WARNER ROBINS -- Today, a half dozen or so children are spending Christmas Eve at the Community Outreach Service Center along with their families and other individuals.
The center is a homeless shelter on Duke Avenue founded in 1999 by the Rev. John Thomas and his wife, Isadora.
Along with the Thomases, a few church, community and military groups will provide snacks and small gifts for the children at a Christmas party. It might be a tough season for those at the shelter, but the Thomases and others always try to add a little sweetness to it.
Thomas, 73, said the shelter has been an answer to prayer for roughly 350 people each year for the past 15 years.
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This year, he said he has a prayer of his own for the shelter.
“I’m 73 and I’d like to be able to hand off the shelter to new leadership,” he said. “We’ve been here doing this going on 16 years and know the path pretty well. I’d like to get somebody to train, somebody to take over. I’d be around to help, but the future and direction of the shelter would really be theirs.”
Thomas said if the shelter changes hands, he’d like the name to remain the same in honor of its history, but that its future is wide open.
Thomas, a retired Air Force master sergeant, also pastors a small church, New Song Missionary Baptist Church.
“It’s hard work running a shelter,” he said. “But it’s worth it. It’s not glamorous and takes commitment. I have to admit -- sometimes you feel like you’re in it all alone and that can be a heavy weight. But we started this because in the Bible Jesus said to love people unselfishly like he does, to take care of those that need shelter, to feed those who are hungry. He said if you do it for them you’re doing it for him. We saw the need and that it’s what he said do, so we’ve been doing it. But now, we need to know we can pass it along so it will carry on.”
Thomas said along with the blessings of obeying God’s call to help others come practical struggles.
“You start doing work like this with noble intentions but there are headaches,” he said. “There are things you never think about when you just want to love people like God does. There are bills. I don’t ever want to give the idea that God has been anything but faithful and look -- we’ve been here ministering to people for 15 years. But it’s always been a matter of faith, you really have to keep looking to God because the need is great.”
For instance, Thomas said there’s an almost $2,000 insurance bill due Jan. 10 for the shelter’s buildings that house men and women separately. He’s not sure where it will come from.
“We have partners,” he said. “We have donors we’re grateful for, but what comes in doesn’t meet the shelter’s needs. We pray God will provide for the immediate insurance bill and that he’ll put us on a more solid ground. The buildings are all paid for, we’ve done that and it’s a real blessing.”
Thomas said ongoing needs include things like $800 a month for electricity, $500 for other utilities, $450 for monthly insurance payments, $225 for telephone bills and $1,700 to pay two employees.
He said if those staying at the shelter have income, they pay what they can up to $75 a week for room and board, but that such payment is rare. He said the shelter is not an overnight flop house, but a 30-day housing facility with a program to help move residents out of their problem situation into work and stable life solutions.
“We’re here to help people, but we can’t do it without help,” he said. “I don’t need accolades for what we’ve done, I don’t need a certificate of appreciation. I’ve already got that from the Lord and from people who are doing all right now. You get it from children’s smiles when Christmas turns out a little better than they thought it would. But I do want to be able to see the ministry in good hands so we can back off a little. If not, the day will come we’ll just have to shut down. That would be a shame.”
But it won’t happen this Christmas. This Christmas the Thomases’ and others open hearts have assured a warm Christmas and a potentially happier new year for those they serve.
Contact Michael W. Pannell at firstname.lastname@example.org.