As reported in the Bull Run Observer June 28, 2013 issue.
By GAIL WILLIAMS
One Sunday night a month, Pastor Matthew Smith takes a team from St. Thomas United Methodist Church to Washington, D.C. to hand out meals, clothing and other necessities to people living on the streets.
"We travel to the shadow of the nation's capital to people who can't or won't sleep in shelters at night," said Smith. "We begin at the Canadian embassy and caravan to numerous parks and other locations where they're waiting for us."
He said about eight members ride in or follow the church's 15 passenger van loaded with bagged meals (sandwich, drink, fruit, and snack) and hygiene kits for everyone, clothing, blankets, backpacks, sleeping bags, Bibles and devotional kits. They meet with another van carrying primarily food and shoes, donated by Faith United Methodist Church in Accokeek, Maryland.
Smith started this mission about six years ago but had been involved with such a mission for seven years before corning to St. Thomas; Smith’s former pastor and mentor got him involved. He said St. Thomas chose Sunday night because other churches went out on the other nights.
"We found a gap that needed to be filled," said Smith. "This is a wonderful ministry. We go Sunday night around bedtime for a reason: to provide mercy, feed the hungry and clothe the naked as Christ commanded. We want to make sure they're in their place when we get there. They know when we're corning, so we want to build that reliability and trust."
The group makes about 15 stops, bringing 150 meals. Asked how many people they see, Smith said it varies over the seasons. He said in the winter, a lot travel south. In the summer, there are more people in the streets, including thousands they won't see. There are few women and rarely any children because those groups are given priority for shelter.
"We target the least met needs," said Smith. "We don't ask why they're there. We don't do this because they deserve help. We do it because we didn't deserve the grace, love and forgiveness of Christ. As followers of Jesus, we are called to do as he would do. More than anything, we try to offer God's love and dignity."
Smith said the group tries to remember any special requests or needs, such as unusual sizes or steel-toed work boots. He said the members are always in need of lighter-weight and Spanish Bibles to pass out. On some nights, they may not hand out any Bibles; on another, they might give 30. "I want to dispel the myth that the homeless are not Christians. There are a lot of reasons they find themselves there. We just try to meet them with Christ's love."
Smith said so many church members wanted to participate in this mission that they went from bi-monthly to monthly. "We give priority to first-timers, while balancing the new with the experienced. Folks who come are real servants, ranging from teens to the older ones. We meet in Washington at 7 p.m. and get back at midnight, sometimes later. It's labor intensive. We love to give members a sense of people who are different and an appreciation of the blessing that we have. Many times, I've seen people give clothing off their backs or feet. It's a very meaningful and powerful mission."
People traveling to these places at night might wonder about their safety. Smith said, "It's not a dangerous trip. Our experience has been good. [However, there was one tragic incident.] A couple of years ago, one of our beloveds was beaten to death by a gang. They grieve as a community [over the loss of one of their own]."
Many more people participate in this mission than go to the city. "We have people who can't go but who donate their time to fill meals and collect clothes. Some find places that give donations or things like leftover corporate T-shirts."
Smith said the homeless mission, including van maintenance, gas and collection of donated items, is funded through the church's budget, rather than fundraising.
The main campus of St. Thomas United Methodist Church is located at 8899 Sudley Road in Manassas. For worship times and opportunities to serve, the church can be contacted at 703-368-5161 or at stthomasumc.org.