Even more than food, a shower often can do wonders to refresh the body and the soul.
College students and young adults at Chattanooga's First Baptist Church sensed that need in clients of Mustard Tree Ministries in early 2012, then saw an example of how to meet the need during a short-term mission trip to Phoenix and took action.
Just over a year after starting a drive to create a shower ministry, the church has installed eight showers available on Thursday afternoons for all comers, just before the Mustard Tree homeless ministry meets at the church, and also for homeless clients who come to the church through the Family Promise of Greater Chattanooga network.
"I would say I was overwhelmed by the positive response," says University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student and church member Anna Thomas. "I didn't necessarily think it wouldn't happen. I just didn't think it would happen this year."
Longtime church member Herb Hooper says young people were the catalysts for the project. In addition to bringing the idea to church leadership, he says, they wrote grant proposals for $20,000 - $15,000 from the Chattanooga Community Foundation and $5,000 from the Osborne Foundation - to support the ministry.
The grants, added to pledges from members, one-time gifts and memorial donations, helped raise the $104,000 it cost to build the showers in men's and women's restrooms - four apiece - on the lower floor of the Gateway Avenue church.
"If anybody could get it done," says Hooper, who served as an adviser to the group, "if anybody could get the congregation to support it, [the young people] would be the ones to do it." Without them, "I don't think it would have happened."
Their enthusiasm, he says, made the difference.
"Once they saw their passion," Hooper says, "the congregation bought into it."
When the cost of the showers exceeded the original estimate, an anonymous church member loaned the congregation the remaining $9,500 needed so the showers could be built.
"We're not a large church," Hooper says, "so we don't have an overabundance of resources. But people just sort of stepped up. Everybody just believed in what was being done."
The showers, located adjacent to the gymnasium, were completed last month just in time to host homeless Family Promise clients for a week. Since then, the showers have been available from 2 to 5 p.m. on Thursdays. The area is staffed by young people from First Baptist and other churches.
Since the church also received a donation of two washers and two dryers, the young people also clean several pieces of laundry for those who want it.
"I've been surprised by the number of people who wanted to help," Thomas says. "My dream would be for it to be [staffed by volunteers of] all ages" and to be offered more than once a week. "Everyone has something different to offer."
For her and the church's other young people, it has been a rewarding and growing experience.
"It's amazing to see how much we keep learning about perseverance," she says, "about homeless issues [we were] not aware of, about growing spiritually and, really, in all aspects."
Hooper says the ministry also has received several instances of unexpected benevolence. Signal Crest United Methodist Church member Brenda Purcell, for instance, arrived one Thursday with a salon chair and equipment and now cuts hair in the gym for clients every other week.
"That just complemented the other things that take place there," Hooper says.
Thomas says that's the way she and others always envisioned it.
"It's not just giving a shower," she says. "It's building relationships, it's doing justice, it's helping people get out of the situations they were in."
Contact Clint Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.com