Pastor Heather Boone let us into the darkened building of the Oaks of Righteousness Christian Ministries late on an overcast Thursday afternoon. We, my sons and I, were dropping off a plastic bin of toys and clothes. A small donation to the homeless outreach we’d heard about just a week earlier.
While the boys explored the dimly lit building on their own, Heather gave me a guided tour and an overview of just what Oaks of Righteousness is about.
We started on the lower floor of the mid-century modern, split-level, yellow brick building. Down a short flight of stairs from the entry are the main homeless outreach areas: a kitchen and dining room, food pantry, clothes closet, and storage room with a handful of shiny blue mattresses and shelves for the homeless to store their bedding.
This is the core of the Oaks of Righteousness winter ministry as the only unrestricted warming shelter in Monroe County. There are other emergency shelters, but they have restrictions: only county residents, or only men, or only women, and many have a 90 day stay limit. As a result, Pastor Boone explained, Oaks of Righteousness shelters people from as far away as Toledo and Detroit, and all corners of the county. They have also been able to shelter whole families displaced by tragedy – or as in an event last winter – the closure of a slum-lord’s apartment building due to lack of heat and running water.
This is also where they shatter all preconceptions of who is homeless. Of the 191 people seeking emergency overnight shelter, seven were mothers with children, 80 percent were white, many had cars and full-time jobs.
Last year as Michigan suffered through the harshest winter in decades, Oaks of Righteousness sheltered as many as 37 people per night. The warming shelter is only open during the cold months, starting this year on Halloween night when the temperatures dropped and snow was in the forecast.
The mattresses in the storage room right now are not going to be enough. The outreach is in the middle of replacing former mattresses with new ones that are bed-bug and body-fluid proof, Pastor Boone explained. Their goal is to purchase 34 new beds. Right now they have enough money for 24, but are waiting to order the mattresses when they can buy them in bulk for the best deal on prices and shipping.
At every turn, Boone demonstrated the same sort of careful budgeting. Every dime has been carefully invested in a ministry that doesn’t hand out help so much as offer a hand up.
That “hand up, not hand out” mindset permeates the outreach. “We ask them when they check in for the night, ‘How can we help you in your homelessness? How can we help you take the next step?'” Boone said.
We walked back up to the ground floor where a narrow room lined with windows fronts the sidewalk. We sat at a long counter facing the street, cozy tables and seating fill the space. This is OHOP, Oaks House of Prayer, is so more than just a free lunch program for 100 to 150 people a day.
Oaks of Righteousness is in Monroe’s “East End” – literally on the wrong side of the tracks. The predominantly white residents west of the tracks are afraid to enter the East End, Boone said, a fact I learned shortly after moving to Monroe several years ago. Then she turned the tables and explained that East End residents are also afraid. They are afraid to go downtown, just eight short blocks away, to the cute boutique stores and coffee shops. They didn’t know what to expect, so fear of the unknown keeps them inside the physical lines of the East End: a triangle roughly drawn by train tracks, the River Raisin and I-75.
So while feeding the hungry is a major goal of OHOP, the other is psychological. In the summer, when cafe tables with umbrellas fill the sidewalk, and free wi-fi and banks of charging stations are available, OHOP becomes a window into the rest of the world. It is a place for people who have been born and raised in poverty can get a feel for what it’s like to move freely in the world.
“All we ask is that we pray for them,” Boone said as a smile spread across her face. “Sometimes people we come in and say ‘I don’t need lunch, I just want my prayer to day.'”
Up another short flight of stairs is a classroom with tables, chairs and huge white Post-Its stuck up on one wall. Hand written in marker across the top of one page is “Bridges out of Poverty”. Offered by the Monroe County Opportunity Program, Bridges out of Poverty strives to teach residents of this particularly hard-hit area of Monroe how to break the bad habits that keep poor people poor. Skills such as buying ingredients and cooking from scratch, the value of a dollar and how far money spent on manicures and expensive shoes can go when invested elsewhere.
Pastor Boone pointed out two computers in the corner set aside for job search and education. Boone’s ministry also offers resume writing classes and has a “Dress for Success” program that provides work clothes for interviews and almost any sort of job their clients might land from business suites to steel toe boots.
Across the hall is a small but well appointed sanctuary where Pastor Boone preaches every week. Oaks of Righteousness is non-denominational, but Boone’s Wesleyan training is evident in her passion for the “least of these” in Monroe County, Michigan.
Like any charitable organization, the needs often outstrips the resources. The building is old and desperately needs upgrading. The large single-pane windows do little to keep out the Michigan winter cold, their panes rotted and patched with narrow strips of wood. Oaks of Righteousness is only serving a fraction of the need in the community, limited by the size of their existing building. Boone is confident, though, that God has greater plans. Through the drafty the church nursery window she can see the back of a closed Catholic church property complete with a beautiful sanctuary, rectory and school. Her entire face lights up when she imagines the transitional housing, education and back to work training Oaks of Righteousness would be able to offer through that space. But for now the purchase of St. Joseph’s is an item of prayer and faith.
More pressing are the immediate needs of bedding, clothing – especially for smaller men, pants sizes 30-36, and non-perishable goods for their food pantry.
Please consider supporting this amazing cause or a similar outreach near you. Pastor Heather Boone can be reached at email@example.com. Donations can be sent to Oaks of Righteousness, 1018 E. Second, Monroe, MI 48161.