Helping Cleveland's Homeless, Not Despising Them

The circumstances and events that lead people into homelesness may surprise you.
by Elizabeth Rattray

A homeless woman in Cleveland, peers out from her makeshift home.

Imagine a successful businessman who owns his own trucking company, coming home from a hard day of work. As he approaches the living room he hears the familiar sound of the television and the voices of his dear wife and his closest friend. When he reaches the room, his mind can't process what his eyes take in, as the two people he trusts most in the world are engaged in the act of adultery. As a former marine with thorough knowledge of firearms, he draws the weapon he carries for safety on his job and calmly places it to the head of his friend. He announces his intent to take his life, and pulls the trigger not once, but three times. Each time the gun does not release a bullet. In frustration, he takes a practice shot through the living room window. This one discharges, so he turns the gun on his wife as his friend flees the house. Again, the weapon fails. But God does not. This true to life scene set in motion the downward spiral into homelessness for Ben Davis.

Pastor Reginald Bailey, who leads the Grace and Mercy Homeless Ministry of Anointed Gates Church in Cleveland, remembers the first time he encountered Davis. It was during one of Bailey's regular visits to the Cleveland homeless men's shelter where Davis resides. Bailey demonstrates, recalling Davis' reaction to their first encounter, "He folded his arms like this," across his chest "and gave me this look" sideways and down, that could only be taken as distrust. At their next meeting the two would actually converse. Davis acknowledges his former attitude reversed as he recognized the genuineness of Bailey's message. "Christians recognize other Christians, and game recognizes game" says Davis, who was already a believer at the time betrayal shattered him. Groping for words as he tries to imagine himself in Davis' stead, "You just don't know. I can't say how I would deal." Pastor Bailey confesses.

It is a misconception that all homeless people are either lazy, no good druggies, uneducated or even mentally ill. Many have some of those characteristics. But many more are stories of job loss, family problems, illness and other seemingly insurmountable circumstances. Bailey's ministry delivers a message of hope, that comes through change of heart by the power of the Holy Spirit. "I've met many professionals, engineers, even former preachers. Many of these people are highly educated" says Bailey. What ever brought them to their current status of homelessness, Bailey wants them all to know that God cares for them and they do have choices. Grace and Mercy Ministry offers the one true way out is through faith in Christ and obedience to His Word.

The ministry, which began nearly five years ago, is the brainchild of Pastors Reginald "Reggie" Bailey and Ronnie Withers of Anointed Gates Church in Euclid. They along with their wives, Renee Bailey and Sharon Withers, wanted to do their part to fulfill The Great Commission, by reaching out to the needy on the streets of Cleveland. They would start by feeding hungry bodies with food in hopes of building relationship, and continue feeding their spirits with the Word of God. "I'll never forget the first time we went out" recalls Bailey. He set out with his colleague, Withers, two jugs of juice and twenty-five sandwiches. They chose a place known to be spotted with homeless people, near the Plain Dealer building in downtown Cleveland. Right on the street, working from the back of a Wither's white Jeep Cherokee, they placed a tablecloth over two newspaper boxes. "In our minds we thought, we're really gonna do something" Bailey exclaims, "As soon as we pulled out the food, people came from places?we didn't know where they came from. Before we knew it, there was a line from those two box stands that had to extend easily to seventy five people." Reggie got a solid sense of how many people there were, as he walked the line shaking hands and introducing him self to each one. The Pastors offered what they had, apologizing for not having enough food to go around this time.

Since then, the ministry team has grown. Disciples have been trained to do the necessary work of their relational street ministry. A key element in the ministry is building relationship and treating the homeless with as much respect as you would mainstream members of the community. Rather than forsake the custom of shaking hands, ministry workers first douse their hands in anti-bacterial gel, to prevent the transfer of germs. People who live on the street have limited resources for maintaining personal hygiene. The Pastors wives, Renee Bailey and Sharon Withers handle the administrative 'behind the scenes' work. Grace and Mercy Ministry hosts events throughout the year, all geared toward feeding and clothing Cleveland's homeless. The theme is always to motivate change through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Donations must be solicited, organized and distributed, flyers created for events, press releases written then placed and locations secured. In order to maintain good community relations, the clean up after each event is important as well.

Many donors have helped expand the vision over the years since the inception of Grace and Mercy Ministry. Bailey's team calls on corporate America to provide for the needy they serve. Donors have included Alan B. Foods for meats, Coca Cola, Denny's, Orlando Breads, Giant Eagle, TOPS Supermarket, Dandee Potato Chips, Star Pop and more. Private donations come from Vince and Robin Gorman (State Farm Agents), Gloria Gorton (21st Millennium Title & Escrow), Mario Ciano (Reminger & Reminger), and Howard Showalter (Harvest Ministries) provides tracts, bibles and other useful printed materials. The list grows constantly. In addition to Anointed Gates Church, Erieside Church in Willowick shares the work of preparing the meals, maintaining high standards of clean individually wrapped foods. The "Street Card", produced by N.E.O.C.H. (Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless) is an additional tool the team distributes to provide knowledge of free services for the homeless (of Cuyahoga county). Grateful for the many supporters, Pastor Bailey is mindful not to call on the same corporations too often.

There are times when Pastor Reggie has been discouraged by the overwhelming numbers of needy, limited resources and no physical place for the ministry to call home. There was even a time when prayer was forbidden in the homeless shelters of Cleveland.

One particularly daunting night, two years into the mission, Bailey recalls wanting to give up. It was bitter cold and the team had been outside for several hours, feeding, talking, listening and praying with people. Overcome by the numbing frigidity of the night, he lifted his eyes toward heaven and began a prayer with, "I don't think I can do this any more Lord." In the midst of calling upon God to help him, he realized a garage door opening directly across the street from where they were standing. Some gentlemen called out to him, inviting them to serve from inside the garage. Bailey and his crew packed up and moved to the warmth of that heated garage, where they served every week for the rest of that winter. It was then that Reggie Bailey knew that God was truly in this work. Most of the homeless of this north coast city stay for the winter. They pitch tents over manhole covers and hunker down under bridges day and night, trying to escape their painful circumstance.

The most burning question Bailey has about the homeless population in Cleveland is "Why am I seeing so many of the same guys (and gals) still living in a cycle of homelessness?" He does often see physically better appearance and real spiritual change. Not nearly often enough to dent the situation. In answering his own question, Pastor Reginald Bailey says it comes down to choice. "You can choose to continue to wander in the wilderness, or you can choose to come out." Grace and Mercy Ministry is teaching people to find their way out of the wilderness.

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