Editor's Note: The following story kicks off a yearlong series of weekly in-depth reports themed by a day on the calendar.
A dozen or more men and women milled through the Spartan room, talking casually.
Takeout pizza boxes and dishes of homemade food lined one banquet table while another was piled with loaves of bread, bags of fruit and store-bought baked goods.
It could’ve been one of any number of holiday parties held throughout Lebanon. But the holidays had already come and gone.
It was a typical night at Lebanon’s Cross Style Church.
Every night at 6 p.m., the church offers a free meal to anyone who needs it. Guests who need a place to stay for the night are offered warm beds, hot showers, breakfasts and basically the chance to get in out of the cold.
By 7 p.m., the men and women will part ways; the men going to one of seven other host churches, and the women settling in for the night at Cross Style.
It’s all part of Compassionate Hands Ministry, a newly organized outreach effort from eight Lebanon churches of varying denominations.
“It began last winter with the Cross Style Church here in Lebanon,” said John Grant, of College Hills Church of Christ and one of the organizers of the effort.
“[Cross Style] was housing several people in their building through the winter months, and one of their members, Andrew Whittico started calling other churches and said, ‘Hey guys, will you help us out?’ So several of us responded to the call,” said Grant.
Seven other Lebanon churches joined Cross Style in the effort, so the churches take turns hosting male guests; Cross Style hosts women and children every night.
Between Cross Style and the seven other churches, the outreach is equipped to handle 12 women and 12 men at any given time, but Grant said they’ve yet to reach that number.
“The most we’ve had is 11, and that was Christmas week, on one of those nights when it was cold and rainy,” said Grant. “Those seven men and four women would’ve been sleeping in their cars or under bridges or who knows where.”
He said that organizers are expecting more people to come in if the temperatures plummet in the coming days as is forecasted.
“We’re pretty much ready for two dozen on any given night,” said Grant. “If 40 people come in, we’d be calling Lazarus Project and maybe taking people to the Nashville Rescue Mission.”
Each church has at least four volunteers staying through the night, which Grant said gets challenging in itself at times.
“These host churches are coming up with a minimum of four volunteers every night for 13 weeks,” said Grant. “Some of the churches that are hosting are smaller churches that only have 200 members or so, so they’re making a really big commitment.”
He said other churches have helped in this respect, with churches such as Southside Baptist and New Heart Christian Church lending their support to some of the smaller churches.
“Yeah, it’s just four people, but it’s 13 straight weeks, including Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve,” said Grant.
He said four is the minimum number of volunteers so that in case of an emergency, two could handle the emergency and two would still be on hand.
“There are a lot of challenges,” said Grant. “One is trust.”
He said he’s seen trust issues on both the hosts’ side and the guests’ side.
“Number one, for your volunteers to feel safe bringing strangers into this place to stay overnight; helping your church leaders feel safe,” said Grant. “[But there are also] trust issues on the other side. Our guests have been reluctant to come in, even though it’s nasty weather. We’ve seen they’re a little bit reluctant, a little bit anxious, about staying in a church, ‘Are you going to force me to be baptized if I stay at your church?’”
But he’s starting to see that change as the weeks pass.
“Little by little, I think relationships are growing and trust is growing,” said Grant.
And as the relationships are growing, the volunteers are coming to know who to expect to show up.
Kaity Guzman, who works and lives at Cross Style Church with her husband, Seth, said she and Seth have gone into town to check on guests who didn’t show up on particularly cold nights.
She said they ended up not finding the guest they were checking on, but as they returned to the church, they saw a couple sitting in a car in the parking lot.
“They were just going to sleep in their car; they weren’t planning to come in,” said Kaity Guzman. “We brought them inside.”
And that is what Compassionate Hands Ministry is all about.
“Hospitality is a gospel value, and I think this is what the church needs to be doing, is to be a place of hospitality and building trust and open arms to people who could never pay you back,” said Grant.
Courtesy vans pick up guests nightly, with vans leaving Timberline Campground, located at 1204 Murfreesboro Rd., at 5:15 p.m., and at 5:40 p.m., vans leave the food stamp office beside CiCi’s Pizza, located at 155 Legends Drive, #G.
Check in is at 6 p.m. nightly at Cross Style Church, located at 104 Trinity Dr. in Lebanon.
Compassionate Hands emergency overnight shelters will be available every night through the end of February.
For more information, call 615-443-4485.