THE STORY BEHIND HOTEL MINISTRY
by Debi Wakeling, founder of HOTEL Ministry
“The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it…”
1 Thessalonians 5:24
The HOTEL Ministry (which stands for Healing Others Through Evangelistic Love) was born in 2003 of a desire to reach the poor that reside in the low-income apartment buildings in downtown Portland for Jesus Christ; to bring blessing to their physical, emotional and spiritual lives, becoming a bridge to faith and fullness only Christ can bring.
Prayer for this outreach started years before any serious meetings took place. I began to meet with Mike, the Director of the Portland Rescue Mission, and a couple of Mission pastors to discuss reaching the poor downtown, with specific emphasis on the elderly. We wanted to focus on the people that were residing in the low-income buildings, many of whom are elderly, struggle with mentally illnesses or addictions; all of whom are poor. Many of these apartment buildings had been hotels in the past.
As we met with members of Northwest Pilot Project and Loaves and Fishes, we developed our strategy. They were very supportive and helped in our cumulative research. Several things were obvious in our findings: First, there was no other outreach to the poor that resided behind closed doors in downtown Portland. Second, the Rescue Mission was not financially able at that time to fund another outreach, so they deemed this, “my ministry” and supported me from behind the scenes both prayerfully, and with food, clothing, bedding, etc. Through research done with Loaves and Fishes, helping to distribute meals on their downtown routes to the buildings, I got a more complete view of the hotel population, and better acquainted with managers and spaces available.
Only one building manager seemed interested in helping me in my quest; I began there. Helen Swindells Apartments is that building, situated on the corner of NW Burnside and Broadway Streets. It is the old Broadway Hotel. Initially, I wanted to begin with large events that could reach everyone, such as dinners and concerts or Bible studies that could employ their large lobby. Few of the buildings have such a lobby; Swindells did. However, it took months to get an approval to begin anything there. The idea of a Christian outreach was a stumbling block that continued to send me crashing into a solid brick wall! As I spoke to my contact at Northwest Pilot Project one day, explaining my frustration, he said to me, “I like the visitation idea! Why don’t you try to start there?” Brilliant! I got off the phone and called the manager at Swindells, and that day got permission to begin visiting the elderly there.
Prayerfully, I felt that I would have a much better chance for a meaningful and intimate experience with people if I went alone, instead of with a large, male counterpart, as was strenuously suggested. Buoyed by the vision and protection of the Lord, I set out with a hand truck and four large milk crates full of food, my Bible and Jesus cards and began knocking on the doors of those over the age of 60 at the hotel. I explained that I was part of a Hotel Ministry, that I was a Christian and that I was going to be coming by on Fridays to visit. They understood that I was interested in them spiritually, but also in every aspect of their lives. At my initial contact, I wanted to ascertain their history: family, work, and faith background. I wanted to bless their lives in every possible way, and so came with my hands full of good things for them each visit.
Frequently, people were skeptical, afraid or unwilling to let me in physically or symbolically. Many even said, “I don’t know why I’m letting you in… I don’t let people in…” or “I’m a very closed person.” I, of course, knew why they were letting me in, and thanked God for it!
The visits to the elderly are the very foundation of this ministry. Most of the people we visit have no functional family; we become their family, and do not take that role lightly. For each person we meet, we covenant with God to do all that He leads us to do for them, praying for them daily, visiting them, and seeking to bless them in all that we do. We truly aim to be ministers of reconciliation to them, attempting to reach them, where they are, to be reconciled with God, whether it is a first time faith in Him, a renewal of a seed that has been dormant since they were a child, or nurturing them in growth and surrender to Him alone.
In the first year, I began having Bible studies with individuals in their rooms. For most people, this was the first time they had read the Word or prayed. Believe me, there is no more moving event than being with a person who is at the end of their life, and learning to talk to God and trust Him for the first time… After about eight months into my Friday visits, I got the approval for the first Dinner & Concert, which would be in the lobby, and was open to all residents.
At the end of the first Dinner & Concert, I asked if anyone had any questions or comments. One of my ladies announced to the entire assembly that we had been having one-on-one Bible study together. This prompted another of my ladies to say, loudly, “Why can’t we have a Bible Study here in the lobby? “ I just smiled at the manager, who was there that night… He said, “I suppose that would be all right.” Immediately after that, I called Pastor Bob Brotherton, who had initially been involved in the prayer and meetings for the ministry, and let him know of my need for a Bible Study teacher. The Lord was calling. Pastor Bob said, “Yes!”
BIBLE STUDY – CHURCH
At Swindells, we have Bible Study in the large lobby the 2nd and 4th Sundays of the month at 11am. We are the only ones that call it a Bible Study – to everyone downtown, it’s “Church”. It is open to everyone, and we have various layers of participation. Pastor Bob powerfully supplies the Word of God, and we also provide coffee, juices, donuts, and assorted pastries, which are offered to all, not just those participating in Bible Study. Some wander through, thankful for the hot cup of coffee and donuts, not actively joining in, but nevertheless hearing the Word… others are there waiting for us at 10:30 when we get there, and stay till 12:30, just visiting… some are regulars, some are new, some are off the street, all are loved. Frequently, residents who have moved to another building come back just for “Church” on Sundays!
Many have asked Christ into their lives for the first time, others have begun to grow, question, and participate, as we have become a growing community of Christ there at the hotel. We pray together, discuss, question, and grow. We are diverse and blessed!
My home church, River West Church, began supporting this ministry in the first year. They now support it prayerfully, financially and with hands-on participation. River West Church helps us serve over 400 people each month in 4 separate buildings. We have developed a giving system we call “Loving Your City” which allows our membership to drop those things that we really need in large metal bins in the foyer each week when they come to worship. We keep the needs list updated for them. Our children are also active participants through our City Kids Ministry, as they focus on bringing a highlighted item each month to contribute. Our kids are learning from the time they can walk, to love the poor!
Our church literally has 100s of volunteers that serve in a multitude of ways, such as: serving as part of our visitation teams, cooking or serving dinners downtown, donating food, clothing, hygiene products, bedding, fans, etc. They serve in creative ways, as musicians, card makers or picking up food or pastries from delis or coffee shops. They are prayer warriors, hands-on supporters, and Christmas gift givers – and they do it all joyfully!
People from their 20s to their 80s typically fill these buildings, of which the elderly make up almost 30%. All are living in poverty, isolation and hopelessness; all need the love of the Lord.
The hotels vary widely in size and condition, some with no lobbies for large events, and only a walk-up, and meager rooms. This ministry can be varied to fit every hotel’s needs, and thus can employ the very small to the very large churches. The ministry itself is simple and beautiful in design, and made to be self-supporting by each church that undertakes its own.
In 2010 we began to train other churches to establish their own Hotel Ministry teams. As we work with other Portland/Vancouver area churches, our goal is the same: to saturate Portland’s downtown with the love of our Savior, Jesus, in very real, meaningful and consistent ways. We know, because we have seen first-hand, that this ministry can easily be replicated by any like-minded Christian Church with a heart for serious, long-term service. We have a very effective and enriching training program and are willing and ready to share with any church or individual that is interested in Hotel Ministry, and to train them to engage in their own endeavor, and join the Hotel family!