San Antonio church reaches out to the least of us

By Mike Blackwell, Special Contributor…

The Rev. Linda Gwathmey prays with a client during Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a weekly ministry at Windcrest UMC in San Antonio, Texas.

SAN ANTONIO—Thursdays begin well before 9 a.m., with an anxious and appreciative line winding into the Community Hall of the Windcrest United Methodist Church. The day of the week clearly doesn’t matter to most of those who participate in—and benefit from—the weekly Neighbors Helping Neighbors program. Thursday is their day, and this is their church.

The Neighbors Helping Neighbors program is a ministry that tangibly helps the homeless, the poor, the needy and the hopeful. But beyond simply a program of giving, the ministry has become a much more meaningful endeavor; Neighbors Helping Neighbors, upper case, has become neighbors helping neighbors, a literal ground-level outreach program that serves the community in ways that reach beyond a meal, a bottle of water or a pair of shoes.

What began as simply an opportunity for the needy to get an apple, a bottle of water and maybe a cookie has blossomed into a place of blessing for all: The volunteers eagerly admit the gifts they receive might very well be more rewarding than the food, clothing and fellowship enjoyed by those who arrive each Thursday morning searching for answered prayers.

Yes, those who benefit from the program can receive food, water, clothing—even bus tickets; but they have also come to realize that they will receive much more than “items” when they arrive each Thursday.

As the line forms outside the Community Hall, the Rev. Linda Gwathmey, an associate pastor at Windcrest, directs a team that is determined to make the many wishes—and needs—of those in line come true. The 20-25 volunteers are scurrying about, building sandwiches and preparing the serving line and organizing the clothing. Bag lunches and hygiene kits are prepared; even pet food is available.

There is coffee to drink, of course, and bus tickets to organize. Hymns rise gently from the Community Hall’s piano. Those in line trickle into the room and rest at the round tables. At 9:30, Ms. Gwathmey begins her service, welcoming everyone; songs are sung, Scripture is read. Neighbors and volunteers then pray and share food and more music.

The Rev. Linda Gwathmey and the Rev. Tamara Strehli serve communion during Neighbors Helping Neighbors.

Volunteers also break out and listen to individual needs, making referrals. There is individual prayer time—one volunteer with one man or woman in need. Neighbor praying with neighbor. Haircuts are given along with Bibles (in English and Spanish). Health screenings are given, too: blood pressure checks, health histories are logged, and medical referrals are developed.

To say the very least, Ms. Gwathmey’s cup truly runs over with pride in the program that began modestly in August 2010.

“You would be amazed if you would visit us in the Community Hall on a Thursday morning,” Ms. Gwathmey says. “We are located in a part of San Antonio that is underserved by social service agencies and direct help ministries. All the churches nearby were overwhelmed by the requests for food and financial help. People came to us hungry, so we added a meal. We recognized their spiritual hunger as well, so we added an informal communion service.”

Indeed, the spiritual hunger aspect of the outreach is prominently mentioned by those who benefit from the service.

“My experience is that you’re always welcome and they help you a great deal,” says a woman who arrives regularly each Thursday. “They’ve prayed over me, and I recently found a disabled living home, and I believe God helped provide that to me. I used to be a drug addict, and I think the prayers have helped me. And it’s a social time for me to be with people who aren’t using [drugs], and to be with people who believe in a higher power.”

That belief in higher power is also prevalent in the minds and hearts of the volunteers, who eagerly—and emotionally—sing the praises of the ministry.

“It’s very near and dear to my heart, I get very emotional about it,” says Teddy Behrens, a woman who volunteers each Thursday. “It just grew and grew and grew. I am so blessed. I cannot imagine not having a meal, and I can’t imagine not having a place to stay.”

Ms. Behrens says that while providing day-to-day needs in order to live—like food, water and clothing—is rewarding, the spiritual aspect of the outreach is even more gratifying. Yes, food for the body is important and essential; but food for the soul is perhaps even more important to volunteers like Ms. Behrens, who can’t wait to serve on Thursdays.

