Webster Groves Church of the Nazarene is located in an inner-ring suburb of the same name in the St. Louis metro area. Webster Groves can be characterized as a somewhat affluent community. However, the reality of poverty is not far away; the demographics show that, within a five-mile radius of our church, more than twenty thousand people live in poverty. Our church, which records an average attendance of around two hundred, is an established congregation that has been around for more than a century.
What is the motel ministry?
About a mile from our church, along a major road that leads into poorer areas of the city, are three consecutive motels. These motels provide temporary and long-term housing for people in need—often, people who are just one step away from homelessness. These motels make up what Phineas Bresee would have called a “neglected quarter” of our city.
For three years now, our church has engaged in a multifaceted compassionate ministry to the people who live in these motels. We seek to meet people’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. We distribute care packages and winter clothing to the residents. We offer our church’s facilities as a place for them to do laundry at no cost. We share with them about our church’s food pantry and clothes closet. We assist with job applications, financial stewardship, and apartment searches. We invite them to worship with us and provide transportation. We hold a monthly Kinship Meal. During these meals, we set up tables in the parking lot of one of the motels and eat together. The goal of these meals is simply to be present with people, hear their stories, and become their friends. These meals are the primary way in which people at the motels have gotten connected to our congregation.
How did the motel ministry get started?
This ministry began when we opened our eyes to our immediate community. Mother Teresa once said, “Find your own Calcutta.” She knew that Calcuttas—places of hurt and suffering—are never far away from us. We had a Calcutta right next to our church. When I drove by these motels, I noticed them and wondered what the people who stayed there were facing in their lives. I wondered if there was anything our church could do to bless them.
Mother Teresa once said, “Find your own Calcutta.” She knew that Calcuttas—places of hurt and suffering—are never far away from us. We had a Calcutta right next to our church.
We started small by compiling some care packages with socks, hygiene products, bottles of water, granola bars, and a note from our church. We personally delivered them to the residents and let them know that the church down the street was there for them. This initial personal connection created relationships, and people from the motels began to attend our services. As we got to know them and learned more about their struggles and needs, we then began to offer other kinds of support.
What do you wish you knew on day one that you didn’t know?
First, I wish I had known the value of community partnership. Several of the people to whom we minister deal with mental illness. As a pastor and as volunteers, we have had to learn a lot about how to respond well to that segment of the population. We have begun working with an organization that cares for the mentally ill. We refer people to their case workers, and their case workers in turn refer people to our church. It has become a beautiful partnership.
Second, I wish I had known how important it is to provide people with a sense of belonging. After our Christmas Eve service two years ago, one woman from the motels told me that this was the best Christmas she had ever had. I asked her why, and she responded: “Because I feel like I belong somewhere.” This woman—abused by her father, caught up in drug addiction, and diagnosed with mental illness—found a sense of belonging at our church. I have come to realize that meaningful connection is one of the most important things we can offer to the poor.
How has the motel ministry impacted the community around you?
Our approach to the motel ministry is incarnational. Just as God came to be present with us in the person of Jesus, so we, as the body of Jesus, want to go and be present with our community. The motels in our community have a reputation of being dark places because of drug use, the sex trade, and violence. As we have shown up at the motels on a consistent basis, I trust that we have radiated the light of Christ into that darkness.
The greatest impact this ministry has made on the community is that it has connected people to our church, where they have experienced the transforming grace of God. One by one, we have seen friends from the motels become incorporated into the body of Christ, where they have found hope, freedom, belonging, and new life in Christ.
The motel ministry has also given us the opportunity to become more engaged in our community. We have worked with the police and health department officials. One local school collected coats we could distribute to people at the motels. The managers of the motels have become our friends. Because of this ministry, our church’s presence in the local community has increased.
How has this ministry challenged and strengthened your congregation?
Everyone likes the idea of being a missional church. Everyone is on board with the notion of going into the community to care for the poor and broken. However, not everyone is willing to accept the sacrifice and commitment that goes along with mission. This ministry is hard work because we are dealing with people who have serious needs, and we want to go beyond charity and actually enter into their lives. Not everyone is up for that challenge. And while most people are enthusiastic about the fact that our church now includes people who come from hard places, there are some who would probably prefer a safer or more comfortable church experience. That tension is there, but it is a tension I have come to accept.
Everyone likes the idea of being a missional church. Everyone is on board with the notion of going into the community to care for the poor and broken. However, not everyone is willing to accept the sacrifice and commitment that goes along with mission.
There are three ways the motel ministry has really strengthened our congregation.
First, we have become a more wounded church. When Jesus appeared to his disciples after the resurrection, he still carried the wounds of his suffering in his risen body (John 20:20). In welcoming our friends from the motels into our church, we have learned to bear their wounds with them—addiction, loneliness, mental illness, and despair. We bear these wounds not in defeat but in patient expectation of God’s healing grace. In return, our burden-sharing has caused us to be more aware of our own wounds and indebtedness to God’s healing grace.
Second, we have become a more diverse church. As we have cared for our community and shown Christ’s gracious welcome to outsiders, we have become more racially, economically, and socially diverse. Now, when we gather for the Lord’s Supper in worship, God’s kingdom is on beautiful display—black and white, rich and poor, homeless and professionals all share in the body and blood of Christ as one family.
Third, we have become a more vibrant church. Jesus said that those who lose their lives gain them (Luke 17:33), and that applies to our church. As we have lost our life—our time, our resources, and our energies—for the community, we have gained new life. There is a fresh, collective excitement in our church about what God is doing in the lives of people and also about the kind of congregation we are becoming.
How do you credit the success of the motel ministry?
Our success is due to a small but committed group of volunteers who understand the nature of the ministry and are deeply passionate about it. One of the important developments that took place among our volunteers was that they began to see that this ministry was about more than an occasional event or an isolated deed of compassion. They began to see that this ministry was about relationships. At some point, I began to hear stories about our volunteers taking people from the motels to the movies, or out bowling, or to dinner. I began to hear stories of volunteers inviting people from the motels into their homes for a meal. That personal initiative and engagement in the lives of people in need is what has made this ministry last.
Our leadership has also been a key factor to our success. Although not everyone on our church board is personally involved in this ministry, everyone is highly supportive. Our leadership has bought into the vision of being a missional church—a church that does not exist for itself but for the community where we have been placed, especially for the poor and broken nearby. Without that shared vision among our leadership, we could not devote so much to this ministry.
How has this ministry blessed, challenged, strengthened you as a pastor?
I have gotten to see Christ overcome some of the greatest barriers that divide human beings. In our Kinship Meals, in our worship services, in our Bible studies, in our times of fellowship, I have seen Christ form bonds between people of very different economic, racial, and social backgrounds. Without our motel ministry, I don’t think those bonds would have formed, and I don’t think our church would be such a powerful witness to the reconciling love of Christ.
What do you hope to see in the future for the motel ministry?
One of our short-term goals is to give more leadership and ownership to people who have benefited from this ministry. For example, one woman who used to live in one of the motels is now an active member of our church, and she leads the laundry ministry. By giving people an opportunity to contribute, we believe they will become an even more integral part of our congregation.
Our long-term goal is to establish a compassionate ministry center that aims at long-term empowerment of the poor through mentorship, job training, education, and employment.