A small cadre of dedicated volunteers busily spruced up the buildings and grounds of St. Michael’s Episcopal Ministry Center in Riverside on a recent Wednesday as though their lives depended on it.
Damion, 43, believes his does. A few years ago, he lived in Hunt Park across the street, “doing whatever I had to to get high.”
Daily he wandered over to St. Michael’s Center, and every time Wes, a volunteer, promptly chased him off the property.
Now he and Wes are roommates.
“We’re the original odd couple,” laughs Damion, in blue jean shorts and a black ‘One Beat, One Heart’ T-shirt. “I just moved into my first apartment in around a decade.”
He still comes to the center daily to perform odd jobs. Somehow, says the former altar boy and Boy Scout, a graduate of Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles who sang in his church choir, “I lost my way. I had no direction.”
He rediscovered it at St. Michael’s, where the Rev. Canon Mary Crist offers food for body and soul. She celebrates the Eucharist and offers bible study and meals weekly.
“They would sing songs I loved,” Danion said. “It reminded me of when I was an altar boy and sang in the choir; it hooked me. Here, I can’t carry a tune and I was blurting out the words, but they let me sing.”
Although no Sunday church services are held at St. Michael’s since it became a mission outreach center about five years ago, Crist calls it “a community of hope for all people.” The center offers food giveaways, a Wednesday evening meal and bible study and a Thursday evening community dinner.
“We feed about 60 people daily and 30 on weekends, and seventeen people reaffirmed baptismal vows before Easter,” she said.
She credits a growing attendance, at least in part, to the transformational power of Christian community. “Closing a church doesn’t mean closing a ministry and the people we serve really do depend upon the living Christ,” she said.
“Christ is not an abstract concept, it’s what keeps them alive and so we do everything we can to teach the bible.”
The Rev. Canon Kelli Grace Kurtz, chair of the diocesan Program Group on Mission Congregations, said St. Michael’s is one of several such centers in the diocese that rent worship space to other faith communities. They are “great examples of an Episcopal Church presence in a community without a worshipping congregation,” Kurtz said.
Crist and others say the center offers a safe place to rebuild trust. “The biggest thing we’re providing is a welcoming, trusting relationship. Most of the people we serve here have been incarcerated. They know what that’s like.
“They’re not wanting to go back but it’s very hard to get a job if you’re a felon. It’s very hard to get a job if you have three years missing from your resume. It’s very hard to start over, but the first step is being in a community that cares about you.”
Nourishing body and soul
There are seven fully stocked refrigerators inside the kitchen, tables loaded with loaves of bread, cupboards filled with pasta, cereals, canned goods, all donated by local restaurants and grocery stores and overseen by Gloria.
The 64-year-old grandmother of five has spent the day packing grocery bags to give to the hungry who appear at the door, and planning a simple nourishing meal to accompany the evening bible study.
Like the others, she says the center has been a lifesaver.
“I lived across the street in a garage with two of my granddaughters,” she recalled. “Their mother was in prison; their dad was murdered.”
Although admittedly she rarely talked to anyone at St. Michael’s, she accepted an invitation to a community meal at the center and “it opened my heart.”
“I started to volunteer. Within three months, I was running the kitchen. Now, this is my family and my home. St. Michael’s means the world to me,” she said.
She offers chocolate chip cookies to sample. “What I have learned about love here — it’s my world. There’s a lot of love here. People come; they don’t want to leave. The most important thing is giving. I would love for people to know that, if they ever had a need to come here, there are open arms here.”
Now her granddaughters have graduated and moved on, and she has moved to a nearby senior residence. She organizes volunteers like Robert, who are eager to help with set-up and prepare for meals, “to do whatever needs to be done.”
Born in Guam, Robert, 54, says he has been a boxer and an insurance company employee, performed odd jobs, lived in Texas and California, and just this day, has chopped vegetables, picked up, cleaned up, and helped set up the hall for bible study and the evening meal.
Physical challenges and substance abuse sidelined him and he found himself homeless and unable to work. The center transformed his life, made him feel he belongs and it reunited him with a cousin, Yoly, also a volunteer.
“I’m a recovering addict; I’ve had issues throughout my life,” says Yoly, 48, her arms and hands spotted with drops of the white paint she has been applying to bathroom walls.
“I encountered Jesus in prison in 2007, but I relapsed. This is the first time for me ever, surrendering to God’s will.”
