Showers, bikes and peacemeals a compassionate look at how one church is serving homeless people

Date Posted: 9/24/2020

Galveston (Texas) Central Church opens its doors to community members, many of whom are experiencing homelessness. The United Methodist church provides a safe space and a variety of services, including internet access, meals, showers and laundry facilities. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.​
 
By Lindsay Peyton -  En Español
 
Galveston Central Church is so much more than a building with a steeple. This congregation transforms into a bustling kitchen, where members cook alongside the homeless and then sit down together to share a meal. It’s also a bicycle repair shop, a laundromat and a shower facility. The coronavirus pandemic may have changed the way the church delivers its services, but nothing could stop the congregation from continuing its mission.  
 
Pastor Michael Gienger has a vision of building a community at Galveston Central Church, where all are welcome, regardless of socioeconomic status. “My dream for Central is that you walk in there and can’t tell the difference, who is being served and who is serving,” he said.
 
It all started with “Peacemeals.” In October 2018, the congregation was meeting for their annual picnic at Kempner Park – where a number of Galveston’s homeless men and women also gathered.
 
Church members asked the individuals in the park to join them for the meal. Later, they also invited them to come to church on Sunday.
 
“Nobody thought anyone would take them up on it,” Gienger recalled. “But they showed up, and we started developing friendships.”
 
Before long, they began sharing meals at church – and that became a regular event. Today, Peacemeals are cooked by the church members and the homeless individuals together.
 
“It’s a shared meal, with both the housed and unhoused together,” Gienger said. “It’s a cool way to bridge those groups.”
 
The church then extended its outreach by providing shower facilities for the area’s homeless people and purchased three washers and dryers to allow them to do their laundry on campus as well.
 
Bicycle repair is a volunteer-led ministry at Galveston (Texas) Central Church, a United Methodist church. The bikes are a valuable resource among those with otherwise limited access to transportation. From left are: Ricky Postell, Randall Wood and Misty Bonham. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.
 
The bicycle repair ministry started this past February. Just like with cooking Peacemeals, the lines are blurred between who is serving. Everyone is welcome to use their talents to help others.
 
“Everybody has something to offer and something to give,” Gienger said. “It can be dehumanizing to have some only be receiving and others only giving.”
 
Everything was going smoothly -- with meals were served three days a week, access to showers and laundry and members building meaningful relationships with people so often forgotten – when the world changed.
 
COVID-19 struck. “It was incredibly stressful,” Gienger said.
 
He considered John Wesley’s “Three Simple Rules.” The first is to do no harm. The second is to do good. The third is stay in love with God.
 
The church wanted to continue to do good, while still not putting anyone at risk. That was challenging as other homeless services started to lock down in Galveston. Churches closed their doors, and members stayed home. Shelters reduced their capacity, as well as their hours.
 
“How do you continue to serve this vulnerable population – who are even more vulnerable at this time?” Gienger asked.
 
He was aware that for many, Central was an essential place for meals on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.  The showers were also key to helping people preserve their health and hygiene.
 
“We couldn’t shut down,” Gienger said. “We had to figure out a way to stay open safely.”

The church worked with the University of Texas Medical Branch to develop plans and protocol. “We found a way to continue to serve,” Gienger said. “Our numbers have boomed since during the pandemic. It’s been vital that we stay open.”
The Rev. Michael Gienger (left) helps Danny Thomas with his laundry at Galveston (Texas) Central Church. The United Methodist church opens its doors to community members, many of whom are experiencing homelessness. The church provides a safe space and a variety of services, including internet access, meals, showers and laundry facilities. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

As church services became virtual, the doors stayed open to those who needed a shower and to do laundry. They were simply spaced apart to preserve social distancing. Masks were provided. The congregation also rented a hand sanitization station, allowing more handwashing.
 
Meals are still provided – but now are packaged to go. Individuals can no longer linger at the church around a dining table.
 
Gienger worried that the two communities he had helped bring together – housed and unhoused – would become separate again.
 
“Usually, you bump shoulders with the poor every Sunday,” he said. “It really changes the way you see the world. When you’re online, you lose that.”
 
He is searching for innovative ways to keep that spirit alive. Part of the effort includes education – teaching volunteers how they continue to treat others with compassion and dignity, even while wearing a mask and in a shorter time frame.
 
“A smile is one way, but there is also body language and tone of voice to let them know that we’re welcoming them,” Gienger said. “We want people to know that I’m still their pastor, and this is still a safe place to go.”
 
Regular volunteer Scott Colon (left) offers coffee to Randall Wood in the kitchen at Galveston (Texas) Central Church. The United Methodist church opens its doors to community members, many of whom are experiencing homelessness. The church provides a safe space and a variety of services, including internet access, meals, showers and laundry facilities. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

At the same time, the church is trying to meet a growing need in Galveston, resulting from COVID-19.
 
For instance, the congregation added services for the immigrant population, delivering food and diapers to families in need. Already, 1,200 boxes of food and 38,000 diapers have been distributed.
 
When the program began in mid-April, three families signed up. Last week, Gienger counted 132 families.
 
The church found bilingual callers who can check on the families each week. In August, the congregation worked with the Galveston County Food Bank to add a refrigerated food truck to the program. Volunteers also changed the distribution times to better fit with work schedules of those being served.
 
Gienger explained that the Latino population on the island includes working poor and undocumented individuals. “When something like COVID hits, you lose what income you had, as well as access to medical care,” he said. “It’s been incredibly hard on frontline and essential workers.”
 
Central is looking for additional ways to help, including working on a grant to obtain cell phones for homeless, to allow them to access telehealth and social services that are now primarily online. The church is also helping others with technology, including applying for stimulus checks.
 
“A lot of people became homeless before computers became standard for everything,” Gienger said. “To apply for benefits now, basic computer skills are necessary.”
 
Improving accessibility to the internet and technology, as well as building computer literacy, are essential to truly help homeless individuals, the pastor explained.
Haley Brown (front) and Christian Catalan of the Gastrochurch ministry prepare a meal in the kitchen at Galveston (Texas) Central Church. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

“Feeding the poor is the bare basics of what we are called to do as Christians,” he said. “The next piece is advocacy. How do we make changes so folks have access to healthcare? That’s the next big step.”
 
Even though worship has moved online, and church members are watching from their homes, Gienger said remembering their neighbors remains paramount. The mission is still to stay connected and find new ways to continue ministry.
 
“Churches can be a silo of hope and social change, where groups of people care about their neighbors and advocate for economic change,” he said.
 
That’s a role churches had historically, Gienger explained. “We need to reclaim that space,” he said. “That’s the call of the church. Jesus was all about serving the poor and marginalized.”
 
In a time of uncertainty, challenges and economic hardship, Gienger believes the church can be part of the solution.
 
“There’s a lot of work ahead of us,” he said. “But it’s good work. It’s what church is built for.”