Street Ministry Shares the Unconditional Love of Jesus

By Brett Hetherington*

Every Thursday a group from Dueber United Methodist Church (Tuscarawas District) gathers together behind the Canton Motor Inn. Depending on the weather, they may bring with them a grill to cook hot dogs, bins with clothes to give away, hot soup, donuts or more. This area of Canton has a reputation for being one of the worst parts of Canton, and the only reason there are two vacant lots behind the Motor Inn for the church’s outreach ministry is because the houses that once stood there were razed in an effort to eliminate drugs and prostitution from the area. But drugs continue to run rampant, prostitution can still be found, and the city’s homeless and poor populations still exist.

For longer than many can remember, the group from Dueber UMC has ministered in this same spot every Thursday night, regardless of the weather. The outreach effort began as a group of young people hauling whatever food and goods they could on their bicycles. The group received permission from the hotel to set up each week, and to this day you will find a small crowd sharing food, clothing, and a listening ear with those in the neighborhood who need care.

I spent a couple of different evenings with the men and women from Dueber who give up their Thursday evenings, many of them each and every week. Often during the summer months when the weather is more welcoming you will find a grill set up, cooking hot dogs to give away alongside the chips, water, donuts and other assorted goods. In the winter hot soup is the order of the evening, made fresh by members of the church. A gentleman named Tom from the church shared that in the past police officers have stepped in to assist on some evenings and they have even seen the mayor spend an evening serving along with the church.

This is not the only way that Dueber UMC reaches out to the people trapped in this cycle of homelessness, drugs or prostitution. Rev. Jonathan George points to the church’s Celebrate Recovery program, which is a partnership with the Wilson Hall men’s residential treatment facility that serves adult males who need inpatient treatment for an alcohol, benzodiazepine, cocaine, meth, opiate, or prescription drug addiction.

“Every week we provide transportation to and from Wilson Hall to participate in our Celebrate Recovery program here at the church,” George said before sharing that the church has been able to assist in enrolling at Wilson Hall some of the men who wrestled with drug addiction that they have ministered to behind the Canton Motor Inn.

The church also hosts an Alpha series at Wilson Hall. Alpha is an 11-week series of sessions exploring the Christian faith, built around asking and answering tough questions about what it means to follow Christ. Between Alpha and the Celebrate Recovery ministry, the church has built a strong relationship with many of the men they have met on the streets of Canton.

“Sometimes the men coming from Wilson Hall even join us in the street ministry on Thursday nights” says George.

Church members have witnessed many lives changed through their ministry efforts. But what do those being cared for say?

In speaking with the group who came out I was able to learn that the one common thread running through each person that keeps them coming back week after week, despite their circumstance, is community. One woman is waiting for her significant other to be released from jail, while another is working to build a support group for parents who have had their children removed from the home without the proper authorities being involved. One young man will be graduating high school this year and needs encouragement. There is also a young man named Andrew, who I spoke with at length, who has a healthy imagination, a possible mental health disorder, and a loving heart.

“I come here every week because I know everyone here. I like to talk to the people and try to help,” he said.

Though he does not express it explicitly, he comes for the same reason that all of the people who are there come – seeking out a community that is loving and free of judgment – a community offered by the people of Dueber UMC.

George shared with me that some of the individuals whom members have met on Thursday evenings have later become involved in the life of the church.

“Sometimes we see people join Bible Studies, or even on a Sunday morning. And we are sometimes able to help men get off drugs and into Wilson Hall and walk alongside them through the process,” he said.

The church is careful in its service. The area in which it has been serving is no stranger to violence. Drugs are very prevalent despite the efforts of the city, and a quick look at police reports show a massive amount of reported crimes ranging from assault to prostitution over the past year. Volunteers are required to be at least 16 years old to help, and on Thursday evenings there is a more active police presence because the church is present. Each evening begins in prayer and finishes the same way. It is not uncommon to see someone who has come out for a meal or to pick up a new pair of jeans to join in with this closing prayer. On my second night joining in, one of the men who came late and nearly missed us joined in and the look of relief at being able to be a small part of this community spoke volumes.

Some evenings there is a steady stream of people, sometimes there are people waiting for the church van to arrive. Some nights the weather keeps everyone away, and other nights there is a large crowd that shows up at one time. But through all this, rain or shine, heat or snow, there are people from Dueber United Methodist Church who offer up their time – and often their comfort – to serve as the hands and feet of Jesus to the people that many have written off.

If you have a story of how God is using your local church to transform the community, please contact us at eoccommunications@eocumc.com. The East Ohio Conference Communications team wants to tell your story.

*Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.