Waking up on ‘Holy Grounds’

by Robert Mitchell

Salvation Army Captain Michael Harper can’t escape the seemingly addictive aroma of coffee.

While stationed in Manchester, N.H., in 2017, Harper started a coffee ministry called “Mobile Joes.” He and other volunteers would walk the streets and parks, handing out cups of coffee from specially designed backpack dispensers to people who were homeless.

When Harper and his wife, Major Armida Harper, arrived at their current assignment in Portland, Maine, he noticed that other people who were also homeless, as well as addicted to drugs and alcohol and suffering from mental illness, gathered behind his church in the morning after leaving two city-run shelters. No one in the community served them coffee and that gave him an idea.

Thanks to a $13,000 grant from the Good Shepherd Food Bank as part of a food pantry overhaul, Harper was able to install a fast food-style window at the church where he could serve coffee from 8:30-10 a.m. every weekday. The ministry, called “Holy Grounds,” began in July and is growing strong.

“It seems like I’m always doing something with coffee,” Harper says with a laugh.

“The people must leave the shelters every morning. It’s tough to get put out on the street without even a cup of coffee,” Harper continued. “Other agencies do lunches, but no one was doing coffee. We saw a great opportunity.”

Daily conversations

Harper said “Holy Grounds” started slowly, with just 10 or 20 people, but word quickly spread, and the ministry now averages more than 200 coffee drinkers a day.

“The real genius of this is that, if we went out in the streets and tried to talk to more than 200 people, it would be really tough,” Harper says. “But every day, five days a week, we get to spend 30 to 50 seconds with about 200 individuals. They come one by one, up to the window. We hand them the coffee and we can pray with them, talk to them about their soul, and connect them with other services.

“We could not have found a better way to speak to 200 individuals, five days a week who are the exact population that we’re trying to reach with our street outreach.”

Harper said he and the ministry’s volunteers pray with 15-20 people a day and ask what else The Salvation Army can do to help.

“We refer a lot of people who need socks, clothing, or other services to our social services office” he said. “The ministry is really giving us access to the most needy and vulnerable people and getting them other comprehensive forms of help.”

The coffee recipients are grateful for the morning boost of hot caffeine, Harper said.

“They thank us. They thank God. It’s great,” he said.

Harper said he estimates “Holy Grounds” costs about $1,000 a month and he will soon be talking to the church’s advisory board about new funding streams. One of the offerings collected at The Salvation Army camp meetings this summer in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, went to “Holy Grounds.” Harper said the $3,000 will be spent on coffee, creamer, sugar, cups, lids, and snacks.

Christ and ‘a cup of hope’

Each morning, the “Holy Grounds” window is serviced by a few volunteers, including beneficiaries from the Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) in Portland. Envoy Stephen Taylor, the ARC’s administrator, has helped with “Holy Grounds” and says some beneficiaries and ARC graduates also volunteer.

“It’s definitely a service that is needed in the community,” he said. “It’s a dual message—a cup of hope and we share the good news of Christ. We also share what’s available through the ARC program. Overall, it’s a win-win for not only The Salvation Army, but for the community.”

Taylor said a few people reached through “Holy Grounds” have come to the ARC to inquire about entering the program.

“We’re seed-planting and we know that seed is going to turn into something beautiful,” he said. “We’re going to let the Lord do His work with the harvesting of it.”

Jean Williams, a former intake coordinator at the Portland ARC, arrives around 7:30 a.m., each day before the window opens to help the Harpers get ready for the crowds.

“I love it,” she said. “I really enjoy helping the refugee and immigrant population.

“God has given me a heart for them. I feel it’s scriptural to be kind to the poor, the immigrant, and the homeless. It’s scriptural to give them a cup of water, kind of thing.”

Loving them anyway

Harper said Portland’s needy and vulnerable people “hang out all day” behind The Salvation Army. He often persuades them to attend church services and four have been coming consistently, but there is more work ahead.

“We’ve had homeless encampments on our property for the last six months,” he said. “People use our parking lot as a toilet. We’re picking up hundreds of needles a week. It’s almost like a double tension. We’re trying to reach out to the folks and love and serve them, but at the same time we’re responsible for the property that so many of them are destroying.”

For example, someone kicked out a window of the church’s 12-passenger van. Someone also broken a mirror on the church’s canteen.

“I joke that I’m loving them out the front window and yelling at them out the back door,” Harper said. “It’s a really strange tension that grinds on my spirit, but we’re doing the best we can.”

Like many cities in the United States, Portland is dealing with the drug fentanyl, which is often mixed with other drugs.

“People are so addicted, and it makes them so much more aggressive than just regular heroin,” Harper said.

Welcoming the immigrant

Meanwhile, the city’s shelters, ministries, and social services are visited by immigrants from Congo, Angola, Kenya, and Rwanda. The Salvation Army helps many of them learn English as a Second Language (ELS) and computer classes so they can get jobs, Harper said.

In 2019, the Barna Research Group named Portland-Auburn, Maine, as the second most “post-Christian” city in the U.S., behind only Springfield-Holyoke, Mass., based on a host of factors. However, Harper said Portland has many churches that offer social services.

“We’re out there working every day,” he said. “If it’s a post-Christian city, I don’t know what so many churches are doing here. I think among some of the younger people, that could be the case. For those who are a little older, like most of our donors and church-attenders, I would say Christ is still quite relevant in Portland.

“This city is hurting. With all the unsheltered, addicted, alcoholic, and mentally ill people that are on the streets, this city is in over its head. They need the Church.”