Each Thursday morning, Vintage Church in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, opens its doors and serves breakfast, a bagged lunch, and a “sermonette.” The breakfast began as a way for the church to serve those who slept on their front porch. Many in Raleigh’s homeless community live and sleep on the city blocks surrounding Vintage.
“The initial desire to start this ministry was so that people in the city would feel seen and loved,” says Lauren Clark, mission and ministries director at Vintage Church.
Since 2017, homelessness has risen across America by six percent, with an estimated total of more than 580,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in 2022. In the years prior to 2017, homelessness was decreasing across the country, falling by 17 percent between 2007 and 2016. What’s changed? Many experts point to the opioid crisis, severe mental health issues, and skyrocketing housing costs, especially in coastal cities.
Raleigh is one of many cities in the U.S. that has seen its own homelessness crisis grow. Since 2019, the number of people experiencing homelessness has risen 58 percent, from 970 in 2019 to 1,534 in 2022. Of those, 75 percent are unsheltered, meaning they are neither in a shelter nor in transitional housing. Much of the homeless population resides in or near downtown Raleigh, where many of the shelters and resource centers are located. And a number of local churches in downtown Raleigh have turned toward this most pressing need in their community.
Edenton Street United Methodist Church and Vintage Church, both located on opposite ends of downtown, have made serving and coming alongside the homeless a core part of their work in their communities. Nearby, other churches in downtown Raleigh, like Church on Morgan, open up their front porches and stoops at night, providing a dry and sheltered space to sleep for those who need it.
CRITICAL CARE, CRITICAL PARTNERSHIPS
Homelessness is certainly not a new issue, though the conversation around homelessness has shifted throughout the last 150 years, evolving from orphan and widow care in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to getting and keeping families off the street in the mid- to late-20th century, to today’s care of mostly individuals rather than families experiencing homelessness due to a number of factors including drug use, mental illness, or lack of affordable housing. For centuries, churches have been an important part of addressing this need nationwide.
Nonprofit partnerships are a crucial way churches can support those in their community in crisis. Kris Thompson, the CEO of Calvary Women’s Services, a DC-based nonprofit that provides housing and support services to women experiencing homelessness and domestic violence, sees churches and other faith-based organizations as vital partners in this needed and necessary work. Calvary was also founded within a local church.
Edenton Street in Raleigh is one of those churches that has long been prioritizing the homeless people in its city. In 1898, Edenton Street and other local Methodist churches came together to create what’s now called the Methodist Home for Children, in order to provide housing and care for children who lacked it. The life of Edenton Street thus far has brought about a few nonprofits that are still incredibly active in serving those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness in the Raleigh area. Urban Ministries, which provides basic needs like food, nutrition, health care, and shelter to those in crisis, was founded in 1981 with the help of Edenton Street and other downtown congregations. In 2010, two members at Edenton Street launched the Green Chair Project, which provides essential furnishings to those facing homelessness or sudden crises.
“We’ve had such a history of being a downtown church, and being in relationship and coming alongside our neighbors who find themselves without a home,” says Renae Newmiller, director of local and global engagement at Edenton Street United Methodist Church.
Now, much of Edenton Street’s work focuses on partnering with the many local nonprofits that serve and advocate for those who are homeless or at risk of becoming so. “Because Raleigh is fortunate to have so many amazing nonprofits that do incredible work in providing shelters, food and other resources for people in crisis, we do a lot of our work in partnership with them,” says Newmiller.
Similarly, Vintage Church, located a little less than a mile southeast from Edenton Street, sees partnering with nonprofits as a crucial way to serve their neighbors. They maintain a close relationship with Raleigh Rescue Mission, a resource and rehabilitation center located a block away. Vintage works to create community ties, like inviting sheltered families to their vacation Bible school, holding worship services with them, and sharing space as needed. Unfortunately the joint worship services are currently on pause due to the pandemic’s long-term effects on the nonprofit.
“Churches are one of the critical components in addressing issues like homelessness — both in their partnership with nonprofit organizations, but also in their own visibility and living out of social justice issues,” says Thompson.
Additionally, the work churches can do through nonprofits allows for multiple layers of relational connection.
“Churches and religious communities often engage in multiple ways,” says Thompson. “So it’s both the congregation that’s involved, but then also the individuals in the congregation who make connections. And that’s really so critical to ensuring that nonprofits like ours can meet the needs of women in our community.”
And so, care for those experiencing homelessness can extend farther than meeting physical needs — it can also mean providing for relational and spiritual needs as well. Vintage Church has also sought to ensure those experiencing homelessness feel like they have a home at their church.
“[Vintage] is located in the heart of the city. We’re in front of Moore Square, a park where there are a ton of people experiencing homelessness,” says Clark. “And we don’t want to be this big, intimidating church on the corner — instead, we want people to know that they’re welcome here.”
DRAWING CLOSE TO COMMUNITY
It would be easy for both these churches to see homelessness as an issue to address only from afar — perhaps an annual donation to larger nonprofit once a year, and nothing more. But instead, Edenton Street and Vintage see their work serving and coming alongside those in crisis as a fundamental part of their church’s ministries. Edenton Street’s long history of advocacy and fostering nonprofit work within its community has left an indelible mark on downtown Raleigh.
And the Vintage congregation’s desire to ensure those experiencing homelessness (especially those “right in our front yard,” says Clark) feel like they have a home at Vintage helps fight against any inclination that those with less are any less deserving of God’s church and community, and that it is right to bring these people in, rather than minister to them from far away.
Though some service initiatives have had to stop over the years due to health or safety concerns, new ones have sprung up in their place, like Vintage’s weekly breakfasts. This continual attention to both the needs of the homeless community and the needs of the faith-based organization has helped both churches continue to serve Raleigh’s population for as long as they have.
“The work that we get to do in partnership with God is one of helping people experience wholeness and flourishing, which is something that God desires for everyone, whether they’re housed or unhoused,” says Newmiller. “We are called to come alongside and journey with our neighbors to help bring about this flourishing that God desires.”
“We believe that the scriptures are just soaked with God’s heart for the vulnerable,” says Clark. “I mean, Jesus and his whole ministry — his heart was for the least, the last, and the lost.”
Clark continues: “Living out justice and mercy is definitely a primary way of glorifying God. We see that back in the Old Testament, in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, how God wove his desire for justice into the heart of Israel’s worship and community life, and how that was a primary way that the rest of the world would know that they were holy.”
Whether it’s targeted ministry alongside a vast network of community partners, or relationship-focused physical and spiritual care, Edenton Street and Vintage demonstrate well what care for the marginalized and the flourishing of all can look like. For these churches, that looks like loving and serving their neighbors in crisis, a direct investment in their community.