Integrated Urban Mission: building a bridge to hope
Wilkes–Barre, PA—It was two days before Christmas and Michael Walter had just awakened after spending another chilly night under the South Street Bridge.
For breakfast, Walter was about to open a bottle of gin when he saw a man distributing food to the homeless people living under the bridge. The man was Stanley Jackson, a counselor at the nearby Wilkes–Barre Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC).
“He was telling us, ‘You don’t have to live like this. We could help you,’” Walter recalls. “ ‘We’re actually neighbors.’ I was just getting ready to drink from that bottle, and I heard those words, and I just put that bottle down.”
Later that day, Walter went to the ARC and found love and acceptance.
“Ever since I’ve been here, it’s just been amazing. I’ve received help, courtesy, kindness, and compassion. It’s totally changed my life,” he says.
Bringing them in
Now on Sunday afternoons, Walter goes back to that bridge to invite many of his old friends to an evening event at the ARC called “Soup, Sandwiches, and Salvation.”
“They’re the homeless and the hungry and we want to tell them about Jesus Christ and salvation,” Walter says.
The ARC’s program, which perfectly integrates the Army’s mission within an urban context, offers a meal as someone plays light praise music in the background. Then a guest pastor (officer) delivers a Gospel message.
Andy Iorio (pronounced eye–oreo), program counselor at the ARC, often joins Walter in finding the homeless and hurting. The event draws 50–60 people every Sunday night, including volunteers.
“We send vans out to the community,” Iorio says. “We go over the railroad tracks, under the bridges, anywhere that homeless people congregate.”
Jackson, who ends up counseling many of the men who come into the ARC, agreed that “going into the belly of the beast” is the only way.
“Many of them are scared and we want to take the fear away and let them know we’re here,” Jackson says. “They can have a place to worship, hear the Word of God, seek help, and talk to somebody if, they need that. I think it’s a great thing for the community.”
As the guests enjoy a meal, ARC volunteers give out tracts, mingle, and try to connect people with social services or the ARC program.
“We have a bunch of ministers and volunteers who walk around and help witness to our guests,” Iorio says.
‘Go get them’
Iorio said he decided to put his faith into action after Michael Tillsley, the ARC’s administrator for business, and Major Kathleen Wadman, director of program and residential services, sent him to LEAD, a lay leadership development conference, last summer.
“I was prayed over by some officers,” Iorio says. “God was really working there and one of the officers said, ‘You’re going to go back and start something new at that ARC.’ I didn’t think too much of it, but she grabbed my hand. There really was something to that.”
Iorio said that at LEAD, he learned to “go on the offensive,” rather than play defense.
“I brought that approach back here,” he says. “It just seems like, as the Church, we sometimes wait for hurting people to come to us. At LEAD, they taught me to ‘go get them.’
“They taught us to be different. Be loud. Make noise and do what we have to do to get the hurting people in here.”
That’s when Iorio and the ARC staff decided to start “Soup, Sandwiches, and Salvation.”
“We didn’t want to plagiarize William Booth,” Iorio quips. Booth, Founder of The Salvation Army, famously coined the phrase “Soup, Soap, and Salvation.”
Wadman, a retired officer, said she saw there was a need for such an outreach when homeless people congregated outside the fence that surrounds the ARC.
“We would try to get them to come in. But many of them stayed outside,” she says.
In response, Wadman says the ARC staff decided to build relationships and to win their trust.
“We talked a lot about relational ministry,” she says. “I think this is a wonderful program. I have a heart for the homeless. I don’t think it’s anything new. I think it’s exactly what Booth wanted us to do. I think we’re back to the basics.”
At a recent Sunday night meeting, people attending listened intently as Pastor David Martin of the Cross Creek Church in Trucksville, Pa., delivered a powerful, Scriptural, Gospel–centered message.
Afterward, many people in the audience said they were blessed.
“This is wonderful,” said Melanie Fox, who came to the event from Ruth’s Place Women’s Shelter in Wilkes–Barre. “Most of us are recovering addicts and alcoholics and this really lifts our spirits and helps people tremendously.”
Bobby Demetro, who has been in and out of the ARC program, said he owes The Salvation Army.
“This place saved my life,” he says. “This event here on Sunday nights is great. It gives hope to people. It shows that somebody cares. The Salvation Army cares.”
Walter, who began drinking at age 8 and was an alcoholic by 10, said accepting that invitation just a few days before Christmas saved his life, too.
“I think of where I came from and how it could have been even worse,” Walter says. “I would have killed myself by now. I know I would have. There’s no doubt. Now, I have a whole new perspective and a new challenge in life.
“I’ve never been this content and sure of myself and I have positive thoughts all the time. Anytime I even consider the thought of drinking, I just look at the bridge.”
by Robert Mitchell