We met at Rez DT at 8:30am and, after packing our things and saying a prayer for safe travel, hit the road for Omaha. Three hours later we arrived at our destination, Trinity United Methodist Church. After a quick bite from Jimmy John’s we had a brief prep meeting to discuss our itinerary and make sure we were all on the same page regarding our goals and team outlook. With that, we were ready to start serving.
Our first stop was a community outreach center named Together, a member of the Greater Omaha Hunger Collaborative. Together takes a preventative maintenance approach to homelessness; they house an open food pantry (meaning clients can choose what items they want)as well as providing clothing, furniture, toiletries and other essentials for daily life. We spent the better part of the afternoon moving furniture, assembling storage shelves and organizing provisions as needed. Once finished we drove to Urban Abbey, a non-profit, Methodist book and coffee shop. There we met with Craig Howell, president of the Hunger Collaborative. He educated us in detail about the Collaborative’ s origins, mission statement and projections for the future. One aspect we found very intriguing was the use of the Omaha Transit Authority to designate a route that will drop clients off at the door of the various facilities within its organization. The meeting was extremely informative and left many of us asking ourselves why other cities (such as our own) don’t practice some of the same strategies used here.
As the day ended we returned to Trinity where we prepared a wonderful dinner. As we ate we discussed our thoughts and feelings about the first day and used that discussion to develop a strategy for the next day and how we could make it even more successful. We ended with a devotional centered on class segregation and how it affects people across different areas including money, humor, friendship, etc.
Our day began with breakfast and a morning prayer, after which we ventured out to two different community gardens; the first at Christ’s Child South and the other at Completely Kids. We worked with Cait who heads the gardening program for United Methodist Ministries and spent the morning harvesting vegetables and clearing the gardens of debris (weeds, dead vines, etc.). The second garden we worked at, known as “the big garden”, was especially appealing due to its size and open availability; there is no fence enclosing it and residents from neighborhoods near and far are able to come and pick fresh, healthy vegetables that will improve their diets.
We ate lunch in downtown Omaha at a location called Table Grace Café. This is an establishment centered on providing nutritious meals to those who can afford their food as well as those less fortunate. At the top of their menu above the register are the words “No set prices”….they welcome donations, encourage paying it forward and offer basic chores as a way in which one can pay for their meal should they not have currency. The cuisine consists of a choice of fresh salads, soups and pizzas made with whole grain crusts (you can choose one of each item for your meal). The interior design mirrored that of many local churches and missions, aimed to deliver messages of faith and inspiration to its patrons. Nadine and Joy, two of the ladies in our group, met with management upon arrival Thursday to discuss the opening of a new location right here in the Kansas City area. Needless to say we are all eager to gauge the progress of a local launch for Table Grace Café.
Our last stop for the day was the administrative offices of United Methodist Ministries of Omaha. There we learned more about the history and mission statement of their organization and engaged in several interactive lessons that demonstrated why the members there are so dedicated to reviving their community. These exercises helped illustrate how much and how often food is wasted, how many people go without basic necessities that are essential for healthy living and, perhaps more than anything, what a low level of awareness exists in our country. Many know and acknowledge that the problems are there and need to be addressed, but few realize the severity to which they exist and often take little to no action, choosing instead to turn a blind eye to issues that don’t surface right in their own backyards. In the end I think we all left with a heightened sense of urgency as to why we were there and making the most of every opportunity we were given. The day ended with another fantastic, home-cooked meal and a devotional focused on engaging poverty stricken individuals on a personal level as opposed to simply acting as a hired hand….the emphasis was that working with someone is far more productive than working for them.
We spent our last full day in Omaha at Open Door Mission (which is actually located just east of the state line into Iowa). The size of the facility alone is extremely impressive and is justified by the sheer numbers generated in their daily activities. They serve roughly 2,000 meals each day (bre akfast, lunch and dinner) and meal service is offered 7 days a week. They have over 800 beds that are divided between their emergency shelter and several programs which fall under the category of transitional housing. 6 days a week (Sunday being the only exclusion) they open their doors to clients for provisions of all kinds, including but not limited to food, clothing, toiletries and dishes. In addition to the variety of items one can take home, the staff puts no limitation on the number of items one can take from each category; their general belief is that if someone needs it, they’re happy to give it. We spent our work day emptying large boxes called gaylords (named for the town of Gaylord, MI, where they are made) of their respective contents and organizing them as needed. At various intervals many of us also carried food and/or clothing to clients’ vehicles and assisting with cleanup in and around the stations where we worked.
