A homeless ministry at Riverside Church in Nashville, Tennessee, is providing those less fortunate with food and clothing, as well as hope for a better life by showing them the love of Jesus Christ.
The inspiration for Riverside Outreach Services came about three years ago following the 2019 execution of Tennessee death row inmate Donnie E. Johnson, who made a religious transformation behind bars, became an elder in the Seventh-day Adventist Church while incarcerated, and led prayer services for his fellow inmates. In Tennessee, condemned inmates can spend up to $20 on a special last meal before they are executed. Johnson refused a last meal, and instead asked his supporters to donate meals to the homeless.
“The program was a byproduct of Johnson’s execution,” says Riverside member Marcus Kinzer, who spearheaded the homeless ministry with his wife, Cheryl. “I’ve always wanted to do something for those less fortunate than me.”
Following Johnson’s death, a dinner was held at the church one Sabbath to honor him. Some members took food to the homeless, as Johnson had requested. Kinzer says he and his wife brought several plates to one location downtown, and were surprised by the number of people in need of food.
“We called back to the church and a group of people brought food downtown,” recalls Kinzer. “That’s kind of how we got started.”
Over the last three years, participation in the homeless ministry has grown, with continual donations of food, funds, clothes, and other items. Thousands of meals and essential items, like clothing and toilet paper, have been provided through the ministry.
“My most memorable experiences have to do with the reactions of the people we have helped,” says member Bennie Thompson.
“One gentleman thanked me profusely for a roll of toilet paper! It brought tears to my eyes.”
The ministry at Riverside is among a growing effort to address the homeless problem in Nashville, Tennessee. A recent report titled “Nashville Performance Study of Homelessness and Affordable Housing” called out the city for not doing enough to help the chronically homeless who have been homeless for more than a year. It said some people were staying homeless longer and the number of people living outside, in unsafe conditions, had doubled since 2013. An estimated 1,900 homeless people live in the Nashville area, with nearly 500 chronically homeless, according to the report.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper recently announced a $50 million plan to combat homelessness. About half the money would be used for affordable long-term housing.
While the mayor’s plan is a step in the right direction, homeless individuals like Carl “Pops” Douts says programs like the one at Riverside are lifesaving.
“I appreciate them very much for the food, the clothing, blankets, and other stuff that they bring to everybody,” says Douts. “Recently, Marcus came here with a dump truck full of firewood. They have been a complete blessing.”
For Gary Basham, the ministry gave him not only food and clothes, but hope through a closer walk with Christ.
“I gave my testimony at the church one Saturday, and I could have gone on and on and on,” says Basham. “Marcus and Cheryl and that team, they’re not lifesavers, they’re life givers. Thanks to their prayers, they helped me get off of alcohol. I’ve been sober a little over 3 1/2 years now. I did have stage 4 lung cancer, and because of their prayers, and the healing power of God, it is now in remission.”
And, that’s not all: Basham is no longer homeless. For over a year now, he’s had his own apartment in north Nashville.
Cheryl Dixon-Kinzer says praying with individuals, particularly those who ask for it, is a natural part of the homeless ministry.
“We created a circle around him, and laid hands [on him],” she recalls in the case of Basham. “We poured out our hearts and our desires for God to make a difference in his life, and he’s now cancer free.”
The Riverside homeless ministry intends to make a difference in many more lives — tangibly, and spiritually. Dixon-Kinzer got a letter recently from a woman the ministry helped in early 2020. The woman eventually became a member of Riverside Nashville and moved to Seattle, Washington. In her letter, she thanked the group for the assistance it provided in her time of need and enclosed a $100 donation to assist its efforts.
“Helping people, and spreading the Word: that’s what Jesus did,” says Dixon-Kinzer, continuing, “and we should do the same.”
Lucas L. Johnson II is a freelance writer and author of the book, Finding the Good.
Southern Union | December 2022