CHATTANOOGA — Jimmy Turner practically glides across the large, chunky quarry rock scattered under an overpass to prevent erosion. Navigating the rock isn’t easy, but Turner navigated a lot harder in the Marine Corps. Of course in the Marine Corps Turner never approached an enemy camp with a bag of sausage biscuits in one hand and a jug of orange juice in the other.
Truth is, Turner has crossed these rocks so many times it’s a wonder he hasn’t already worn a path across them. And it isn’t an enemy camp he’s stalking, it’s a homeless camp where a few guys huddle in obscurity with no hope, fight for survival, and remain unknown to most of the world.
But Turner knows them, loves them, and is determined that they are going to know that Jesus loves them more. His presence in their world is a shock to many of the homeless he encounters.
“The greatest need I see out here is there is no hope,” Turner said. “They don’t understand why we are here. The idea that there is anything beyond today is just lost to them. They don’t comprehend that we are offering something for their future.”
Turner founded Relevant Hope, a ministry focused on providing relevant needs and a future hope. Meeting needs is a practical ministry that offers tangible help. A future hope definitely includes sharing the gospel with a goal of planting churches. Turner works with the Tennessee Baptist Convention to incorporate the TBC’s 1-5-1 church planting strategy. It may not be the average person’s idea of church, but baptized believers gathering together in Jesus’ name sometimes looks like sitting on an old upside down bucket under an interstate overpass.
“The most exciting thing about all this is that people are won to Christ,” said Steve Pearson, a TBC evangelism specialist. “Because of our churches across the state giving through the Cooperative Program, we can come along beside Jimmy and Relevant Hope and resource and encourage them.
“But Relevant Hope is also a catalyst. We are working with a number of churches in the area, training them how to go out and start 1-5-1 groups. Several people from those churches get connected to the homeless community through Relevant Hope. It’s amazing how a church in [Northwest Tennessee] giving through the Cooperative Program can have a positive impact on lives in Chattanooga. We are just trying to flood the community with as many gospel touches as we can and we are seeing God bring about an amazing result.”
The 1-5-1 strategy trains church members to start one off-campus group with a goal of seeing at least five people accept Christ and become baptized. The strategy then challenges that group to then plant a group of its own, replicating the strategy.
Jeff Parton is one of those 1-5-1 church planters. Parton is a carpenter and member of Morris Hill Baptist Church in East Brainerd. Stumbling through the predawn darkness to crawl into a makeshift shelter made from blue tarpaulins to lead a Bible study lights Parton’s fire.
“I got connected with Jimmy and he said, ‘C’mon and go with me before sunrise through the bushes and under bridges to reach these homeless people,’ ” Parton said. “He kept going on and on [trying to sell me on it] and I said, ‘Hey, you had me at before sunrise and under bridges.’ ”
Parton bounces from one homeless camp to another early on Friday mornings to lead the small congregations of a few people. It is intense discipleship as the group digs into Scripture. There are always a lot of questions that show evidence that people are rooting around in their Bibles between meetings. It was Parton’s own study of the Bible that drove him to ministry among the homeless.
“I was a good church member, but I wasn’t doing anything for the Lord,” he said. “I got tired of playing church and I started studying who Christ really was. He is a supreme example of dealing with the homeless and the poor and that is something that just struck a chord with me.”
Bill Mason, Morris Hill’s pastor, said the church emphasizes being on mission every day, or as he calls it, “Live to Serve.” He said the challenge to each member is to live in such a way that they look for opportunities to do something daily for other people so that they’ll know that “Jesus Christ has been in their life.”
“Jeff is definitely one of those people who have taken Live to Serve to heart,” Mason said. “He really sensed working with Jimmy as a calling from God and saw this as a real opportunity.”
The opportunity comes to life as Turner and Parton make their way across the rocks, turn left and walk along an old rail bed to the makeshift – but elaborate – shelter. The “camp” began as a tent and has expanded with the blue tarpaulins tied off overhead around the pylons of the overpass. Homeless people have lived here for a decade. Tree Man Smith has only lived here since November.
“I was run off from my other camp because I got my life right and was trying to tell people about Jesus,” he said. “Wasn’t none of them interested in hearing about it. They all wanted to keep doing that crack [cocaine].”
“Tree,” as people call him, had a tree removal service in Florida but lost everything when his truck motor threw a rod and his tools were stolen. A number of people didn’t pay him for services and he lost everything. He wound up homeless and relegated to a life of aimless wandering consumed with alcohol and crack. Then Turner appeared with sausage biscuits and orange juice.
“Jimmy came in and talked with us and asked if it was alright to hold church service in our camp once a week,” Smith said. “He just kept showing up and sharing the Word with us. I was baptized in the river down here and that’s when I really learned to trust in the Lord.”
The people connection is the key, Pearson said.
“What we see through the 1-5-1 strategy and through working with people like Relevant Hope and churches like Morris Hill,” he said, “is it comes down to people who are making disciples who are making disciples who are making disciples. We are seeing that among people who are homeless on the streets coming to faith in Christ. It is an exciting thing that’s happening.”