For many of us, the most poignant part of the day came when we were able to interact with the clients. While carrying food boxes to the parking lot we met several clients who are “transplanted” residents of Omaha, having moved from as nearby as Kansas City to as far as Togo in west Africa. While having lunch in the mission cafeteria we made a conscious effort to split up and sit with the clients instead of all sitting in one group. We were blessed to hear their stories and learn first-hand the challenges they face and what circumstances had ultimately brought them to utilize Open Door’s services. Worth noting, the food was not only very tasty but they gladly offered second helpings to any and all who were still hungry after their first meal.
The afternoon concluded with a full tour of the facility and an overview of their different programs. Open Door offers transitional living for both individuals and families who have suffered from addiction, domestic abuse and other like categories. We had the privilege of seeing one of the rooms currently being used by an actual client and it was both clean and accommodating, an oven being the only amenity not present. One of the most staggering statistics learned during our tour is the success rate for graduates of the addiction recovery program; since 2012, 91% of clients who graduated were not only sober but enjoying some level of stability a whole calendar year after their graduation date. None of us had figures from other programs to reference immediately but it’s a safe bet that percentage dwarfs many other programs not only locally but on a national scale as well. It’s pure speculation but many of us believe that their continued success stems from the grace shown to clients who suffer relapses….while they certainly don’t condone someone returning having used and/or drank, they make a sincere effort to work with those clients instead of simply putting them out on the street, where they are very likely to resume a lifestyle of self-destruction. By the time we left we were all in agreement that many programs could improve their own productivity by modeling themselves around Open Door Mission’s protocol.
That evening we enjoyed some “local flavor” by visiting a Hispanic part of town located along Q Street. We had dinner at Taqueria Tijuana where the cuisine is historically authentic (they don’t serve chips and salsa, fried ice cream, etc.) and downright delicious. We made our way down the avenue to a local bakery where we stocked up on Mexican delights such as churros and empanadas before returning to the church, where everyone quickly exceeded their sugar quota for the day ten times over. We ended the evening with a devotional from Matthew 6, taking communion and sharing hugs between everyone in our group; it was a fantastic ending to an already fantastic day.
After clearing our rooms, packing our bags and grabbing a quick bite for breakfast we made a quick stop at Urban Abbey for coffee. We then arrived at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church for the 10:00 service. This church is located in a low-income neighborhood, is predominantly African-American and, unfortunately, is in steady decline. Including our group of 14 there were only about 40 people in attendance and many empty pews. The sermon was delivered by Pastor Portia Cavitt and the service was ripe with singing and positive energy from all who were present. Our group was openly recognized by Pastor P. during her sermon and we were made to feel very welcome.
After church Pastor Portia joined us for lunch at Big Mama’s, which we came to learn is a dining institution in Omaha. Having been featured on the Food Network’s popular show “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives”, the menu offers an assortment of soul food and southern-style dishes that will delight even the pickiest taste buds (for the record, the Afro Burger is phenomenal). We had a wonderful discussion with Pastor Portia about the plight of those less fortunate in Omaha and how we can continue to be the change we want to see, both there and here in Kansas City.
When our meal was over we hit 29 South and headed back home. We arrived back at Rez DT at roughly 5:00pm, where a few of us chose to stay for the evening service. Looking back on our time together, we are all so very blessed to have had this opportunity; to be the hands and feet of our Lord, to give without wanting in return, to bring light into a place too often consumed by darkness. We were not only brought closer together but closer to Christ, which is the greatest gift one could ask for. There is no stat sheet on how many people in Omaha were positively affected by our presence, no praise report or anything otherwise that will make headlines here or up there. But if we were able to touch the heart and change the life of one, just one person on our journey, it was worth every minute and dollar spent a hundred times over.
May the Lord be with you all-