By Rachel L. Toalson, Special Contributor…
AUSTIN, Texas—The people of St. Peter’s United Methodist Church know what it means to get outside the walls of the church—and be forever changed.
At least twice a year, after enough donated clothing has piled up, volunteers band together to create a free store beneath the overpass of Interstate 35 and 7th Street in Austin, where those who have need can shop.
The homeless recipients—who the volunteers have come to call their neighbors—are always grateful.
“Our neighbors are appreciative,” said Mary Edison, a member of the church. “They appreciate what we do. They’re not taking it for granted.
“I really can’t describe the feeling that it gives just to be a part of something like that. They have peace and hope about the situation where they are. I feed off of them.”
The Rev. Jack Gause, pastor of the church, said that in the five years the people of St. Peter’s have organized the free store, they have begun to change.
“[The free store] has begun to transform their thinking, challenging them to go beyond the four walls of the church,” Mr. Gause said. “They experience the grace of God. Many times when we go out, there are neighbors who know God and who minister to us. I’ve had people pray for me. I’ve prayed for people.
“The congregation has really responded well. People really want to help and want to serve, and when they have opportunities to serve, they find their connection with the kingdom of God and with serving.”
And while some of the homeless have become members of the church through the free store, Mr. Gause says that’s not the ministry’s goal.
“Our goal for this ministry is to give our neighbors the necessary clothing they need for the different seasons and preserve their dignity,” Mr. Gause said. “Just because they’re homeless doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be treated with respect.
“They shop for free and take as much as they need.”
In the months prior to the free store, volunteers gather clothes and other necessities—like blankets, pillows, purses, backpacks, belts and shoes.
The City of Austin partners with St. Peter’s and allows volunteers to set up shop in a metered parking space. First Rate Fixtures, a local business, provides volunteers with clothing racks to use for the day—to create a real store atmosphere, Mr. Gause said.
The Salvation Army and Arc notify the homeless about the free store, and volunteers “normally have people waiting to help us when we arrive at daybreak,” he noted.
The homeless can take whatever they need, Mr. Gause said. “It’s been amazing to see how they take their time and shop for what they need and what they like.”
Volunteers have also been amazed at the shoppers’ willingness to help set up and clean up after the store.
Ms. Edison said that one of the women who came to the most recent store, Oct. 20, was taking all the extra hangers off the racks and stacking them neatly for the volunteers. Many others stayed to help clean up the area once the store was closed.
Ms. Edison added that she’s also attended Church Under the Bridge in Austin and has seen many of the homeless wearing their selections from the free store—which leads her to believe, even more so, that it’s needed.
Mr. Gause said he and the volunteers always invite the homeless to their church—and if they need transportation, the people of the church send a bus to pick them up.
“Several who have joined our church have come from a position of not having housing to having housing,” he said. “We let them know they are always welcome to come. Dress is not an inhibiting factor.”
The congregation, Mr. Gause said, is very accepting of and used to interacting with the homeless, extending an arm of hospitality when they show up at church.
The free store ministry reminds Ms. Edison of the Scripture that says, “When you’ve done this for the least of these, you’ve done it for me.”
It resonates with the deepest parts of her heart to be ministering out on the streets, she added.
“Churches shouldn’t just stay within the walls of the church,” she said. “This is why we were put here on this earth, to serve God and to serve other people who are less fortunate than we are. Just to listen to some of my neighbors’ testimonies just brings fulfillment to me.”
Ms. Toalson is managing editor of United Methodist Witness, the newspaper of the Southwest Texas Conference.