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Ministering in the Streets

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — It’s a Saturday morning just before 9, overcast with that kind of drizzling cold that seeps into the bones and won’t leave. But if Becky McClelland of Chesapeake feels the damp, no one would ever know it.

Before her stretches a line of men and women from the floodwall at the Huntington side of the Ohio River down to the shoreline where Canada geese scrounge for scraps.

They come bearing scraggy beards, grimy sweatshirts and gap-toothed smiles, asking for a pair of gloves, a tube of toothpaste, a roll of toilet paper.

With a broad smile McClelland faces those others might shun.

“Here you go,” she says as she hands Bill a white plastic grocery bag filled with soap, shaving cream and a razor.

Next in line is a tall, lean man in a thin jacket and worn jeans.

“Can I get pair of socks? It will help me out,” he asks hesitantly, as if he’s not sure what the tall brunette he’s facing will say.

With a reassuring grin and a nod, McClelland reaches into the back of the cargo hold of an SUV and hands the man a pair of brown socks.

“I love it. I love it. I love it,” she says about why she comes Saturday after Saturday to hand out hot food and the barest of necessities to men and women not too proud to ask for help.

The Chesapeake Middle School teacher comes each week to represent her church, Cross Community Church of South Point, at this outreach ministry.

“I came down with my Sunday school class at another church and got completely hooked, “McClelland said. “I know that I am so blessed to have what I have. God has blessed me. It is only right to do for others.”

Next to McClelland are tables laden with stainless steel chafing dishes filled with scrambled eggs and biscuits and gravy. Nearby are tables laden with Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate, orange juice, cider and coffee.

One of the volunteers manning the drinks table is Claudia Proztman of Proctorville, who seems to pour endless cups of hot refreshments, handing each out as if it is the first. She’s been showing up at the riverbank since July to volunteer at the food line or wherever she’s needed.

“I feel like I need to give back,” she said. “God has blessed me. These people have such a positive attitude.’”

The hot food comes from the kitchen at Highlawn Baptist Church in Huntington; the volunteers from 10 churches in the Tri-State including Community Cross, Big Branch, Chesapeake Nazarene, Union Baptist and First Church of the Nazarene, all from Lawrence County.

“It’s a God thing,” Keith Smith of Highlawn, said. “People hear about this and come to see what is going on. To some people, this is a ministry they feel they have been called to. It doesn’t matter if it is raining or snowing, we are here. Jesus is the one in charge. He just lets me help.”

What Smith calls a street ministry, started about five years ago when two former Huntington City Mission workers took a coffee urn and boxes of doughnuts out to the alleyways of the city.

“We have given away 10,000 rolls of toilet paper, and as many snack crackers, toothpaste and hugs and smiles and love,” Smith said.

Those coming forth for the food are “the homeless, the working and unworking poor,” Smith said. “Some have addictions, but some people in nice homes have addiction problems.”

Teaming up with the area churches is the Tri-State branch of Bikers for Christ, a national motorcycle club dedicated to spreading the Gospel. This morning it’s Larry Smith of the Bikers who wanders among the crowds, sharing a joke, making sure everyone who wants something to eat gets it.

But Clark has witnessed more than hungry bodies getting nourishment; hungry souls have found sustenance as well at these weekly breakfasts.

“We want them to know God loves them, pure, plain and simple,” he said. “When someone comes to the Lord, there are a lot of people who have planted the seed. It’s not one person who leads them.”

Not everyone who volunteers at the breakfasts represent a church affiliation. Throughout the crowd this Saturday are Marshall University students who easily joke and chat with the diners.

“I see a lot of people who are very gracious for a little,” Todd McClure, an MU junior, said. “A lot of people are always looking for more and more. Here are people who are grateful for all they get.”

With him is Keith Pearson, a sophomore at the university, who said he had a social epiphany after reading “The Irresistible Revolution,” by Christian activist Shane Claiborne.

“I need to do things and share God’s love,” Pearson said. “People here see problems and they try to meet the needs.”

If she is able Stacy Thurmond of Huntington comes down each week to the riverbank to get a hot breakfast. The grandmother of two calls the work of the volunteers standing before her “remarkable.”

“The best thing I like is the prayer,” she said.

As it gets closer to 11 a.m. and the empty food trays get packed up, someone cries out, “Come and get in a circle and thank God for what you have.”

Quickly the crowd joins hands in the parking lot as Smith comes front and center to preach. Taking his text from Romans 3:23 — For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God — he speaks about eternal life.

“Heaven is a gift. You have to believe in Jesus Christ,” he tells them. Then he asks all to bow their heads.

“Some here they need you, Father. And need your free gift. It is up to them to ask you to come into their life,” Smith says holding his Bible up in the air. “It is your word, Father, not mine. I ask you to save them.”

Then with shouts and cheers, the crowd disperses. Watching the men and women amble back through the floodwall gates into downtown Huntington, Paul Merritt, pastor of Chesapeake Nazarene, talks about the ministry.

“This is awesome,” he said. “I have a sense of gratitude and a sense of helplessness. We feed today, but it doesn’t end hunger or homelessness. But for two hours we help.”