Charlotte church feeds the bodies and souls of uptown’s homeless

By 2:45 p.m. Sunday, the line stretched along Phifer Avenue in uptown Charlotte.

The 80 or so hungry – and homeless – men and women looked eager but patient as they waited for their full plate of everything from fried chicken and roast beef to green beans, yellow rice, mac and cheese, a roll and a big chocolate chip cookie. Plus, they each got a cup of sweet lemonade to wash it all down.

But members of Greater Salem Church, who did all the serving and scooping, weren’t content with just feeding the bodies of their guests.

They also tended to their souls.

“With God, I can get through this,” the choir from the Charlotte church sang, clapping to the rhythm as they musically assured their down-and-out brothers and sisters that “I can move mountains that stand in my way/Whatever comes, I will be OK ... with God.”

Formed in 1874 as Salem Baptist Church, Greater Salem – also known as The Connecting Place @ Greater Salem – is one of the oldest African-American churches in the city. Located in West Charlotte, its 300-member congregation is led by Bishop Alan G. Porter and, on Palm Sunday, it gave a week’s worth of food – enough to fill an 18-wheeler – to several hundred families in the Hidden Valley community. With such projects, the church has launched a rich tradition of going out into the community to help those who need it.

Just like Jesus did, said Jackie Williams, one of the church’s community outreach leaders and the person who convinced Greater Salem to start feeding and mentoring the homeless population that often gathers along the wall on Phifer Avenue. Since September of last year, the church has shown up the second Sunday of every month with its food and fellowship.

“Jesus went out on foot to help people. He didn’t stay inside four walls,” Williams said Sunday as the “least of these,” Jesus’ description of the poor and needy of his time, went down the church’s chow line. “We’re trying to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. ... We love these people. And they’re hurting.”

In addition to the food and song, the church offers each person a care-package bag filled with an assortment of toiletries, devotionals and socks.

“I need these socks bad,” said Jerry Jacobs, 67, a Fayetteville native who lost his warehouse job and has lived on the Charlotte streets for 10 years.

Jacobs also joined in with the choir, raising his hands and arms to show his enthusiasm for the message.

“It’s a blessing,” Jacobs said about Greater Salem’s generosity.

George L. Reese, 66, who is also homeless, said he returned to Charlotte last December after trying to make it in New Haven, Conn.

“I came back to Charlotte because of churches like this. People in the South will reach out and help the homeless more than in the North,” said Reese, who is staying at the Uptown Men’s Shelter and is in the process of getting more permanent housing. “And there’s nothing like Southern cooking!”

On Sunday, Greater Salem arrived with enough food to feed at least 120 – or 80, with some coming back for seconds.

And 30 members of the church’s music and arts ministry not only serenaded the men and women with song, some of them also offered one-on-one mentoring, offering prayer, spiritual companionship and information about housing and shelters.

“We want to give back to our community,” Varnell Gray, Greater Salem’s director of ministries said Sunday. “We also want (homeless people) to know that where they are now doesn’t have to be where they’ll always be.”