Walking to her car on a brisk October evening, Rev. Kimberlynn Alexander, the pastor of St. Matthew’s UMC in Memphis, had an encounter that would dramatically alter the course of the church’s ministry.
St. Matthew United Methodist Church is a part of the Tennessee-Western KY Annual Conference.
While she was leaving for the night, she saw a silver Chevy parked beneath a nearly broken spotlight, its dim glow revealing the car’s front half in the deepening darkness. She approached the car, and realized that it was not empty; a woman and her children had come there to sleep.
“I asked if they were ok,” said Rev. Alexander. “The mother looked at me and said, ‘Please do not call the police–we have nowhere else to go.’ I told her to come back in the morning, but I never saw them again.”
Like Jacob at the Jabbok, Rev. Alexander wrestled with the implications of this encounter. The indelible memory of the unhoused mother and children desperate for a place to lay their heads, left a wound that could only be remedied through action.
“I would lie awake,” reflected Rev. Alexander, “and think about that family. I could, at any time, get something to eat; each night I have a place to sleep in peace. The fact that some people do not have these basic necessities–it just didn’t sit right with me. I knew we had to do something.”
The congregation had long desired a better way to utilize its community center, the “John Meeks Mission and Service Center,” a 501(c)(3) located on the church building’s upper floors that was initiated 20 years ago by then minister, Rev. John Meeks. With 130 beds in nine rooms, seven showers and toilets, a kitchen, and a workout room on the second floor, the center contained the necessary resources and space. According to the director of the center and St. Matthew’s lay leader, Terrence Ryans, the moment was ripe for the church to expand the building’s mission.
After several failed attempts to procure grants, St. Matthew’s UMC found a willing partner: the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA), a non-profit dedicated to serving vulnerable populations within Memphis.
MIFA also assisted the new initiative by providing referrals. Having previously worked with MIFA as a social worker, Terrence Ryans was able to expedite the process, providing the new ministry an accelerated start. “We [St. Matthew’s UMC] envisioned a transitional housing program,” reflected Ryans, “with the goal to support folks as they work towards stable housing. MIFA not only provides referrals, they also supply caseworkers who walk alongside the women and children staying in the John Meeks Center.”
With the funding secured, and the referral process established, St. Matthew’s UMC was ready to serve–but the 30-member inner-city church needed help providing enough clothes, bedding, and food to the residents.
As soon as the word got out, other churches within the TWK conference connection were quick to help, donating goods and giving their time to support the ministry in various ways. “We quickly realized,” said Ryans, “that this ministry was not only a way of serving vulnerable folks; it was also a way of building bridges with neighboring United Methodist churches.”
After visiting the John Meeks Center with Alexander and Ryans, Rev. Dr. French and St. Paul’s mission team made a plan to form an ongoing partnership with St. Matthew’s, one that began with a collective worship service and shared meal. Then, they collected non-perishables for St. Matthew’s food pantry, clothes for its clothing closet, and bedding for the shelter’s residents; they began cooking for and serving at the center’s evening dinners; they even helped pay the center’s utility bill. St. Paul’s preschool also held an art show in December as a fundraiser for the John Meeks Center, raising roughly $1,800.
“You cannot be a Christian without serving,” said Rev. Dr. French. “Although we are not an inner-city church, we can still be involved in reaching the ‘least of these’ by partnering in this way with a church that is directly in ministry–on the ground–with those struggling with poverty. That every generation represented at St. Paul can participate in this great work is a beautiful thing.”
With plans to expand this ministry into a year-long transitional housing project, as well as other ongoing community-centered service programs, St. Matthew’s UMC is powerfully embodying Christ’s call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless.
“We want to give all the glory to God,” said Ryans. “We prayed for God to show us how to be faithful, and we believe this ministry is God’s answer.”
excerpt from a story by Tyler Sprouse, TWK Communications Specialist
This story represents how United Methodist local churches through their Annual Conferences are living as Vital Congregations. A vital congregation is the body of Christ making and engaging disciples for the transformation of the world. Vital congregations are shaped by and witnessed through four focus areas: calling and shaping principled Christian leaders; creating and sustaining new places for new people; ministries with poor people and communities; and abundant health for all.