“We tell them, ‘God doesn’t care what you wear to church,’” Ms. Behrens says. “They feel very comfortable here at Neighbors. I never call them ‘those people’ because they are our neighbors. But for the grace of God, this could be any one of us. This place gives me the biggest blessing that you could ever believe. I really feel like God is working through me to help them.

“You should see the look on their faces when we pray with them, when we talk to them. What’s the difference between them and me? Nothing. It means the world to me. We’re all the same in the eyes of God.”

“They’ve helped me, so this is the perfect thing to do, come and give back,” says Molly Moody, who used to come as a participant and now volunteers.

Molly Moody is a volunteer who has been on both sides of the Neighbors Helping Neighbors program. When her daughter lived with her, she struggled to find a ride to visit her doctors, but was given $10 gas cards by Neighbors Helping Neighbors when necessary. Most importantly, she and her daughter were given groceries.

“We’ve received sack lunches, toiletries, a little bit of everything,” Ms. Moody says. “It kept us from going hungry a couple of times.”

Ms. Moody’s unique perspective gives her an uncommon empathy during her work on Thursdays. She is now financially independent, and is eager to help; the fact that volunteers at Neighbors Helping Neighbors are respectful of their clients played prominently in her decision to literally give back to her community.

“They’ve helped me, so this is the perfect thing to do, come and give back,” Ms. Moody says. “Everyone is welcome. Volunteers are very friendly and helpful, and they don’t look down on anybody who comes in here for help. I’ve been many places, and this is the only place I’ve found where it doesn’t matter to them that you need help. They don’t frown, and they don’t look down their noses.”

Another volunteer, Harriett Martell, is convinced that her work in the ministry was a true calling. Arriving to Texas from Maine, Ms. Martell was literally searching for her place—not a physical place, but a living “place” in her life. Searching, she asked, “What on earth have I come here for?”

Neighbors Helping Neighbors gave her the answer.

“When I thought about that question, all of a sudden I thought, ‘I’m not giving enough of myself,’” Ms. Martell says. “I love this. I have a microphone and I talk with them and laugh with them when they come in; I try to sing, but I can’t. And it’s so fulfilling. A lady who had been sleeping on the concrete came in today and said, ‘Guess what, I have a home.’ It’s my mission.”

Ms. Gwathmey is particularly proud of the spiritual aspect of the outreach. Being able to provide food, transportation and clothing allows the church to reach those who might very well be otherwise out of reach. Those who come on Thursday might shy away from coming on Sunday; Neighbors Helping Neighbors has provided many with a pathway to God. Some are now also arriving on Sunday.

“We are encouraging our congregation to move from being inwardly focused to being outwardly focused,” Ms. Gwathmey said. “Some of the neighbors who come to worship with us on Thursday mornings now come to worship on Sunday as well. Some have joined adult Bible study classes. Some have officially joined the church. Every expansion in our ministry has come at the initiative of one of our volunteers. We at Neighbors Helping Neighbors believe that a critical mass for sparking change is one disciple with a clear vision and the willingness to work to make it happen.”

A Neighbors Helping Neighbors client receives a free haircut.

By noon on Thursday, the list of needs is usually nearing completion. Activity in the Community Hall now consists of clean-up, storing clothes for next week, sorting out paperwork and loading carts to be stored away for seven more days. Each interview is logged, and forms are made available for use again the following Thursday. At the end of a normal Thursday, some 60-90 people have been served.

Inevitably, like Ms. Moody, Neighbors who receive become Neighbors who serve. They return with news of jobs they have received. Some will bring back clothes for others, or bus tickets, or money. Some bring prayer requests. Others volunteer.

Thus the circle closes.

“We are not sure what our next stage of Neighbors Helping Neighbors will be, but we know God is with us,” Ms. Gwathmey says. “We have felt the work of the Holy Spirit every step of the way.”

If you would like to start a mission at your church like this one, contact the Rev. Linda Gwathmey at l.gwathmey@windcrestumc.org or (210) 654-0404.

 

Mr. Blackwell is a freelance writer who lives with his family in Kyle, Texas. He is also editor of Inside Texas magazine and website, and has been in the publishing business for more than 25 years.

PHOTOS BY THOMAS MONAHAN/SOUTHWEST TEXAS CONFERENCE

 

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