Ron Muir can rattle off a dozen reasons why he feels called to serve the homeless of downtown Birmingham. Topping the list — he and his wife Jolene were once homeless themselves.
“That’s where I come from. I was saved off drugs in 1988,” Muir said. “You’ve got to wear them shoes before you can really know what’s going on with people.”
Muir and a team of volunteers from Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Warrior, provide lunch for the homeless every Monday as part of a ministry known as Under the Bridge. The group meets at Linn Park in Birmingham where they share a gospel message, sing hymns, distribute sack lunches and pray with or just listen to anyone who shows up, offering a hug and the opportunity to talk with someone.
“We always deliver the Word first,” said Muir, who alternates with other volunteers to deliver the message. “God has always been there before us. He’s already prepared the way for us before we get there.”
The church budgets funds for food, but much of it is donated by volunteers, church members and community friends.
Bibles, shoes, socks, blankets, clothing and hygiene products are distributed during the gatherings. Each week 60 to 70 sack lunches and 25 to 30 packages of hygiene products are distributed. Most items are donated and some are purchased by the volunteers.
Occasionally people request specific items.
“One man asked for a backpack and a pair of size 10 shoes,” volunteer Ray Stubblefield said. “The next day a lady brought in two brand new pairs of size 10 shoes. Her husband had died and never had the chance to wear them.”
At a local thrift store “Papa Stubbs,” as he is affectionately called, found a like-new backpack. Fulfilling special requests is important, Muir said, because it provides an opportunity for people to witness God at work.
The ministry began under a bridge of Interstate 20 in 2013 as Muir realized the call to reach the lost by serving the homeless. Muir and his wife tried serving in other areas of ministry before God refined their calling. The Muirs volunteered with homeless ministries in other areas and when they moved back to Warrior and their home church, Smoke Rise, they approached the church about beginning a mission.
“I know where I’ve come from. I could have died out there on the streets if I did not know the Lord,” Muir recalled. “People ask me why I want to help the homeless. If no one had reached out to me I would be in hell right now. Not everyone understands. It’s a calling.”
Muir and his team serve a diverse population. Many of those served by Under the Bridge draw disability or Social Security checks but are unable to afford permanent housing. Others possess a criminal record that hinders their ability to find work. Some have been homeless their entire lives.
“We don’t discriminate. He (Christ) tells us to go to all nations,” Muir said.
Often a distrust among members of the homeless community exists because many have been hurt by those offering aid.
“Everyone has given up on them,” Muir said. “It’s like they are in a war zone. They are in the drop zone behind enemy lines.”
By meeting a physical need volunteers open a door to share the good news of the gospel, offering hope to the hopeless. They extend a listening ear, meeting the homeless on “common ground.” Muir shows up with a three-day beard, wearing street clothes and speaking with common language to build rapport with the those who need to know the volunteers understand their situation.
“I’m just like they are,” Muir said. “We have our own demons that draw us away from God. It’s a choice you have to make. I’m not a pastor. I’m just being used by God.”
‘They’re just people’
Some homeless are Christians who share the gospel with their friends. Numerous salvations have occurred but volunteers don’t always see the fruit of the seeds sown.
“We get to know them and then sometimes we don’t see them again,” said volunteer Mary Stubblefield. “They’re just people,” she added. “It could be me or you.”
Churches or individuals desiring to help with the ministry can contact Smoke Rise Baptist Church. Under the Bridge hopes to partner with other churches to make a greater impact and are available to coach groups who seek to begin a similar ministry.
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