The stately First Christian Church on the corner of Government and Stocking streets is built of sandstone with stained glass and arches that seem created for eternity. But even a house of the Lord was left behind during “white flight.” As the neighborhood changed, the congregation shrank from 600 to 12. In 2012, Lee Hixon, a retiring missionary returning home from the Middle East, was sent to First Christian by a “pulpit supply” service that connects pastors with churches that need help. The church got a passionate preacher who challenged its members to embrace the poor and the homeless. By welcoming those who don’t have money for food, much less the collection plate, First Christian Church found its own salvation.
“If all of the churches came together and did their part to take care of the people in our community, we wouldn’t need the government,” says Hixon. “The church needs to start being the church again. God is opening doors, we just need to walk through them. We will see lives changed and transformed.”
The church that is opening doors today once shut a few of its own. It went from two services and putting chairs in the aisles to a dozen members who could barely pay the bills for the building that stretches a city block. They closed off the wing of Sunday school rooms and the fellowship hall but kept the spirit alive during Sunday worship in the simple white sanctuary where stained glass tells the story of the life of Jesus.
It is tough to be homeless in Mobile and cuts at agencies and organizations are making it even harder for the approximately 500 people who live on the streets (2017 Point in Time Count). Last year, 15 Place closed its day shelter, Waterfront Rescue started charging $10 a night and the Breakfast Club stopped serving breakfast each morning. Services can be cut and money can be saved, but the homeless and their needs are still here. More and more people are coming to First Christian for help.
One of the smallest congregations in town is now a refuge for many who struggle with addictions, poverty, abuse or violence. Volunteers say caring for them is right, but it isn’t always easy. Their hearts were recently broken when a regular patron shot and killed her husband. Both had been at lunch the week before.
Every Monday, approximately 250 come to First Christian’s Bread of Life Cafe for a warm meal and compassion at a church that installed benches for bus riders at the stop by the church and provides a washer and dryer for its own homeless members. They are hugged and greeted by Hixon his wife Lisa and asked how they are doing.
“I am 61 years old and have been homeless about 15 years,” says a man waiting for lunch. “ By the grace of God I am standing here with you. It is a wilderness out there and decency means a lot to someone who has been homeless for 15 years. Even just clean water and clean clothes makes it a little better.”
To Hixon, it is more than treating people decently. He believes that “everyone has the spark of the divine who created them. We are all in the image of God.”
Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. but people start arriving hours before the doors open. In the beginning, knife fights and arguments broke out as the crowd waited outside. Today, there is order and peace and offers to help.
“They learned to trust us and what we are doing here,” says Hixon. “When they found out lunch is provided by the church and not the government, their whole attitude changed. Now they know this is done out of love for them and watch what they do or say. Many hug us and say they are praying for us.”
Lunch begins on Sunday with chopping and prep work. On Monday, 85-year old “Uncle Dave” and his wife, Clara, and other volunteers arrive at 7 a.m. to start cooking ham, turkey, chicken, or warm the pans of ziti prepared by supporters on the Eastern Shore who can’t get to the church to volunteer. Uncle Dave married his first wife in the church in 1951. Her father said he could date her but they could never leave the church so they raised their kids here, too. He says “It is hard to get better than this” as he drops pork chops onto plates. “Is it a lot of work? You bet. We have 40 to 50 on Sunday but we so many more than that on Monday. It is amazing how God has blessed this church. We don’t do this on our own.”
Wearing glitter fingernail polish, 93-year-old Mary Bell pushes the dessert cart of cookies, cakes and pies every week. A member of the church since she was 13, Mary Bell remembers when it was just a wood building and members went to the early service so they could be swimming in the Gulf by noon. Most of her friends and family have died, but a picture of her husband, Gerald, hangs in the hall and the fellowship hall is named after him. They met when she sent church newsletters to the servicemen from the church and he asked her to write him. He was serving in the Philippines and they married a month after he returned home. They were married for 67 years.
“There is a joke about two little old ladies sitting on the porch and one says ‘Alice we have gotten so old that all of our friends have died and gone to heaven. They are going to think that we didn’t make it.’ I am worried that the people I went to church with think I didn’t make it,” she says.
Volunteers describe the food as “cooked in grandma’s kitchen” as they add sausage, bacon, peppers and garlic to black eyed peas. “They get a good, filling, hot meal here,” says Clara who laughs that her constantly shaking hands are good for spreading parmesan cheese over spaghetti. “This has grown from 50 to 250 the last three years. My heart bleeds for them. Any one of us could be homeless at any given moment.”
After the tea is poured, the silverware rolled, and the bread pulled from the oven, volunteers hold hands in a circle as Hixon prays for blessings on the servers and the served. Then the doors are opened.
“Good morning everybody,” Hixon begins. “Is anyone hungry? What are you hungry for?”
Some say food. Some say the Word of God. Lisa sings and a volunteer gives the inspirational word of the day.
“No matter what you are going through, Jesus is right there with you. He will help you find the way,” says a police cadet standing behind the podium. His academy class is serving that day as a service project because they are learning that it is better to get to know people while serving them lunch instead of during a crisis on the street.
