Homeless ministry on wheels: a compelling take on 'least of these' in wealthy Silicon Valley

Back in 2004, my Associated Press colleague Matt Curry — now a Presbyterian pastor — tipped me to the story of "SoupMan."

If I recall correctly, Curry served as a volunteer for David Timothy's mobile soup kitchen in Dallas and didn't feel he could write the profile himself (for obvious conflict-of-interest reasons).

Thus, I ended up with a nice feature that ran on the AP national wire:

DALLAS — The theme from “Rocky” blares from a rickety white van that David Timothy calls his “SoupMobile.”
The music alerts hundreds of the homeless that it’s time to eat, and in a more subtle way, tells them that they – like Sylvester Stallone’s boxer character, Rocky Balboa – can overcome challenges.
“Rocky started with nothing and he rose to the top as world champion,” Timothy said as the hungry men, women and children emerged from their cardboard boxes under Interstate 45. “And these people here don’t have much. I just wanted to give them a little hope that they can rise to the top.”
On Thanksgiving Day, as he does every weekday, the 56-year-old Timothy will nourish those in need. Each will get a bowl of soup and a healthy portion of hope. But for the holiday meal, he’ll also serve up something special: turkey sandwiches bought in memory of his wife, Peggy, who died a month ago after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.
“She was always a cheerleader for the SoupMobile,” said Timothy, whose red “S” on his shirt gives his nickname as “SoupMan.” “She had a real heart for helping people and I feel she is with me every time I turn the key to start the SoupMobile.”
To the hundreds he assists, Timothy is more like Superman than Soupman.

I thought about that story and that still-active ministry after reading Religion News Service managing editor Yonat Shimron's recent compelling take on a mobile ministry that serves the homeless in wealthy Silicon Valley:

See if Shimron's lede doesn't draw you in:

SAN JOSE, Calif. (RNS) Tucked behind a light industrial area of self-storage warehouses and auto-parts stores is a small encampment of homeless people who live in tents along the banks of a creek.
Few people know or care about this encampment, or an estimated 150 others scattered all over this Silicon Valley capital of 1 million people. But every so often, a beat-up 1985 RV called the Mercy Mobile pulls up along a dead-end curb and a motley crew of homeless advocates bearing water, food, or clothes and shoes hops out.
Leading the pack is Pastor Scott Wagers, a former body builder and trainer who has dedicated the last 25 years of his life ministering to the homeless.
“Hey man, you doin’ OK?” he asks a homeless man waiting to see what the Mercy Mobile might distribute one Saturday in late June. Wagers gives him a bottle of water, some energy bars and his card and encourages him to get in touch.
“Text me and let me know if you’re getting swept up or something’s going down,” he says.

Keep reading the 1,300-word takeout (about as long a story as you'll find on the RNS wire), and Shimron does an excellent job of providing relevant background and statistics on the area's overall homeless problem as well as important context on religious groups helping:

Meanwhile, various church ministries are pitching in.
The Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph allows homeless people to use its address as a way to receive mail.
Grace Baptist Church allows homeless people to shower, do laundry and lounge indoors in its downtown sanctuary. Last winter, it got a permit to house 15 homeless people overnight for 35 days. This year, the congregation won permission from the city to house 30 people for 90 of the winter’s coldest nights.
“What we’re doing, honestly, is putting a Band-Aid on things,” says the Rev. Liliana Da Valle, pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “We’re feeding people today but saying, ‘Sorry. Tomorrow we may not be able to.’”

At the same time, RNS gives readers some insight into what motivates Wagers:

Unlike most brick-and-mortar ministries that require the homeless to come to them, Wagers meets the homeless on their turf. He doesn’t urge them to seek shelter or get counseling or even come to Jesus. He simply inquires about their well-being and lets them know he’s there to help.
His larger goal is to get his community — one of the country’s wealthiest — to face up to a gnawing problem: more than 4,000 people in San Jose with no place to call home.
Every chance he gets, the 50-year-old Disciples of Christ minister brings people with him on his rounds, whether it’s fellow clergy, interested scholars, students or business executives.
“What’s driving me is the human crisis,” says Wagers. “People are living under overpasses and going to the bathroom outside in one of the richest nations of the world. The church has to be a witness.”

The story ends like this:

“I’m not a socialist or a capitalist,” Wagers says. “I’m a Christian. And this is shocking to me. What’s our role as Christians? ‘What you did to the least of these you did to me.’”

Is anything missing from the RNS story? "Missing" is probably not the right word because there are only so many details a reporter can include in a story of this size — even one at the far end of wire service space limitations. 

However, I did find myself wishing for a few more details on Wagers and his theology. For example, a recent San Jose Mercury News story mentioned that he is a pastor at CHAM Deliverance Ministry and attended Yale Divinity School. Was there as an opportunity here to delve just a little deeper into what motivates Wagers from a religious standpoint (for example, why doesn't he urge the homeless to "come to Jesus")? Alas, I am nitpicking (it's an occupational hazard for a media critic).

Overall, this is an excellent, nuanced piece of religion journalism. I enjoyed it.

By all means, read it all.

Mercy Mobile photo via CHAM Deliverance Ministry Facebook page

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