By Rich Brown
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Many have learned from the teachings of Jesus to be a good neighbor. Now is the time for all good neighbors to step up and help our invisible neighbors, says James Whitford.
If anyone should know, it's Whitford, founder of Watered Gardens, a Joplin ministry established 13 years ago that's one of six Gospel Rescue Missions in Missouri.
The invisible neighbors Whitford refers to are the homeless.
Whitford is introducing a six-week study that is meant to engage and equip the community with information that will bridge the gap between what Whitford calls the "haves" and "have-nots."
The study, which includes a textbook, workbook and DVD, is published by the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions and is geared toward churches.
The first such class will be held at First Presbyterian Church of Joplin. After the six weeks of classes end, Whitford hopes other area congregations will follow suit and feel the call to help the homeless.
The course is available from any one of the six gospel rescue missions in the state of Missouri, of which Watered Gardens is one. Textbooks from the non-profit association cost $6 each.
"I have always felt this to be a mandate of God on his people to help the poor, sick, hungry and elderly," Whitford says.
He added that the "Invisible Neighbors" curriculum is meant to help churches and the community as a whole shift into the role of caring for poor and homeless people.
Each one of the six classes addresses the issue of homelessness with unique insight. The first session asks the question, "Who Is My Neighbor?" Other classes include "Nations of Neighbors in Need," "The Question of Responsibility," "Love Your Neighbor as Yourself," "Embracing Radical Hospitality" and "Missions to the Rescue."
After the introductory class, First Presbyterian's sessions will be led by its pastor, Dave Burgess.
If churches unite similarly to how they did following the 2011 Joplin tornado, there is a lot that can be accomplished, Whitford said. Watered Gardens' connections with area churches could be a valuable asset in helping address the homeless problem.
"Church involvement has always been necessary," Whitford says. "I am realizing that the church holds the answer to brokenheartedness, which is so prevalent among the poor and homeless today."
Watered Gardens became a homeless shelter in 2010 after spending its first decade as an outreach. Many of the homeless people who come into Watered Gardens have something hurt in their souls and hearts, Whitford says, and that's where Jesus comes into play.
Watered Gardens provides beds for 30 homeless men every night. The beds are almost always filled, and sometimes patrons are put on a waiting list. Construction is also under way and hoped to be finished this summer on an addition that will accommodate beds for 10 women.
When it comes to the homeless, it's easy for people to turn their heads the other way, Whitford says.
"It is easy for somebody to be invisible," Whitford says. "It is very easy to think that that person is not my neighbor. But the truth is that the people we see who are impoverished, broken and homeless are beaten and in some ways robbed.
"They have not been nurtured the way you and I have been nurtured; loved and cared for and encouraged, where we become productive community members. We need to be good neighbors, and in order to do that there is a relational investment that needs to happen."
Whitford says that for people who have never been exposed to the depth of poverty and homelessness, there is a fear factor involved. They don't understand it, so they often fear it.
Whitford said he hopes the "Invisible Neighbors" curriculum helps local churchgoers get over that fear.
Address correspondence to Rich Brown, c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want more information?
More information about "Invisible Neighbors" can be found on the website www.invisibleneighbors.org or by going by Watered Gardens at 531 Kentucky Ave. or calling 623-6030.