KINGSPORT, Tenn. (May 25, 2015) -- The Rev. Will Shewey was so determined to begin a storefront ministry for forgotten people that he was willing to resign as a United Methodist pastor to make it happen.
“Let me follow my dream. This is what I’m supposed to do,” Shewey told church officials for eight years.
In 2014, Shewey believed he could wait no longer. With support from Holston Conference, the award-winning pastor departed the congregation he had served for five years and immediately started a new church. He called it “Shades of Grace,” which made church leaders nervous because it resembled the name of a popular, provocative novel.
“This will be an inclusive church,” Shewey said. “None will be denied.”
Less than a year after the first worship service was held in the fellowship hall of Mafair United Methodist Church, Shades of Grace has its own location, offering a complex ministry for an inner-city community every day of the week. Average worship attendance is 160, with a high of 310 on Pentecost Sunday, May 24.
It’s not exactly what the founding pastor expected.
“I had no idea we would be so steeped in the homeless population. I did not know the extent of the problem,” Shewey says.
Located in a former flooring store in downtown Kingsport, Shades of Grace has a congregation that’s 50 to 60 percent homeless while serving an even larger group of low- or no-income people through meals, showers, addiction help, GED education, job assistance, prayer and friendship.
On the coldest and snowiest days of winter, Shades of Grace kept its doors open day and night, serving meals donated by congregations of various denominations to 160 people at a time and allowing the homeless to sleep on sofas, chairs or the floor.
“They’re completely different than any church I’ve ever seen,” said Grady White, a Kingsport Police Department officer who sometimes worships and eats with the congregation.
“They’re actually willing to get their hands dirty when they’re dealing with the homeless and other individuals that most people are not willing to work with,” he said. “And they’re right smack dab in the middle of where the homeless people are.”
NO PLACE TO GO
Ally Kling, age 21, arrived at Shades of Grace on Good Friday. She came to Kingsport after leaving a domestic violence shelter in Iowa to join her new boyfriend. By the time she stepped off the bus in east Tennessee, it was raining buckets and the boyfriend had cut off all contact.
“I was walking up and down the sidewalk with no place to go,” said Kling. “Pastor Will poked his head out the door, looked and me said, ‘Do you want to walk with us when we carry the cross?’”
Kling slumped into the pastor’s arms, weeping and heartbroken.
Shewey was in the midst of organizing a Good Friday observance on the downtown streets, but he and his congregants quickly turned their attention to the newcomer.
“This church is amazing. They don’t judge,” said Kling. “They saw me on the side of the street with my bags, and they said, ‘Come in. Come get dry. Eat.’ And they prayed and prayed for me.’”
Today, Kling is among a group of regulars who worship at Shades of Grace and join in its daily activities, while sleeping at night under bridges, behind city buildings, in tents, or at the Salvation Army.
“We’re here faithfully for it because we want to change our lives,” said William Baker, age 34, “and we’re very grateful.”
Shades of Grace offers worship three days a week, Bible study three days a week, and free meals on three evenings. The new church has also hosted holiday banquets and a community meal honoring police officers.
“Every time we have another banquet, our numbers increase,” says Shewey.
In addition to 29 baptisms, the congregation has united over two weddings and two funerals on the premises. Death, injury, disease, addiction, mental illness, violence and tragedy arrive at the doorstep every day, Shewey says. “We want to have a good relationship with local police because we’ve had to call them on numerous occasions.”
In April, a man who worshiped at Shades of Grace was charged with arson and the murder of two homeless congregants. Another regular worshiper was brutally raped and beaten not far from the downtown church.
Shewey receives a constant stream of sad and disturbing news. This week he learned that one of his congregants was sick, blind and retaining fluids after drinking alcohol and hand sanitizer mixed with acetaminophen.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in ministry – emotionally and physically,” said Shewey. “This work is not for the weary and faint of heart. But the rewards are definitely out of this world.”
‘THE MONEY WILL SHOW UP’
At age 62, Shewey is new to homeless ministry while experienced in evangelism and building congregations. A former Pentecostal Holiness pastor, Shewey started two new churches in Florida during the 1970s and 1980s, winning an award for leading the fastest-growing church in his denomination.
He joined the United Methodist Church in 1994, serving churches in rural southwest Virginia before receiving the Denman Evangelism Award from Holston Conference in 2006.
