SPECIAL REPORTS

Food for the Stomach and Soul

Rhode Island Church Ministry Spearheads Effort to Provide for Needy, Bring them Closer to God

An Early Seekers volunteer gives food and talks with a homeless person at Providence Bus Stop. A team of church members go down to the bus stop each Saturday morning to distribute food, clothes and prayer. © Adam R. Cole 2008

A special service, Live it Up, is held for homeless people. Homeless are bused from downtown Providence to Praise Tabernacle in Cranston. The homeless attend the service and then are served a meal afterward. © Adam R. Cole 2008

CRANSTON, R.I. – Some have spent the whole week sleeping on concrete, bearing the cold of a winter in Rhode Island, struggling to find shelter, struggling to find jobs, struggling to kick the alcohol/drug addiction that seems to beckon them every second. But here, at a humble Church in Cranston, they are able to find pure joy, lifting up hands, dancing, and letting their hearts and their prayers be known to their God, their Heavenly Father. After the service, the participants are given a hot meal, for some the only solid food in their stomachs for that day, a perfect compliment to the spiritual food they’ve already eater.

It’s called Live it Up. No, this isn’t the title of a special night at the local pub but rather the title of a church service, one that caters to homeless, encouraging those in attendance to live up, more full lives, instead down and out.

“Expect great things. Achieve great things,” says Praise Tabernacle Pastor Allen Pangburn to the homeless service attendees, nearly 100 in the crowd. Pangburn exchanges a suit for jeans and button-down for the homeless service and speaks about the triumphs, through God, over alcohol and drugs—and how much, ultimately, God wants to make our lives better—if we let Him.

Cranston’s Praise Tabernacle, an interdenominational/multi-cultural church, sends two buses—each bus driven by Church members—to Providence’s Kennedy Plaza bus station ever Sunday to retrieve a section of Providence’s homeless—about 60-80 each week—to the Live it Up service. Afterwards, the homeless Churchgoers are fed a meal—salad, spaghetti and meatballs and a dessert—and then brought back to downtown Providence.

It’s not just food for the body they’re receiving, explains Pangburn, 44, but also food for the soul, what he considers even more important nutrients to someone’s well being.

Pangburn and his church realize that life on the streets is a tough environment, one with rampant thievery, filled with hatred, and worst of all, drugs and alcohol. With these conditions in mind Pangburn and church volunteers try to create an environment filled with love and community, ideals preached by Jesus Christ, whom is the center point of the Christian faith and Praise Tabernacle. Pangburn’s sermon each week contains a theme of hope, made clear with Bible references, and gives a practical take on getting through life; he puts life in a perspective of fulfilling God’s purpose, letting Him bless a life, realities that don’t occur when drugs and alcohol dominate a person’s life.

The soundtrack to the inspirational service is exuberant praise and worship songs, songs with the messages of Jesus Christ set to rock music. The band is called the Live it Up band, who are a holy motley crew of individuals, much of whom have seen the dark side—drugs and alcohol—and drew close to Jesus to set them free from their addiction.

John A. Meloccaro, 54, is the defecto ‘front man’ for the Live it Up band. He knows that there is power in music in uplifting others.

“Music can help change lives,” he says. “If they listen to the words, while singing them with their hearts, they can be transformed.”

The intent of the service—and the outreach overall—explains Pangburn, is to change what they are and who they, transforming them from people caught on a wave of going from one high to the next, to people that want to not only serve their community but serve a higher power. Pangburn truly believes that God has the power to do that and has already seen positive change in countless lives. He says that the one element missing in most 12-step programs is God and while his church isn’t trying to be a rehabilitation center, it is trying to infuse a love and a care—that is the message of Jesus Christ—that will rebuild people’s lives on the right path.

“Not just band-aids ,” said Pangburn, who grew up in Fredericton, a town Newbrunswick, Canada, and eventually led a church in that area, after graduating from seminary school in Maine; he took over at Praise Tabernacle more than eight years ago when the Church was without a pastor.

Pangburn and other Praise Tabernacle churgoers hinge their outlook on the poor and their giving spirit on a Bible reference that puts serving others in a context of serving God. In Mathew 25:40, it states: whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me,” meaning that good works toward the poor is like serving God directly.

* * *

It’s 6:30 a.m. and the Rhode Island rain has already started to downpour on those in Providence. The foul weather doesn’t stop the bright spirits and loving personalities of Praise Tabernacle who have formed at Kennedy Plaza bus station—as they do every Saturday morning—to pass out sandwiches, clothing items—socks, jackets, other necessities—and pray for hurting and homeless individuals. The time and the place is sort of a meeting spot, of sorts, for homeless people, because it is about the time when the local shelter, Crossroads, evicts clients, who are allowed to stay nightly but must leave in the morning.

