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April 7, 2014

Modesto church practices ‘radical hospitality’ with the homeless

A downtown Modesto church has been feeding the homeless and making them feel at home Sunday mornings for several years. The homeless say the program makes them feel like human beings because they are treated with respect.

The homeless men and women who turn up Sunday mornings at First United Methodist Church’s coffee and conversation program get more than breakfast. They sit together at tables so they can take the time to enjoy their food and each other’s company.

“They have decent coffee,” said one homeless man, who identified himself as Roy. “We are sitting down. They treat us decent. They are not putting a tag on us, calling us bums, calling us scum.”

Roy was among the roughly 40 people who took part in the program Sunday in the downtown church’s Fellowship Hall. Barbara Barker, a First United member and coffee and conversation volunteer, said the church started the program about four years ago because of the growing number of homeless people asking for the coffee and doughnuts that are served to churchgoers after the Sunday service.

Barker said the program offers a safe place to have a meal and talk, and the only expectation is that guests behave civilly.

“We are not evangelizing them,” said Bob Harper, another First United member and program volunteer. “We are showing them that we love them.”

Barker said 40 to 120 people show up on a Sunday, depending on the time of the month. She said the numbers are lower in the beginning of the month because the homeless have cashed their disability checks. The majority of the people are chronically homeless, but everyone is welcome.

Barker said the program is part of First United’s “radical hospitality,” which includes its involvement with Family Promise of Greater Modesto. Family Promise is a nationwide network of churches and others helping homeless families. About a dozen congregations make up the local network.

The homeless in Modesto often have drawn complaints in recent years about aggressive panhandling, being drunk in public, vandalism, and urinating and defecating in public. A First United Methodist Church member recently raised concerns about such behavior at her church with the city.

Harper and Barker said the coffee and conversation program does not have those problems. They said on rare occasions program volunteers have had to ask someone to leave because he or she is not treating others with civility.

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