access to the lockers,” she said. A meal is served to about 55 to 60 homeless people each Thursday with the help of RBA volunteers.
For three months each summer Pine Street Baptist and the Oregon Hill Center serve as an intake site for CARITAS, a provider of emergency shelter for the homeless in Richmond. Volunteers host the homeless in the afternoons while they wait for vans to transport them to local churches providing shelter that evening.
Twice a month from May through October, Pine Street Baptist offers outdoor movies in nearby Pleasants Park for the Oregon Hill community.
“At our most recent movie night I found myself looking out at the people who had gathered for the feature presentation,” said Philip. “It was quite a diverse gathering and a great number of those attending were our homeless neighbors. They enjoy the food and fellowship and several always arrive early to help us set up.
“At our last gathering one of the men shared with me his gratitude for the movie and the food, but more so just for an opportunity for a few hours to forget that he lived on the streets,” he said.
The congregation takes its prayer meeting to the park one Wednesday night each year. There is a cookout and the homeless join members for prayer and worship.
A community meal is served on the Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving. “We started five years ago serving a Thanksgiving meal to seven homeless people,” Jennifer said. “Last Thanksgiving it had grown to 60 or more folks.”
“The ministry of hospitality is vital to the health and life of the local church,” said Philip. “If it is seen as a place where persons can discover a sense of belonging, then people will be drawn to it.”
“We recently installed a lamp post in the front yard of the church,” he added. “Each night the light is on for people to see. It was placed there as a symbol for others and as a reminder to ourselves that all are welcome at Pine Street Baptist Church. We want to be that place where people can feel at home. For when you feel you belong, then there’s no place like home.”
Barbara Francis ([email protected]) is on the staff of the Religious Herald.