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Helping Our Neighbors in Kalamazoo

Kalamazoo resident with new phone

Using a Peace with Justice grant, the Phone Ministry Project of First United Methodist Church in Kalamazoo, MI  distributed cell phones and service to over 100 of their homeless neighbors.

GLENN M. WAGNER
Michigan Conference Communications

Helping Our Neighbors (HON) has been a community engagement ministry of First United Methodist Church since it was created by church member Kim Taylor in 2012. HON initially targeted assistance to those facing utility shut-off and/or eviction notices for failure to keep up with utility, rent, or mortgage payments. This important work continues.

Helping neighbors in need with utilities and eviction notices also made the HON team more aware of the greater problems posed by homelessness in Kalamazoo affecting several hundred persons who have taken refuge in area shelters, in their cars, on the streets, with friends and relatives, or in one of Kalamazoo’s homeless tent encampments. In 2020 Michigan reported 8,638 homeless persons and the Governor noted in November of 2021 that policies had helped reduce this population by 19%.

Moved by regular contact with persons living in homelessness and other challenging circumstances, the HON volunteers have learned by asking, “What do you need?” Many of those they have come to know in their service said, “We need a reliable way to communicate with persons and places that are essential for our safety and welfare.”

In response to that need this past fall, HON launched a new ministry to provide a free Cricket or T-Mobile cell phone and a year of unlimited free voice, text, and data service for persons who qualify under the federal government’s new “get emergency broadband.org,” and, beginning in January 2022 the Affordable Connectivity Benefit program. To date, they have provided over 100 phones.

HON volunteer Dick Shilts offers praise to Daniel Bruce and the employees at Kalamazoo’s area Cricket phone stores for their willingness to partner with HON to help Kalamazoo’s neediest neighbors get greater access through cell phones. Shilts commented, “Daniel Bruce and his team have a sensitivity to human need.” He also said, Bruce grew up in a foster home and his foster mom was mom over the years to 1,600 foster children. The Cricket organization is so committed to Kalamazoo First UMC’s Phone Ministry Project they have now revised Daniel Bruce’s responsibilities so that he will devote full-time to assisting with the church’s phone program and work on behalf of Cricket to encourage others across Michigan and beyond to consider starting similar programs in their area. Dick Shilts has also offered to consult with others interested in learning more about the Kalamazoo program.

Kalamazoo resident receives phone
Even during the pandemic, HON (Helping Our Neighbors) is bringing help to the homeless. Kalamazoo First UMC member Dick Shilts gives a cell phone with a year of paid service to a HON client. ~photo courtesy Dick Shilts

Shilts knows this ministry is making a significant impact on the lives of those who have received this gift. He has already received feedback about one person who used the cell phone to apply for a job and has begun working regularly at a Kalamazoo store conveniently located near a bus route. Another has used their new phone to call for 911 to come and help deliver a new baby. Someone has used the phone to call for help in a medical emergency. Grateful recipients have shared with him how much it means to be able to stay connected to the wider world.

Before becoming a HON volunteer, Shilts was the head basketball coach for Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo Valley Community College. In 2020, he was honored by the Michigan Community College Athletic Association when they created the Dick Shilts Female and Male Student Athlete of the Year Awards. Shilts has also been state president and a long time participant in the Michigan Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a place he says helped form the passion for ministry and service he has today.

Shilts knows he devotes his time because of his love for Jesus and his desire to share God’s love in a tangible way with his neighbors in need.  He knows that a small minority may use their donated phones inappropriately but believes that most desperately need the phone to dramatically improve their quality of life. He has seen how connecting in love with neighbors in need with gracious generosity has been a positive witness for the gospel.

David Lundquist, a longtime Kalamazoo First UMC, HON, and Michigan Conference member, is grateful to the Michigan Conference Board of Justice. The board awarded HON $3,000 in 2021 to help begin this ministry during its annual grants to worthy projects from funds received through the Michigan United Methodist Conference-wide Peace with Justice offering. Contributions from individuals and funds from First UMC of Kalamazoo have provided another $8,000 to help seed the beginnings of this new outreach effort. The church has now begun Phase 2 with a goal of raising $15,000 to provide additional phones to Kalamazoo’s underserved population. [1]

HON volunteers are helping to solve logistical problems such as providing cases for phones and protective screens to limit breakage, distributing portable chargers, and figuring out how to handle phones reported lost, broken, or stolen. HON also needs to determine what policies will be in place if the need outstrips resources to help. The morning after HON’s cell phone ministry was featured on the Kalamazoo nightly news, 12 persons came to the church looking for assistance.

For persons wanting to learn more about the problem and needs of our nation’s homeless, HON volunteer Dick Shilts recommends viewing the 90 minute documentary about homelessness in America, United States of Tents. Homeless numbers in the United States are estimated to be 552,830 people, with MLive reporting that in 2019 61,000 Michiganders experienced homelessness.

Prior to the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, HON volunteers were part of a network of Kalamazoo congregations offering help in-person for under ten persons each week. When the pandemic disrupted in-person meetings the helping network shifted to receiving online referrals through the 211 social needs phone network which now helps 60 to 70 emergencies each week. This ministry helps those in need to navigate corporate and government systems and offers tangible financial assistance to avoid larger human catastrophes.

First UMC of Kalamazoo expanded ministry to their at-risk neighbors with YANA (You Are Not Alone) by providing a hot meal for 80 to 100 persons each Sunday evening at the church until shutting down during COVID. HON has also provided warm sleeping bag coats for the homeless living outdoors in the winter. These special coats are designed and put together by the Empowerment Plan, a ministry in Detroit that employs the homeless in making the coats. Last winter the local Kalamazoo ministry provided 115 coats. So far this winter HON has distributed 70 more coats and has an additional 65 coats to distribute as needed.

HON is grateful for the assistance of community partners in Kalamazoo — Ministry with Community, Urban Alliance, and Douglass Community Association — for help managing cell phone distribution to qualifying individuals. 

~ Persons wishing to help support this ministry directly may donate online at this link. Depending on the type of phone and service program, it costs between $50 and $100 to provide a phone and cellular service to a qualifying individual for a year through HON. 

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