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Small Utah church welcomes homeless, loves diversity


Down the street from First United Methodist Church is the majestic Wasatch Range. Tall glass and steel office towers surround the little church just blocks away from the massive headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints.

It is a small church with a big heart.

On Sunday mornings, grace smells like coffee brewing and eggs cooking as the church opens its cozy basement kitchen and fellowship hall to homeless men and women looking for a warm breakfast and genuine welcome.

Ginny Hjalmarson, known as "mom," keeps everything flowing behind the counter. Her husband Larry is busy setting up the tables and greeting the men, women and occasional dog coming inside. Other church members are stirring eggs and frying meat for today's offering of French toast, scrambled eggs and sausage.

Church volunteers, Jim Ecker and Ginny Hjalmarson prepare and serve French toast during the Sunday Fellowship Breakfast at First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City.

When the Rev. Elizabeth McVicker, pastor of First United Methodist Church, arrives the group gathers around the diminutive woman and bow their heads as she prays: "Loving God, we are so grateful to know we are your children. Show your spirit to us this morning as we taste and touch love over this breakfast."

The people are just as hungry for her words as for food.

"Pastor Elizabeth talks to them, prays with them. They think of her as their pastor. They don't like it if she can't make it and I have to stand up and do the blessing," laughs Larry Hjalmarson.

The fellowship breakfast was started about three years ago, said Larry Hjalmarson. It was inspired by a homeless man named Gilbert, who walked to the church from the rescue mission every Sunday. He became a member of the church, sang in the choir and put a new face on who the congregation thought the homeless were.

 "He wasn't scary, he was just homeless," Larry Hjalmarson said. Gilbert asked him and a few other church members to consider offering a breakfast for people like himself who walked several long blocks to come to church.

Gilbert told the church members he was losing weight and expending more calories than he was taking in and needed more than a platter of cookies at fellowship time. That opened a door for the church to start a regular homeless ministry that now feeds from 50 to 70 people inside their doors on Sundays.

These days, Gilbert is no longer homeless, but the ministry continues to fill a vital need. Everyone is invited to the 10 a.m. church service but it is not a requirement. Some have joined and become regular members of the congregation. Some stay homeless, while still others like Brett Johnson become self-sufficient.

The pastor believes First Church is about love and welcome. "We don't offer any social services, housing, they can get that somewhere else," McVicker said. "What we can offer is community."

"The thing that struck me was diversity, there were Africans, Pacific Islanders, just about every ethnicity you could imagine, and it just occurred to me, this must be what the kingdom of God is like in heaven. Been coming ever since."

Kathy L. Gilbert, multimedia reporter, UMNS

One of seven apportioned giving opportunities of The United Methodist Church, the World Service Fund is the financial lifeline to a long list of Christian mission and ministry throughout the denomination. Through the Four Areas of Focus churches are Engaging in ministry with the poor with their communities in ways that are transformative.

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