She attended a recovery group meeting at the center, stayed to eat and returned to volunteer. “It was a rainy day,” she recalled. “I arrived early. They were feeding lunch to the homeless. I got lunch. I called my brother, crying with joy, not knowing why I was crying.”
After more than two decades using methamphetamines, she has been drug-free for five months and considers the St. Michael’s center her family. Often she leads prayer in the kitchen.
With five months’ sobriety, she has begun the painful process of healing: “I was molested as a child at 12; it’s why I became an addict, why I lived a troubled life.”
But the community’s acceptance, she said, transformed her life: “Mary looked at me as a human being. It’s what I love about this place. They don’t look down at you. They try to help you through. In the past, I dealt with cutthroat people, people who always wanted something. I did drugs to numb myself. But here, I feel at peace.”
Here, “I am learning another way of life through God’s grace and I allow people to love me for who I am. I am getting trust back. I come here with a big smile, full of energy and ready to work for God, Monday through Friday.”
Gardening ministry is a lifesaver, says St. Michael’s volunteer
Wes tends the garden he has been painstakingly restoring. Probably the longest-serving volunteer, he points out the peach tree “I planted ten years ago. I didn’t think it would grow or bear fruit, but look at it.”
There are strawberries, boysenberries, tomatoes, rosemary, artichokes, sage, star cactus, potted plants, sunflowers, oregano, even a chicken.
The former plumbing, heating and air conditioning repairman and carpet installer was living in the Santa Ana river bottom, not far from St. Michael’s, when someone told him about the center.
“I was getting ready to collect cans to get breakfast,” he recalled. “I came over and sooner or later, brought my guitar and played. I started helping out, mopping the floor. Eventually I started on the garden.
“It probably saved my life. At first, camping out gets cold. Then it gets old. There are camp raiders who steal your belongings and others who trash your stuff.”
He lived for a time at the center but eventually was able, along with Damion, to move into a two-bedroom apartment about a block away, accomplished, “through the grace of God and Mary Crist.”
The center’s budget comes mainly from the church rental income, and from donations. They can always use more, both monetary and socks as well as other ‘creature comfort’ donations, Crist said. A part-time administrator, Maria, is the only paid staff person.
Recently, the center agreed to collaborate with a local ministry to offer daily lunches at another site. “We will recruit a new team for this from people who are there during the day (as we did at St. Michael’s) and bring one or two from our own team to help train the new team,” Crist said. The new arrangement happened after city officials asked St. Michael’s to stop hosting daily lunches and a Saturday breakfast for six months. “There is a lot of pressure to relocate our services because of the problems in the park,” Crist said. “We were actually being characterized as a magnet for homeless people.”
Last October, officials said their number-one complaint involved the city’s homeless population. They said residents and business owners complained that parks and commercial areas were overrun by homeless people, who leave trash, use drugs, panhandle and commit minor crimes like car break-ins.
In April 2017, Riverside city officials estimated the city’s homeless population at about 2,400, an increase from the previous year’s tally of about 2,100.
Crist said she agreed to work with the city, other ministries and a homeless emergency team to feed and find housing for those who want to get off the street and for those at risk of becoming homeless.
“In the last two months, we helped find housing in the neighborhood for four of our own staff, and for three more adults (who are now employed). We are working with another young family now,” she said.
St. Michael’s is also offering a summer ‘Jesus Goes to the Movies” series and, and held a pop-up church and outdoor barbecue on June 10 at the center, located at 4070 Jackson Street.
Meanwhile, Damion and other volunteers say they want to work through the center to help others, as they have been transformed.
“I had given up on myself,” Damion said. “Sometimes, you can’t do it by yourself. Here, they accept you with open arms, no questions asked. They are willing to lend a helping hand, showing me the world hadn’t given up on me.
“It turned my attitude around, my outlook, changed me inside. I remembered a lot of the things I was taught when growing up, things I had let go of. I never leave here not feeling good.”
Although the “artist at heart” plans to begin computer animation classes in the fall, he adds emphatically: “I will be connected to this place for the rest of my life.”
Yoly agreed. “The Holy Spirit embraces people that are suffering. I’ve adopted Gloria as my mother; my cousin Robert is here. Look at us now, we’ve blossomed like beautiful flowers because we help others. We love one another, even though we are different from one another. We are working for God.”