Grace United Methodist Church in Sullivan is undoubtedly rural but isn’t isolated. Although the closest “big” towns are Rolla at about 40 miles in one direction and St. Louis at about 70 miles in the other direction, the church is located just off Interstate 44, one of the busiest roadways in Missouri, and is part of a string of small towns through that part of the state. Unfortunately, small towns sometimes lack the services available to marginalized people in the city, but Sullivan does not lack people in need.
The church often had people stopping by looking for assistance, and it has been more proactive in seeing what it can do to provide help. During their initial queries, three primary needs came up: hunger, housing and hygiene.
“We’ve decided to focus on those three things and coordinate with other helping agencies in our area on the rest,” said Rev. Brenda Stobbe, pastor of Grace UMC.
There is no homeless shelter in Franklin County.
“There’s a lack of resources for rural people living in these conditions. We don’t have warming stations or cooling stations,” Stobbe said. “If we’re going to get someone into a shelter, that means taking them to Rolla or St. Louis.”
The church has a policy of offering one night of a motel stay to a person in need, up to every 30 days. However, they check identifications and don’t offer the room to people with a warrant out for arrest or an order of protection (restraining order) against them.
The church has a food pantry that they stock every day, sometimes more than once daily.
“When someone donates a loaf of bread, it isn’t there two hours,” Stobbe said.
Beth Hildreth goes to Washington a couple of times per month to restock food from the food bank there. Some of the food is ready to eat for the chronically homeless with no access to a kitchen, and some are more for people who are sheltered but are food insecure.
“Shelf-stable milk is good because you can use it for things like macaroni and cheese and cereal without having refrigeration,” Stobbe said.
Stobbe has seen people with some expected causes of homelessness, like mental illness and drug addiction. However, she has also seen people with jobs who live out of their cars because they can’t come up with enough money for rent and utility deposits and have bad credit.
The church has a free community dinner once a month and has recently started doing an extra 40 or 50 meals they deliver to the local motels with people living in them. The church has a free market in the spring and fall, but the unhoused tend not to take much as they don’t have anywhere to put it. When they do a mobile market on the fourth Friday of each month, they typically have 100–140 cars come through.
During the school year, the church provides 160 backpacks of food each week to children, so they have nutrition through the weekend. The local hospital sends a team to the church to pick up backpacks for the buddy backpack weekend nutrition program.
The church was hosting hot meals during July and August for years before it started focusing on homeless ministry. On July 28, the church prepared and delivered 114 share meals. They take pride in their meals, making macaroni and cheese with noodles and real cheese, and making cookies from scratch to go along with fish, peas and an apple.
They delivered the meals twice a week for five weeks.
“The faithfulness to giving in this congregation is stunning,” Stobbe said. “They’ve been remarkable.”
There’s also been giving from outside of the congregation. A woman stopped by the church, bringing her car trunk full of food. Stobbe asked her in and said she didn’t even know her. The woman replied that she knows Stobbe – she listens to her preach every week online. The woman told her she was homeless once, living in a tent with a one-year-old child. She said she wasn’t ready to start attending church in-person yet, but she wanted to help with their mission work for the homeless.