By Sharon Mager, BCM/D Correspondent
BALTIMORE—On a cool September morning about 70 men, most homeless, trudged through pouring rain to Riverside Church at 7 a.m. to get some hard-boiled eggs, oatmeal, toast and bagels, coffee and juice.
“Not too many today. We normally run about 100. The rain kept them away,” John Yewell says using a walker to head to the back of the church. Yewell has coordinated the church’s weekly feeding ministry for 14 years.
The 82-year-old church member picks up co-director Ron Edwards, who has helped with the ministry for a decade, and the men arrive at the church in the dark, around 3:30 a.m. every Sunday to set-up. Riverside members Gene Desanetis arrives at 5 a.m. to handle the “toast room” and Leon Nellenback and Will and Florence Right come early to help with set-up and to serve. Mark Goodrich handles the lunch room. Lake Shore Church member, Jamie Wilson, who grew up at Riverside Church, comes to help whenever she can.
The men are appreciative. “This helps. There’s no place like this open on Sundays. People come from all over Baltimore,” a tall man named Clinton says. “I work construction—skilled labor, but with this economy, well, you know,” he said. He helps stack chairs and clean tables when the breakfast is over. Many of the men pitch in to help.
Mark, a soft spoken man with a beard that is tinged with gray also stacks chairs. He’s a certified floor technician but going through a rough period. Mark is also a veteran. “I served in the Marines. Semper Fi!” he says with a sad smile. He says Perry Point VA Medical Center is trying to help him find housing.
The numbers swell on the last Sunday of the month as people run out of their social service provisions. Riverside members serve a big breakfast that day with sausages, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, and fruit cocktail. Volunteers from Lake Shore Church and Solley United Methodist come to help.
In a room near the entrance, volunteer Mark Goodrich stands ready to hand the men bag lunches with ham sandwiches, chips, soda and desserts as they head out the door, many with cheap clear plastic ponchos to try to stay dry.
Former pastor Will Kopp and his wife, Carol, began the ministry in 1996. They began taking donuts and coffee to homeless men gathered in Riverside Park, across the street from the church. When it got cold, they moved indoors and began giving out bag lunches. About a dozen men began to show up weekly. That doubled and the church was nervous, not sure if they could handle it, but they did and the numbers soared. They’ve stayed at a weekly average of 100.
Kopp left and former Riverside pastor Ward Holland came out of retirement to minister again at the church. The feeding ministry didn’t miss a beat. John Yewell says the way the church handles the ministry hasn’t changed. Neither do the numbers—only the faces.
The church funds the ministry through donations. During the week, Edwards and Yewell buy the food and pack the lunches. They can only buy enough supplies for one, maybe two at a time because they’re limited on storage space.
Yewell says he’s committed to and loves this ministry. He’s had opportunities to move away, but says he just can’t leave.
The church doesn’t force the men to go to a church service before eating. The men know they’re welcome to stay. The church loves the men by providing them food. He looks at the men standing around on the front porch talking and says, “They’re not all homeless, but they’re all hungry.”