About 100 sandwiches, usually egg salad or ham and cheese, are made for the Saturday distribution. A drink and chips accompany the sandwich, along with a prayer.

“Homeless people have needs just like anyone else,” said Chuck E. Johnson, 60, who runs a landscaping business and serves as weekly bus driver for to pick up the homeless for the service. He has been going to Praise Tabernacle for the past 20 years. “Beyond just the life necessities—food and shelter—they need someone to talk to them and believe in them. That is what we’re trying to do.”

This outreach, launched about two years ago, is how the seeds of the Live it Up service were planted, as simultaneous seeds of Jesus were planted—and watered—in needy people of Providence. Those inspired by the Christian gospel, wanted to take it further, through worship, and commit themselves each Sunday to getting on the bus bound for Praise Tabernacle and displaying their hearts before God.

While its primary aim remains about serving God, the Saturday outreach now acts under the auspices of the non-profit group Hope for the Homeless. The non-profit group helped organize a widespread homeless giving effort in conjunction with National Hunger and Homelessness Week in November 2007. That event was a major success, culminated in the distribution of 400 backpacks stuffed with clothes and necessities.

That success and continued success of the Saturday outreach, is now indicated by the two bus loads that attend the Live it Up service, according to Artie J. Russo, the principle founder and director of Hope for the Homeless.

“By coming out here, giving away the things we do, we display the love of God, a love that He has inspired through us,” said Russo, who admits to his own struggles with drugs and alcohol, though is proud to say that God helped him kick the habit. “God is definitely at work here…and we just try to remain obedient to what He has planned for us.”

The ultimate goal for Hope for the Homeless and Praise Tabernacle is to create something called a Dream Center, in which homeless can not only work in the center but also utilize the center’s resources to get jobs; the center would also tutor center participants in Christian teachings in the hopes that they lead more holy lives.

Other projects targeted at homeless have been launched as well, including a makeover day for homeless women.

Those involved in bettering the lives of the homeless that whatever is in the inspired in the mind—which is they believe is usually from God—is possible. Saturday morning outreach participants are still amazed that all this started with a Saturday morning prayer group.

That prayer group—the Early Seekers—one day decided that their prayers would be better answered if they went out to the streets to directly help the lost and hurting.

The prayers haven’t stopped; in fact, they got more abundant.

A team of ladies writes down people’s concerns and needs and places them in a prayer book, one that gets types up and forwarded to a prayer-focused group of Praise Tabernacle membership, in order to build collective prayers for those individuals in need. The prayer list includes almost 75 names of homeless and others needing to be uplifted.

“I believe the power of prayer is the key to all our needs,” said Jan S. Houde, 58. “For as the Bible says, ‘the fervent prayer of a righteous man availith much.’ And the bible also says ‘you have not because you asked not.’ And His word also tells us to ‘ask,’ ‘seek’ and knock.’ So, when you pray, believe that He hears and He will answer.”

Houde and others point out that He has indeed answered, in the fact that they all have seen people receive the apartment/homes they were praying out, been united with family, and have strengthened themselves enough to fight past the habit.

Dave Quinn, 57, is a living example of this work. He used to accept the hand outs, now he distributes them. He’s gone in and out of rehab and AAA meetings all his life, but says the entire time, he’s try to set himself straight without God. Just a few moments, he said He recommitted his life to Christ—and hasn’t looked back. He says his mission now is reaching out to those with the same problem and helping find the same kind of peaceful resolve to the battle with addiction.

“Life in Christ is a process,” said Quinn. “You will always have ups and downs of life. But it is important to remain close to Him – and know, always, that Jesus loves you too much to leave you in the state your are in [with drugs/alcohol]. He wants to make your life better.”

Joe M. Amatel, 43, is another success story. Though he is still fighting to be 100 percent sober for good, he’s laying off the bottle for long stretches, months at a time.

“It has changed me…I wake up with a prayer instead of waking up with a drink.”

* * * It’s another Sunday and the Live it Up band is rocking as usual, playing to the tune of “Some Kind of Wonderful” and inserting the Jesus into the lyrics.

People are on their feet with hands in the air.

Pangburn delivers another inspiring message about doing what God has planned for them, to use the gifts that He has instilled in them, to live up and not down.

He quotes from Jeremiah 29:11: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

This is the central point of all that is Praise Tabernacle’s homeless ministry, to give show the poor that God, their creator, wants to see them succeed, to build a brighter future.

At the end, Pangburn does a traditional altar call, but this is not traditional because these people’s lives are not traditional. The entire audience comes to the front, bowing their heads together, some already with tears in their lives. When the final “amen” is sounded, they turn to each other for hugs. Most have truly brought Jesus into their lives at that moment, believes Pangburn, and with that, he knows that the power of God, flowing through people as something known as the Holy Spirit, will change and make their lives for the better.