As the clock on the wall inched toward 9 a.m. on a Thursday morning in May, nine women and four men sat around the table. There were a couple of prayer requests and a praise for answered prayer.
Darlene Ash then led the group in prayer, not only for that which was spoken, but for the mission, for the reason they are here two mornings every week.
Outside, eight were already waiting for the door to open, one woman wearing a shirt that says, “I Am Blessed.” They are there for the help they need. They are the homeless, the indigent, the family that has hit a stretch of misfortune.
“We are the invisible hands and feet of Jesus,” Tracy Garvey said.
That may be an apt term sometimes – invisible. Garvey is the director of the Perkins Community Center, which is in the fellowship hall of the former Buchanan Street Baptist Church, a mission church of First Baptist Church.
It is less than a half-mile from First Baptist Church, but, at least in economic terms, it can seem farther than that. But go east on 15th Avenue under the I-27 overpass, keep going a couple more blocks and then turn north on Buchanan Street. There, adjacent to the church, is a mission outreach started 30 years ago by a WMU group at First Baptist that has served quietly and effectively to fill the physical, and often the spiritual needs, of those who enter the doors.
“When I look at them, I see me,” said Runae Price, who does intake interviews with clients and is often the first one they see. “If I were in that situation, I would hope that God would have people to reach out to me.
“This is like a foot in the door that wants to shut. Not only are we helping them physically, but they often pour their hearts out to me on my desk. Kristy (Kersh) and I will pray for them right then. We don’t see them any differently than us. We try to love them as much as we can.”
Their immediate needs are basic and necessary. Food and clothing – two daily requirements most give no thought to – have brought people from Amarillo to Perkins since 1989.
A short term solution
Much of the food is purchased at a discounted price from the Food Bank, a source of food at Perkins for 30 years. Garvey also orders and picks up food at Dollar Tree. Much of that comes from a budget item within First Baptist. There are freezers with ground beef, rows of canned vegetables and other non-perishable items. Kitchen and grooming supplies are ample.
“They might open up a can of Vienna sausages in the parking lot – they’re that hungry,” Garvey said.
Through an open room and down one hall is the clothing area. There are clothes for women, men, and children, all sorted by size and gender. There are caps, ties, shoes, and some jewelry. Most hang on racks that Garvey purchased from Sears when the retail store closed.
All clothing except for undergarments are donated. Clothing most in demand are larger men’s T-shirts and smaller waist-sized jeans, as well as women’s pants and socks of all colors. There’s also bedding, vases, items to put on walls in the home, some toys and books. There’s a room with 20 chairs with a TV and Christian-based DVDs to watch.
Perkins Community Center is open from 9 a.m. until 10:30 a.m., every Tuesday and Thursday. The volunteer list numbers 24, of which 12 or so will staff it from about 8:30 a.m. until 11 a.m., each Tuesday and Thursday. Most volunteers are in double digits for years served, including Ash who started volunteering in 2006 shortly after she retired as a teacher.
“I’m blessed in that I do not need all the things they do,” she said. “I can help them, and it gives all of us a good feeling. Financially, I’d not able to do all of that, but working in the mission, I can.”
On average, the Perkins Center sees about 14 clients each Tuesday and Thursday, and they are shopping for about 35, counting family members, Garvey said.
Estimates are that about 53,000 people have been served in these 30 years.
The Perkins Center must balance having enough items for the needy with not being a daily or even weekly supplier. The mission is meant to be a hand up more so than a handout; a short-term solution, not a long-term enabler. For the homeless, they can return monthly. Those with a residence are limited to one return every three months.
On food and kitchen items, a maximum of 20 items is allowed per person, with an extra five for any adult, and three for each child in the residence. The homeless can also receive a packet that includes lotion, soap, first aid kit, toothbrush and toothpaste, razors, deodorant, hand warmers and sun screen.
“Things that are practical,” Garvey said.
With clothing, the general rule is two items per person, though there is some flexibility for those with extra needs.
“The clothing room, I’ve noticed, is like a sanctuary, a place where they come to get away from the world,” Garvey said. “Here, they have so many choices.”
Thirty years and counting
In many ways, the Perkins Community Center operates like it did when it opened on July 13, 1989. The opening was two years in the planning.
After holding a children’s ministry in the summer of 1987, some women at FBC saw that many lacked suitable clothes and shoes. Helen Roller, Ophelia Humphrey, and Evelyn Perkins, within the WMU, discussed starting a food and clothing ministry.
They met with pastor Dr. Winfred Moore, who approved of the plan and suggested contacting Wendell Taylor, Buchanan Baptist Church pastor, to see if part of the church could be used for ministry. Taylor agreed to donate the fellowship hall and adjoining classrooms.
Roller and others visited social ministries in El Paso and pulled ideas from other similar ministries as preparation began in earnest. A training workshop, attended by more than 60 at FBC, was held in March 1989. That was about the time cleaning and remodeling of the fellowship hall by church members at Buchanan began.
The opening was scheduled for July 5, but was pushed back eight days with Evelyn Perkins the interim director until one could be found.
Estimates are that about 53,000 people have been served in these 30 years. Many have been like Celina,* who was there on this May morning with her two children, a 2-year-old and 18-month-old.
As important as food and clothing are, if we didn’t believe spiritual needs are the most important piece, we’d be failing them.
“We’re struggling a little bit right now,” Celina said. “My husband depends on a lot of side jobs, and they’re just not coming through right now. We didn’t know what we could do, and then my brother told me about this church down the street.”
Perkins Community Center is where needs are met. But the unseen needs – the ones that can’t be pulled off the shelf or taken off a clothes rack – are met as well.
On the evaluation form, one of the questions asked is if the client has a personal relationship with Christ. It is rare when a volunteer does not go through the two days a week praying for or with clients, listening to them, sometimes crying with them.
“What I see and hope we do is more than hand them some food and clothes so they can endure their situation for a short time,” Garvey said. “We want to show them there’s hope.
“A food and clothing ministry should distinguish itself by telling clients what we believe and why we’re here. We have men and women who come in here just wanting to talk or pray, and that goes a long way. As important as food and clothing are, if we didn’t believe spiritual needs are the most important piece, we’d be failing them.”
WANT TO SERVE?
Perkins Center volunteers serve by interviewing clients, keeping records, as well as sorting, stocking, or packing food and clothing. It currently operates with about 12-15 volunteers every Tuesday and Thursday morning and continues to need more workers.
If you’d be interested in serving, please contact the church office or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by: Jon Mark Beilue