Some want to push homeless off North Tryon. Why this church decided to spotlight them.

Every Sunday morning, as part of its “Muffin Ministry,” uptown Charlotte’s First United Methodist Church offers food and fellowship to about 150 homeless men, women and children – “our neighbors without homes,” Pastor Val Rosenquist calls them.

The church has other neighbors, too – businesses on or near North Tryon Street that are hoping that their end of uptown will be Charlotte’s next boom corridor, with new upscale shops and apartments. Rosenquist says she gets calls from some of these businesses, telling her they’d really like it if First United Methodist did not have a ministry to the homeless.

Her response: “We’re a church. That’s what we’re called to do.”

This Sunday, Rosenquist’s 700-member church will put an exclamation point on its commitment to the “least of these,” as Jesus called those in need, by unveiling a 30-foot long mural in its Fellowship Hall that features the photographed faces – most of them smiling – of 30 homeless “neighbors.”

“Faces of Hope,” the church is calling the mural.

All of the faces were shot in black and white by photographer – and “Muffin Ministry” volunteer – Bill Guerrant. His “studio” was in the church’s playground, in the early morning light, from August to December of last year.

The mural also mixes in photos of the ministry’s volunteers in action, serving food, playing the piano, posing with Santa. And there’s pictures of Jesus and Mary from the 90-year-old church’s stained glass windows.

At a time when most of the headlines about Charlotte’s North Tryon Street are focused on proposals to redevelop, renovate, rebuild, refurbish – and yes, relocate the homeless – First United Methodist wants to spotlight, not hide, the homeless people they’ve come to know on a first-name basis.

That’s how they’re identified in the mural, as Alex and Paul and Lisa and J.J. and ...

First United Methodist is located in an area “that’s on the cusp of great wealth and of great need,” said Rosenquist, referring to the luxury apartments and gleaming buildings nearby as well as the makeshift tents and sleeping bags in the shadow of these places of wealth. “We will not have (these homeless) be invisible. You look at their faces. Look in those eyes – they are your eyes, they are my eyes.”

Rosenquist says the church hopes to send a message straight out of the Bible with its mural and ministry:

“That we are part of the same family, and we celebrate a meal together on Sunday mornings.” She also hopes the rest of Charlotte “will realize that they’re part of the family as well. We can make this table as big as it needs to be.”

‘God wants you to give back’

The “Muffin Ministry” at First United Methodist began in 2010 when the Rev. Jim Trollinger, then an assistant to the bishop who attended the uptown church, started inviting in for coffee the homeless people he’d see on Sunday mornings – including some who’d slept overnight on the steps of the church.

It became a weekly ministry and got its name, the story goes, when Trollinger’s wife, Sue, and other members of the church started bringing muffins.

The menu has grown over the years. Now those who show up can feast on everything from grits to eggs, sandwiches to pastries, coffee to juice. And for those with other needs, the ministry also hands out clothing, blankets and toiletries.

There’s no preaching, no sermon. Those who request a prayer can get it, in private, off to one side with one of the volunteers.

Ann Huskey, a member of First United Methodist Church for 20 years, has been a Sunday morning volunteer from the beginning. These days, she shows up at 5:45 a.m. – more than two hours before the doors open at 8 a.m. for guests. That’s Huskey’s picture on the mural, hoisting boxes of corn flakes.

“I’ve made some wonderful friends who come in to eat,” she said. “God asks us to take care of everybody, and they are part of the everybody.”

Waiting outside for Huskey when she arrives every Sunday morning are two volunteers who have struggled in their lives. Adam Mayhew, 38, now has a job and his own place. But Paul Lessard, 42, has been homeless for almost four years and sleeps most nights outdoors on a bench.

Their faces and first names are part of the mural. And those at the church have heard their life stories.

Lessard first showed up at First United Methodist one Sunday morning to get some coffee and warm up. Eventually, he heard the ministry needed help, so he signed on as a volunteer, to prepare and serve food, then stay around for cleanup duties.

“God and everybody wants you to give back,” said Lessard. “You can keep taking and taking. But you come to a point in your life when you have to give back.”

Originally from Canada, Lessard said he was on his way to Florida for a job a few years ago when his car caught fire, burning up pretty much all he owned. He ended up in Charlotte, and thinks maybe God wanted him here.

Lessard sees the mural as a symbolic acknowledgment of the hard times he and others have been through. But it’s also a symbol, he said, of “how the church opened up their arms and opened up their heart to those of us who are struggling.”

Striking faces and sentiments

Bill Guerrant doesn’t attend First United Methodist – he’s from a long line of Moravians – but he’s been a volunteer at the church’s homeless ministry on Sunday mornings for six years.

And because he’s been a photographer for decades, including with the military in Vietnam in 1967-68, he started taking special notice of the striking faces of the people coming down the food line.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have got to capture some of this,’ ” he said.

Then Huskey told him about visiting a United Methodist church in Asheville that had hung head shots on the wall of homeless people who had come to its feeding program.

“To me, there was a bigger story. Not just the folks who came here, but the people who serve,” Guerrant said. “I began to think of a tapestry. ... We found this wall (in the Fellowship Hall). And I decided black-and-white (photos) for the guests, and color for the volunteers.”

Besides putting their faces in the mural, Guerrant also supplied them with wallet-sized photos.

“There was something that tore my heart,” he recalled. “One of the folks said, ‘Mr, Bill Picture Man, my mama hasn’t seen me in years and she’s been asking, asking, asking for a photograph. Now I have something that really makes me look good. Thank you so much.’ 

To make the mural happen, Guerrant worked with graphic designer Debbie Fincher, who took his photos – and some that she shot – and plotted them in a mural that’s bursting with color and style. They peeled and pasted the final product – six vertical strips of plastic film – onto the wall, then laminated it.

At 8:30 a.m. Sunday – “Muffin Ministry” time – the church at 501 North Tryon St. will cut the ribbon and officially unveil “Faces of Hope.” Later Sunday, at 4:30 p.m., a more formal dedication is scheduled.

Some of the people whose faces are in the mural have found jobs and housing; others are still on the streets.

But all have a story, said Guerrant. Before photographing them, he asked each of them questions about themselves and their journeys.

Some of what they said stayed with Guerrant, so he wrote down their quotes. As recorded by Guerrant, they speak to deep desires and beliefs from people who are often ignored or dismissed as losers or eyesores.

“Like people for who they are, not what they look like,” said Alex.

Joe said that “a good day is having food and flying a remote airplane.”

J.J.: “I wish society would put people before profit.”

Nikki: “Everyone needs to get along and stop killing each other.”

Gloria: “My hope for the future is to get a GED.”

And from William: “Don’t pray for me. Pray for the world to come together.”