Transformative: “It’s changed my life,” says Keith Jones.
Life affirming. “It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of this ministry,” Doug Snipes says.
And appreciated. “I thank them so much,” Peggy Nedrow says.
It’s informally called North 1st Street Ministries, a group of people who gather every Sunday afternoon in a parking lot next to the Union Gospel Mission to give out a hot meal, clothes and toiletries to the needy.
As Jones, who organized the effort nearly two years ago with his wife, Camille, explains, the volunteer effort is “just people who love Jesus.”
On a recent, blistering hot Sunday, about 150 folks of all ages — some in wheelchairs, some pushing strollers, others on bikes — stood patiently in line, waiting for a lunch of broccoli, rice and cheese casserole, rolls, peaches and cookies. Tables were also filled with donated items: crackers, bottled water, diapers and clothes sorted by size. About 20 volunteers passed out food, found clothing and chatted with the patrons.
When asked why he and Camille show up week after week, Jones answers, “How can you disregard human life? No one wants to sleep on the railroad tracks or look in a garbage can for food.
“We’re here to give people hope, a safe environment, a nice meal, jeans and a shirt. If people’s needs are met, they’re less likely to steal and will use less alcohol and drugs.”
Volunteers are not there to convince people to attend church. Other than the short prayer Jones leads before food is served, it’s just giving out help and listening to folks.
“They know we won’t push anything on them,” Jones explains. “We show them the love of Jesus and want nothing in return. We’re not trying to change them. Jesus can change hearts; we can’t.”
Nor do they pass judgment. In a blog Camille writes about North 1st Street Ministries, www.walkingwithjesus-ccjones.blogspot.com, she notes, “Heroin addicts, meth users, prostitutes, alcoholics, mentally ill, who am I to judge? As I start to hear the stories of why people are homeless I am left with two choices — to judge or not to judge. God is the only judge so it is an obvious but not always easy answer — to not judge. “
The Joneses began the weekly giveaway in October 2011. Their church, West Valley Foursquare, was urging congregants to reach out to the community, and the couple took the message to heart. One Sunday afternoon, they started collecting clothes and blankets, then gathered up friends and their daughter, Olivia. They drove to North First Street, opened the trunk and gave what they had to people who said they had a need. As they were leaving, a homeless person asked if they would be coming back.
And they couldn’t say “No.”
So now they serve 150-300 people every Sunday.
One recent Sunday, Jeanette Paoli brought her 3-year-old granddaughter, Crimson, explaining that she and her husband, Gary, come about once a month for food. He does construction jobs, but work hasn’t been steady. “The economy just isn’t there,” he says.
Since the mission doesn’t serve lunch or dinner on Sundays, Robert Waldron, who lives there, has come for the hot meals for six months. “I think this is great. If it wasn’t for people doing this, we’d be hungry all afternoon. I bless these people.” Both Waldron and L.J. Cory help set up and clean tables. Cory says he was one of the original patrons because he lives along the river and doesn’t have a way to cook. “It helps because people just can’t get food.”
Another man, who gives his name as Jose, doesn’t speak much English, but when finishing his meal conveys his gratitude with “Gracias.”
Everything is donated: food, clothing, time. Someone gave tables, another donated canopies to cover them. Two families drop off water and toilet paper every week. A doughnut shop sends doughnuts, and pizzas are a regular gift. “People come through,” says Keith Jones.
Friends and fellow churchgoers give money. Anne Stoothoff, part of a women’s prayer group in West Valley, called the Simple Church, says the group brings meals once a month and also donates money to the Jones’ cause. Other volunteers come from several different churches — the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Foursquare, Wiley Heights Covenant, Sun Valley.
“It’s not one church; it’s not one faith,” Snipes points out. “It’s feeding people and loving them.”
Snipes, who works in the fruit industry, got drawn in one day when Jones, a friend since high school, asked for some apples, saying he knew some people who were cold and hungry.
Snipes’ mother rounded up some warm clothes, which he delivered with two boxes of apples. He’s been volunteering twice a month since.
Women from the Mormon sixth ward serve their home-cooked lunches once a month, usually 24 roasting pans filled with entrees such as chili, goulash and enchiladas. Denise Gum explains the group began volunteering after member Toni McBean heard Jones describe the ministry at a Kiwanis meeting.
The Joneses themselves cook food on two Sundays a month: recently they whipped up 300 quesadillas.
One thing they don’t give out is money. “By no means do we ever want to enable people,” Keith Jones explains.
There’s been a notable exception, however. Jones noticed Peggy Nedrow alone one Sunday and asked where Thomas, her husband, was. She said he was out of work and stranded in Vancouver, Wash., with no money for a bus ride home.
Others might have flinched, but Jones drove her to the bus station and bought a ticket to send to him.
Back together, the Nedrows have nothing but praise for Jones.
“This man is a blessing,” says Thomas.
Both Camille and Keith take heart from the gratitude people show and are proud of the several people who have returned to tell them they had found jobs.
“What are hills for us, could be mountains for someone else,” Jones says. “If we can help get them over the mountain and get their life together and be productive, that’s why we’re here.”
• Jane Gargas can be reached at 509-577-7690 or firstname.lastname@example.org.