“I praise God that this is a United Methodist congregation,” says Shewey, “but if the Cabinet and district superintendent had not believed in me, I would have followed my dream.”
In July 2014, Shewey was appointed to start a new Kingsport church with a salary paid by Holston’s Congregational Development Team. The first worship service was launched in August.
By October 2014, the new congregation had raised enough money through donations and offerings to move into a vacant downtown space.
“What’s happening here doesn’t fit, in any normal way, my own experience,” said the Rev. Jim Goddard, a retired pastor who volunteers long hours as an unofficial associate pastor. “I can tell you story after story of how God has provided for this ministry and the most amazing experiences of God’s grace."
Other than salary support, Shades of Grace has paid for its own expenses, including building improvements and funerals for congregants, Shewey said. “The money comes in off the street from people who believe in what we’re doing. I fully believe that if you do what God wants, the money will show up.”
About 40 percent of the congregation is employed. Worship offerings range from $1,000 to $4,000. Over the years, Shewey has become friends to many people without church homes, officiating at about 100 funerals a year. Some of the families later became donors or new members at Shades of Grace, he said.
After only one year of existence, Shades of Grace will be self-sustaining, including paying its pastor’s salary, said the Rev. David Graves, Kingsport District superintendent.
“Typically, it takes three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars of conference support," Graves said. "[Our] district team and strategy are keys to this success along with the right pastor matched with his passion and call.”
Graves’ support has not only inspired the 58 United Methodist congregations of Holston’s Kingsport District to provide a constant flow of food and labor. Shades of Grace also caught the local media’s attention, drumming up visibility and inspiring others to donate money, meals, mattresses, clothing, cots, and time.
“Will and his leadership seek to work in concert with the faith-based community in providing for those who have needs,” said Danny Howe, mission director for nearby First Broad Street United Methodist Church. “But the interesting fact is, Shades of Grace is in the driver’s seat of ministry because they have positioned themselves to journey ‘with’ instead of ‘for.’ Additionally, local congregations and individuals get a glimpse of this ministry model as volunteers with Shades of Grace.”
NOT CHURCH AS USUAL
Melinda Lane, age 28, is a Shades of Grace regular who pitches in to help her new church however she can, especially in welcoming and befriending newcomers.
“Do you know how people just want to put the homeless down? Pastor Will isn’t like that,” she says. “It’s not just Pastor Will. Everybody here cares about us.”
Shades of Grace is learning, day by day, new ways to accommodate and work with their unique congregants, says Justin Brooks, worship leader and volunteer.
For example, a new Friday-night meal and worship service had to be moved to an earlier time because the homeless have to check into shelters or find a place to sleep before dark. A teacher for the GED class was irritated and quit when her students didn’t show up consistently and on time, so Brooks is organizing an independent program that will work better for the Shades of Grace community.
“It’s definitely not church as usual,” said Brooks.
Shewey and Brooks recently realized that many of their participants don’t have any legal form of identification, so they navigated the red tape, paid the fees, and allowed 30 people to use the church address as their own. Within 48 hours of receiving new ID cards, “most of them were able to get new jobs,” Brooks said.
“We’re seeing immediate returns on our efforts, and people say, ‘Wow, Kingsport really needed a place like this,” Shewey says. “I’m thinking, ‘Why wasn’t it here before?’ There just wasn’t a vision.”
An annual survey conducted by the Appalachian Regional Coalition on Homelessness identified 567 homeless people in northeast Tennessee, including 150 in Kingsport. The city has a total population of about 48,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The United Way of Greater Kingsport has determined the city “doesn’t have a homeless problem,” because there is an adequate number of shelters, free meals, and other programs to meet the needs, according to Kandy Childress, director of community impact.
“The homeless population sometimes faces mental challenges and other problems in accessing those resources that are available,” Childress said.
Meanwhile, Shades of Grace keeps discovering new faces among the people who are somehow discarded or fall through the cracks. Pastor Shewey realized long ago he was called to minister to “the last, the lost, the least and the lonely.” He named “Shades of Grace” after seeing a double rainbow on a day he pondered his desire and calling.
Shewey believed the rainbow symbolized all people, but he didn’t know so many needed a place to rest.
“I surely agree with Jesus' words, ‘The poor are always with us,’” he said. “The needs are so great, and some are in a dire place due directly to bad choices. Some just met with unfortunate circumstances. Shades of Grace is called to be light and salt in a hostile environment.”
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.