LOS ANGELES (BP) -- Home looks a little different down on L.A.'s Skid Row. There are no white picket fences, no meticulously manicured lawns, no picturesque homes lining the blocks. Here, the sidewalks are littered with wilted cardboard boxes and dilapidated camping tents that shelter the nearly 8,000 homeless people who lay their heads down each night on the streets of this dispirited area of Los Angeles.
Years ago, Ron Thomas was among these nameless faces making his home on the streets and sidewalks of Skid Row.
"I was homeless ... dirty, hungry, in need," Thomas recalls. "I was smoking crack cocaine and my life was a mess."
Yet in an instant, Thomas' life changed. As he sat one afternoon on a park bench, a little girl approached Thomas to deliver one simple message of truth: Jesus loves you.
"I knew then, without a shadow of a doubt, this was my way out: through the Lord Jesus Christ," Thomas says.
Compelled by the power of Christ, Thomas cleaned up his life, got off the streets and left Los Angeles to start fresh. But this same power soon sent him right back to Skid Row -- this time to plant and lead Set Free Church in the heart of the homeless population. Set Free is a church plant of the Los Angeles Baptist Association and the California Southern Baptist Convention.
Since the doors opened at Set Free Church Skid Row, the goal has been simple: to reach the homeless, hurting, addicted and hopeless who are forgotten and often lost to the desperate lifestyle on Skid Row. Thomas saw his life changed by the simple outreach of a young girl and he hopes to replicate this type of simple outreach through the ministry of Set Free Church.
Having once been one of the desperate people he now serves, Thomas recognizes the need to begin this type of ministry by meeting their most basic needs first.
"They need to eat, they need to be warm," Thomas says. "But I think with that, if we really minister to the heart and the minds of the people, that's where we see change."
Last year, the ministry of Set Free Church took a huge step forward, hosting their largest outreach to serve the hungry on Thanksgiving. With the help of Southern Baptist World Hunger Funds and in partnership with local churches and businesses, the ministry saw 1,500 homeless and hungry people fed, while receiving the message of Christ's love.
"We used to put tables in the middle of the streets and just made like a little dining room. We invited the people on the street to come and have a seat," Thomas says. "Then we invited various churches and youth groups to serve plates of food and drinks and just had a blessed time."
Though the population of hungry and homeless is more concentrated in areas like L.A.'s Skid Row, the need to serve them is great throughout the United States. As the country's economy has taken continued hits over the last few years, nearly 35 percent of American families have found themselves forced to choose between paying for food and paying their rent or mortgage.
The result of struggles like this is a growing population of hungry and needy people throughout the United States. In the land of plenty, some 49 million Americans struggle with hunger; 17 million of these are children, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
To help churches like Set Free combat this growing epidemic, the Southern Baptist Convention set up direct funds to provide assistance to ministries and churches in their efforts to feed the hungry. The World Hunger Fund allocates donations to Southern Baptist churches and ministries in both North America and abroad in an effort to come alongside them in their ministries to the hungry.
In 2010, $1.1 million dollars was given through the North American Mission Board's domestic hunger fund. Some 2,000 hunger ministries provided more than 5 million meals to the hungry in the U.S. And the work doesn't stop there. Through these hunger ministries, 33,000 professions of faith were declared in the last year.
In an effort to bring to light the growing hunger problem in the world and encourage Southern Baptists to act, churches will recognize Oct. 9 as World Hunger Sunday. For more than 30 years, Southern Baptist churches have participated in this event to raise awareness of the need in their own communities and encourage church members to respond.
Offerings designated for World Hunger are used not just to feed the physical hunger, but also to introduce the Gospel of Christ to satisfy spiritual hunger. Everyone who receives food at one of the hunger ministry locations in North America also has an opportunity to hear the Gospel.
This is the ultimate goal of church planters like Ron Thomas: to reach and rejuvenate their communities for Christ. With the help of the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund, they can start by meeting the most basic needs of those around them, in an effort to meet their ultimate need for Christ in their hearts.
Sara Shelton is a writer for the North American Mission Board. To watch a video about Ron Thomas and Set Free Church's hunger ministry, visit namb.net/more_than_a_meal. To learn more about NAMB hunger ministries, visit namb.net/hunger.
Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net