MUSTARD TREE MINISTRY
The name of the Rev. Barry Kidwell's Mustard Tree Ministry has its roots in a parable.
In Matthew 13:31-32, Jesus says: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches."
"A mustard tree provides shelter," Kidwell said. "It provides food because you can eat the seed off of it and it also reproduces. And that's what we want to do. We want to be a safe place, help people find shelter, get the necessities of life and help other people to do the same kind of ministry wherever they are."
Other churches interested in helping to house the homeless can reach Kidwell at 619-8008.
Blue, black and white tarps hang abandoned along a vacant two-acre lot behind First Baptist Church of Chattanooga, remnants that once shielded former inhabitants of the site from wind and rain.
For at least five years, the site - just below BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee's headquarters on Cameron Hill - has been home, off and on, to more than two dozen homeless people living in tents and under tarps, said the Rev. Barry Kidwell, who ministers to the homeless. Only three remain and, by the end of this month, they also will be gone, he said.
But they haven't moved to another makeshift shelter where they will shiver and suffer through another outdoor winter. At least 18 have found homes thanks to First Baptist Church and six other congregations, along with Kidwell's Mustard Tree Ministry.
The churches have adopted the formerly homeless people. Some congregations have coordinated donations for beds, tables, chairs, sheets and dishes.
"But it's not just a matter of buying furniture and utensils for the house, even though that's very important," said First Baptist deacon Herb Hooper. "We want to, hopefully, develop a relationship to give them support over a period of time."
To the churches, they're not just homeless people who were living on the property, said the Rev. Thomas Quisenberry, pastor of First Baptist Church at the Golden Gateway.
"We know their names, we can celebrate with them and we also know some of their specific needs," he said.
Calvin Sprik, 56, who has lived in a tent at the site for about a year, is among the last to receive help. Church officials were scheduled to meet with him last week and promise that, by the end of the month, he, too, will have a house. But he's skeptical.
"People tell me they're going to help me and they don't," said Sprik. "I don't believe it until they show me."
BEHIND THE MOVE
The decision to move the homeless came in part because of the Tennessee Department of Transportation's plans to add additional travel lanes on U.S. 27 and to widen the Olgiati Bridge. The homeless camp sits on a slope overlooking the highway.
"They [transportation department] will be taking pretty much all of our sloped land, and they will take some of our flat," Quisenberry said.
Construction isn't expected to start until fiscal year 2014, which begins on July 1, 2013, according to transportation officials.
The churches also were concerned for the campers' safety because of the campfires they were lighting to keep warm, said Chattanooga Homeless Coalition Executive Director Mary Simons.
The result was that First Baptist members set out in December to find housing for the tent dwellers behind their church. And they have been successful.
The church teamed up with congregations including First-Centenary United Methodist, Signal Crest United Methodist and Mountain Creek Baptist. Kidwell helped pair the homeless people with churches willing to adopt them.
Most of the tent dwellers were housed in private homes and apartments with vouchers the homeless coalition received through the Southeast Tennessee Human Resource Agency. Others who were homeless but able to work were housed with funds from the city's Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program.
They have housing for six months, and homeless coalition officials hope that will give them time to find jobs so they can continue paying rent when the Re-Housing money expires.
Renters also found homes near Hixson Pike, Rossville Boulevard and the East Lake community, Quisenberry said.
The churches will continue their relationship with the campers even after they have been placed, he said. After they get jobs, they will get help from the church with money management and possibly tutoring for those who need help with education.
When two homeless people got married last week, members of the church attended.
The church also partnered with BlueCross, which put two portable toilets and a trash bin on the campsite about a month ago to help with cleanup.
The relationships the churches are building with the homeless are important to the people's success, Simons said.
"The more people are invested in their new community, the longer they will stay, even when challenges present themselves," she said. "And they will also have people to turn to. If we have people to turn to when we have challenges, it helps to keep small challenges small rather than allowing it to grow into a large problem."
Sprik came to the camp after serving 25 years in prison. He admits to stealing, but won't say exactly why he was locked up. He served the full sentence for his crime and wants to put the past behind him, he said.
"A lot of people say, 'Get a job,'" Sprik said. "But they don't know what the reasons are for unemployment. I'm not out here ... by choice. I'm out here because I have to be out here. I can't get a job."
He said he even was rejected for a job as a dishwasher. After he admitted to being a felon, the employer said he had too much experience.
"How you going to have too much experience washing dishes?" Sprik asked.