Homeless people, nursing home residents, and prison inmates are just some of Tenth Presbyterian Church’s needy neighbors in Center City Philadelphia. For almost thirty years, Tenth members have come alongside, established relationships with, and offered hope to these and others who reside nearby. But our largest outreaches are ministries of hospitality to homeless people who live in and around Tenth’s neighborhood.
Because we serve the homeless, many people call and ask if they can help at our “soup kitchen.” I have to explain that we are not a soup kitchen but a Christian ministry of hope and hospitality. The monthly community dinner is an alternative to the impersonal soup kitchen. It is a banquet for up to 120 of our poor and homeless neighbors. The ministry consists of our guests worshiping and then dining with church members whose ministry is to sit, eat, and talk—practicing hospitality, encouraging conversation, and welcoming our guests.
The dinners encourage friendship evangelism. Volunteer staff who work or reside near Tenth have frequent contact with their dinner guests who frequent the parks and streets nearby. Because of the introductions made at the dinners, relationships with our guests continue along with extended ministry and friendships.
We make Christ real, make our church more credible to our neighbors, and make an impact on people’s lives inside and outside our congregations.
The dinners provide all kinds of opportunities to serve. Families with children set up tables and chairs and put out tableware. Food and drinks are served restaurant-style by local youth groups, allowing the teens to interact with those whom they serve. Our guests sense that something is different about our church and this ministry, and they return again and again.
While the dinners are the first point of contact, two weekly Bible studies provide longer-term help. The studies’ volunteer staff seek to rebuild our neighbors’ lives through long-term Christian relationships, referrals to Christ-centered addiction recovery programs, and restructuring of lives through Christian discipleship.
Consider the example of Jimmy and Wilma. Jimmy used drugs for thirty-five years. He sought our help but independently entered one secular recovery program after another. His pattern was to stay a month or two, leave, and go back into his addiction. He needed help, but he wanted to be in control of his life. Two incidents showed how out of control his life really was. He nearly lost his toes to frostbite sleeping in his car one winter. Then, he had a near-death experience in a crack house when another addict stabbed him in the chest. These episodes brought him to the realization of his true condition. He was in trouble. He eventually surrendered to the truth and returned to ask us for help. His repentant spirit encouraged us to do everything we could to help. Jimmy entered a long-term Christ-centered recovery program, came to saving faith in Jesus Christ, and reconciled with his family. He moved out of state to be close to them and became a member of a good Bible-believing church.
Wilma benefited from being a part of our ministry. She’d done time in prison for murder. After serving her sentence, she became homeless and addicted on the streets of Philadelphia. She attended our Bible study regularly but only wanted to feed on our physical food, not our spiritual food. She refused any help to deal with her addiction and lifestyle. Seven years later, she was arrested for stealing and was incarcerated once again. This time, she acknowledged her brokenness and asked us for help. Clean and sober, she was spiritually hungry, requested a Bible, and fed on it, and God transformed her life for all eternity. We corresponded and spoke during her incarceration. Years later, when she was paroled, she returned to Philadelphia and became a member of a church with good Bible teaching.
The strengths of this ministry are that people coming out of addictive lifestyles are being redeemed and discipled. Many become members of Tenth and other churches. Once again, the ministry demonstrates the transforming power of Jesus Christ to “set the captives free” from addictions to drugs and has a redemptive influence on families and neighborhoods. We make Christ real, make our church more credible to our neighbors, and make an impact on people’s lives inside and outside Tenth.
“Better is a dinner with herbs where love is than a fattened ox [banquet] and hatred with it.” That is what Proverbs 15:16 says about hospitality. At Tenth’s community dinners, we provide the meal and the love for our homeless guests. Our hospitality offers an elaborate dinner and a commitment to provide a neighborly welcome, a relationship, and the good news of Jesus Christ to all who come.
Dr. David S. Apple is director of mercy ministries at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, where he has served since 1988. He is author of Not a Soup Kitchen and Neighborology: Practicing Compassion as a Way of Life.