You may have seen a salvation message on TV with multiple audience members following a call to walk to the front of a church or stadium, but have you ever watched a person accept Christ during a one-on-one conversation streamed on Facebook Live?
That’s what happened after Pastor Jay DePoy asked Rick — a homeless man in Grand Rapids, Michigan — if DePoy could interview him so other members of the Awakening Church family could learn more about Rick. (Visit the church’s Facebook page at fmchr.ch/acgrfb to watch the April 28 video with Rick and for the May 10 follow-up video that came after DePoy said the Holy Spirit told him, “Go look for Rick.”)
While the church’s Facebook followers may join heaven in rejoicing for Rick’s salvation (Luke 15:7), his story is not guaranteed a happy ending.
“Without a support network and the kind of follow-up care that leads to spiritual formation, Rick is an easy target for the enemy,” DePoy said. “He’s still on a journey just like the rest of us.”
Rick is among the people who gather for worship at 12:30 p.m. each Sunday as the Awakening Church meets inside Dégagé Ministries, a homeless shelter in downtown Grand Rapids’ Heartside neighborhood. After each worship service, the church’s servant leaders hand meals to people as they leave, and 3,000 meals have been distributed since the church launched last November.
“God moves drastically because the people are in such need, and they know they need Jesus,” said Terri Hanson, the North Michigan Conference’s multiplication director and the pastor of Center Street Free Methodist Church in Belding. “The messages are powerful for the homeless population, and they’re powerful for the people from the suburbs who drive in to serve the homeless population. It’s a unique setting, and God is working.”
DePoy said his parishioners on a given Sunday may include a prostitute sitting next to a small business owner near an inebriated person in urine-soaked clothes. A security guard is present, and no offering plate is passed.
The urban congregation is largely funded through the generosity of Free Methodists who belong to small and rural churches in the North Michigan Conference. “Superintendent Tom Doherty has courageously rallied to our cause, and we have received an avalanche of prayer and love,” DePoy said.
The support and prayer are desperately needed.
“On Easter Sunday, a man was shot in our doorstep,” said DePoy, who added that the 7:20 p.m. shooting was drug-related. “I have a master’s degree in systematic theology, but I don’t remember having any classes on drive-by shootings and senseless acts of violence. … I do remember about our identity as salt and light in the dark world.”
DePoy sometimes lights a candle and goes on a midnight prayer walk through his church’s neighborhood — especially on Division Avenue, which he described as “essentially an intersection of hopelessness and despair.”
He and his wife, Teresa, began leading a Bible study at Dégagé in summer 2018. The study began with a few people, but it quickly grew to fill the facility with many of the participants recovering from addiction, struggling with mental illness, or unable to find sustainable housing.
DePoy was approached by Hanson who began an ongoing discussion with him about transforming the Bible study into a church community, but he initially resisted.
“This was kind of a sore subject for me because I had already been involved in a couple of failed church plants, and over the past 10 years, my journey from the platform of success to the basement of self-destruction had exposed a deep brokenness within me that had left me walking with a spiritual limp,” DePoy recalled. “Ten years ago, I had been leading a fast-growing church with several hundred people coming in the matter of a couple years, and I had a moral failure that exposed a deep destructive pattern in my life. ”
That moral failure led to jailtime during which DePoy initially felt like he had “been banished, excommunicated and abandoned by God.” He ultimately “found more grace in jail than in the church and more solidarity with people on the street at rock bottom than those in the traditional church.”
In response to Hanson’s proposal, DePoy told her, “That sounds beautiful, but I’m sure that — after you hear my story — you won’t want anything to do with me.”
Hanson replied that she already knew his story and that she was more interested in his future than his past.
“The grace that she showed to my family was symbolic of a larger Free Methodist embrace that has served to restore my spiritual health and my original identity,” DePoy said.
At the end of summer 2018, “we were granted the gracious gift of using the beautiful Dégagé space on a day when it is usually not open,” said DePoy, who added that the launch team included “a handful of spiritually mature believers who echoed my passion to follow a rabbi who didn’t come for the healthy, but he came for the sick.”
The Awakening Church’s launch was not the typical beginning for a church plant.
“In November of 2018, there were many people lined up outside the doors with nowhere to go. We opened the Awakening Church offering a hot cup of coffee, a Bible, and a hug and said, ‘welcome home,’ and people came in by the droves, and we had standing room only at our first service. We began to teach verse by verse through the gospel of John, and, each week, people responded to the gospel and lined up for prayer.”
DePoy said the difficult work of spiritual formation followed. “Some of the significant challenges that we’ve run into is the multilayered dynamic of addiction, mental illness and homelessness.”
A typical church might use a connection card to request contact information so church leadership can follow up with someone who accepts Christ. DePoy said that kind of card wouldn’t be appropriate at the Awakening Church because it would reinforce the reality that the new believer doesn’t have an address or a phone number. Instead, “follow-up is often disguised as foot patrol on Division Avenue trying to track down the sheep that have disappeared.”9