Each person is seated and served by name to encourage interaction. They all have stories. Tiffany sleeps in an abandoned house or on the street and just found out she is pregnant. The rest of her kids live with her stepfather. Roy walked from Oklahoma to Birmingham pushing his belongings strapped to a wheelchair for a job that fell through. He was put on a bus and sent to Mobile. Ashley lives under a bridge and walks two miles to the church because she feels the Spirit and love and found a place where she belongs. A couple is paying too much for a shell of a house and can’t afford utilities or food. A father comes to Lee for comfort because his son was shot by police the night before.
The church proves that change comes through serving, and those who eat are encouraged to volunteer. Hixon even gives bus passes to those who help. Diane and Rob are best friends and two of the church’s best volunteers. Both came to Bread of Life Cafe when they were homeless and serving at the church helped them get back on their feet. Diane is a fast-talking leader who organizes the delivery of lunches from the kitchen to the table. She once had a master cosmetologist license and started cutting hair outside the church for people who came to eat. She had stage four colon cancer last year and more than 30 percent of her intestines was removed as well as a tumor the size of a lemon behind her left eye.
“My surgeon told me I made his budget with all I had done. I am not a walking miracle, I am a testimony to answered prayer. Thirty years ago I had Stage Four breast cancer and they gave me six weeks to live. After everything I have done and been through, I am still here.”
Her friend Rob, a Vietnam veteran who looks like Santa Claus, was homeless and stopped at First Christian when he saw the crowd standing outside. He walked in for lunch and walked out helping.”They said we are here to serve you.” I said, “Not me, If I am getting food, I am going to help out. I kept coming back to eat and help and the next thing I know, I have a job here.”
Hired as a maintenance man, he turned his life turned around. The Veterans Administration (VA) provided him a home and is paying for his college degree in electrical engineering.
“I went to prison for decades for being a fool and when I got out I didn’t have anywhere to go,” Rob says. “Now I have my own car and my own Harley-Davidson and enjoy myself, but I always remember where I came from because I don’t ever want to go back. I want to open a business and employ some of the guys who are homeless who want to do something with their lives. I want to give them a second chance like I had. The Lord has done so much for me and I would not be here without the people of this church. This is my family.”
Rodney started working as custodian at the church as part of the Mobile Police Department’s SCORE program (Second Chance Or Else). Uncomfortable and skeptical in the beginning, he tested positive for the first three drug tests but has been clean ever since.
“It feels better not have to look over my shoulder every day and not worry about getting caught by the police or going to prison,” he says. “I have my pride back and don’t have to duck and dodge. I know that someone else in this world loves me and sees me as who I am now instead of who I was. I had a second chance and I am so thankful for the ones who gave it to me instead of locking me up. You have to stand on your own two feet and doing the right thing gives you peace. I am back to me now.”
The Bread of Life Cafe also comes from a second chance. The Monday meals began as a partnership with Ransom Cafe serving 50 barbecue lunches a week but the numbers grew into more than Ransom could handle. As one door closed, another door opened. A youth group from Louisiana worked at the church’s first Vacation Bible School and got so involved that they gave all of their spending money, $850, to cover the costs of the week. Other members of the Louisiana church came to Mobile to see how they could help. They replaced the 75-year-old stove and bought an ice-maker. One Louisiana member underwrites the total cost of the meals every week, feeding people he will never see in a place he has never lived.
First Christian provides more than meals. Many come on Mondays with just the clothes on their backs and the church helps them with that, too. Empty Sunday School rooms converted into clothes closets are filled with men’s, women’s and children’s clothes donated by the community and each person can take seven items. Signs on the walls say, “Do to others as you would have them do to you…” and “Everyone who calls on the Lord will be saved.”
“It is God’s will that any of us are here today. God purged this church even with the few people we had because they didn’t want to open the doors to the homeless,” says Debbie Snyder. She is a member of the church who came back to the church with her mother and now runs the clothes closet. “People come here with just the clothes they are wearing and we give them something clean, warm or different to wear. We also give them a blanket or some toiletries. New clothes or a decent pair of shoes makes them feel a little better about themselves.”
On Sundays, a congregation of forty people in the pews looks sparse in the sanctuary built to hold hundreds, but the congregation is diverse with blacks and whites worshipping together. Communion is passed during “How Great Thou Art” and hands are raised and amens said as the piano is played during the offering. Hixon reminds his congregation that they may be small in number but that God has honored them with a compassionate ministry that can make a big difference.
The former missionary defines the church’s mission as being the heart and voice of Jesus and that changes people’s lives forever. “We have to get away from holy huddles and serve the community,” he says. “We entertain angels unawares and sometimes we actually serve Jesus. We just don’t know it. When I was hungry you gave me something to eat. When I was thirsty you gave me something to drink. When I was naked you clothed me. This is the way God calls us to serve.”
How you can help:
Volunteer. The number of people coming to Bread of Life is growing and more help is needed. To volunteer, show up on Monday at 10AM at the side kitchen door and ask for Lee.
Donate toiletries and clothes. There is a big need for men’s socks, clothes and belts but they also give out clothes for women and children. Drop off at the church anytime on Monday or Tuesday or from 10AM to 2 PM on Wednesday.