“Memphis is the home of Elvis, the Blues, and just about every street is blessed with the sweet, saucy aroma of the greatest barbecue in the world. We love our Graceland and Beale Street and take pride in serving all kinds of very sick kids from around the world at St. Jude’s Hospital. We are a vibrant and diverse city seeking to revitalize our downtown and improve our national image.”
But a moment later, Rev. Chuck Neugebauer, pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Memphis, Tenn., cuts right to the chase: “Memphis, Tennessee is a great place to live, work and worship … that is if you are able to live in the right place in Memphis.”
As Neugebauer well knows, having served in the city since 1995, there are some 2,000 people wholly unable to live “in the right place in Memphis” on any given night. In fact, they don’t live any place at all. Homelessness is rampant in the city and the poverty rate is a staggering 27%.
“Many of our citizens are poorly educated, living in broken homes without marketable skills, and are therefore one paycheck or doctor’s visit away from being homeless. The opioid crisis and high alcoholism rate drive many into the streets committing crimes to fund their addictions,” shared Neugebauer.
Hope for the homeless
To help serve those affected by the growing problem of homelessness in the city, Neugebauer and the volunteers at Christ the King joined other local churches through a ministry called Room in the Inn. The ministry offers food and shelter to homeless men, women and children from October through March, all while sharing the Gospel of Jesus to bring hope to troubled lives. Room in the Inn also provides food and shelter during the hot summer months to women and children in need.
The ministry began in Nashville 30 years ago, and the city of Memphis adopted and adapted the program in 2012 as churches throughout the city got involved. With the help of many volunteers, Christ the King serves the homeless through Room in the Inn at a local Presbyterian church.
“Our Christ the King volunteers currently meet our homeless guests at this small church,” explained Neugebauer. “The guests have been previously vetted in a downtown facility called The Carpenter’s House, and then have been transported from downtown Memphis to this local church. We then prepare their beds, serve them a hot meal, visit, share the Gospel and pray with them.”
It’s heartbreaking to consider that most of these guests would otherwise spend the night on the dangerous streets of Memphis after they’ve already been out all day.
“The men are exhausted when they arrive,” Neugebauer said. “They seek food, prayer, a change of underthings, a shower and a bed. Lights out is at 10:00 p.m., but most of them are in their bed areas way before that. The women are actually more challenging to deal with because they come wary of everyone, especially of us men serving them. It makes sense. Women spend every night vulnerable in the streets under the dangerous possibility – probability – of being assaulted, harassed or robbed by men. Women stay up longer when they are with us, and you can tell it’s because they feel safer within the walls of the church. They don’t want the evening to end.”
It’s challenging work for the volunteers, too: Throughout the night, two men from the congregation, called “shepherds” or “innkeepers,” spend the night watching over the guests for their own and the church’s protection. Unfortunately, Neugebauer added, “it is always difficult to get folks to volunteer at a location they are unfamiliar with and do not have an investment in.”
Meanwhile, the fact remains: there were simply not enough beds for the homeless in Memphis, especially during the cold and harsh winter.
Room for more
The members of Christ the King chose to pursue this ministry further by making their own church a Room in the Inn destination. They carried out a major capital campaign in order to renovate available space to accommodate 15 beds, showers, washing machines, clothing closets and a kitchen. The church also sought to buy, rent or lease a van or bus so that they could provide a reliable means of transportation from The Carpenter’s House to their location.
Neugebauer explained that this new space would help provide “a safe environment for the most vulnerable among us, [and] our own Lutheran church [will] give us a greater opportunity to glorify God and share the Gospel of grace through Christ with those thankful for our service to them as our guests.”
Throughout the process of planning, Christ the King thought to seek support from Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF) through the Kaleidoscope Fund, a granting initiative established by LCEF, and so applied for a grant that would help them make Room in the Inn a reality. When the grant was awarded to the church, Neugebauer said they felt as though it was “confirmation that we are on the right track in terms of where we needed to go for those less fortunate than we are and for our own faith to grow.”
The grant funds will indeed allow Christ the King to purchase a van, 20 beds, heavy laundry equipment, towels, sheets, pillows, clothing and transportable food for the homeless to take with them back into the streets when they leave.
Christy Hill, volunteer coordinator for Christ the King’s Room in the Inn, looks forward to how this renovation will impact both the guests and the volunteers.
“Having [Room in the Inn] here on our campus will enable us to be more efficient, involve the school children and most likely more parishioners will volunteer,” said Hill. “We’ll be able to store all our linens, supplies, etc. in one place; wash everything here on campus; and prep food in our new kitchen. Much of our time is spent moving plastic tubs back and forth, going to laundromats and cooking food at home and bringing to the church so this will be a huge time saver!”
Hill said that this new Room in the Inn could also enable the church to be open several nights a month if other local churches send volunteers to help serve.
One thing is for certain: through Christ the King’s ministry to the homeless, more people in Memphis will be able to spend the night in the “right place” – and the volunteers are also finding their own hearts in the right place as they serve.
“We are learning more about compassion, diversity, patience and brotherhood than we ever would have known without the Kaleidoscope Fund grant,” shared Neugebauer. “The grant will enable [Christ the King] to make the Room in the Inn ministry a permanent gem in the ministry and mission of our congregation.”