KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The gray car has been parked at Cedar Lane United Methodist Church since March – to be specific, since “two weeks before Easter,” says the pastor.
The car’s engine doesn’t work and hasn’t since two young passengers and their dog coasted into the church parking lot four months ago. The car was their shelter, their home, and there was nowhere else to go.
So for the last 16 weeks, Kamara and Seth, ages 25 and 23, and their dog Apollo have been living in a church parking lot. They’ve been sleeping under the steeple at Cedar Lane United Methodist Church in north Knoxville, Tennessee.
“We had to think it through. We realized this was a safe harbor for them,” said the Rev. Richard Richter, Cedar Lane pastor. “If they had broken down in some other place, they could have been in danger.”
Kamara and Seth have not had permanent housing for months, unable to find rentals they could afford with minimum-wage jobs or to accelerate through agency waiting lists to get aid. They’ve lived in a friend’s house, weekly hotels or their car, moving from place to place.
“The hotels drained us,” Seth says, describing the $500-a-week cost of staying in rundown hotels and the difficult childhood and family circumstances that ultimately left him without shelter. He and Kamara have been together two years, navigating life as two of the growing number of residents experiencing Knoxville’s crisis of housing instability.
They were on their way to another church -- Fountain City United Methodist – to get food from its blessing box when their car “crapped out” next to Cedar Lane, Kamara said.
The next morning, a church member came out to the couple’s crowded 2013 Chevy Cruze to ask if they were ok. Then the pastor came by.
“Richard has been super kind and very helpful and has made sure we’re ok,” Kamara says of Cedar Lane's pastor. “Sometimes he gets us to laugh so we don’t think as much about the situation we’re in.”
While admitting “we never dreamed it would be this long,” Richter said he couldn’t dismiss from church property the young adults he now affectionately calls “the kids.”
“I just celebrated 36 years in ministry, and this is the first time I’ve stuck my neck out to this extent,” Richter said. “At first, they stuck to themselves, trying to be self-sufficient and to work through it. It would have been easy to just have them towed out of the parking lot and to be done. But that’s not what we’re called to do.”
So Richter and a few church members got busy. One church member, a master mechanic, looked at the car engine and declared it to be unrepairable. He then towed the car to a shady spot in the parking lot.
The church couldn’t invite Kamara and Seth to stay inside the building because of the child-care ministry. But Richter was able to store some of their belongings inside and allow them to use electricity, the restroom and wifi. Richter, his family and church members delivered meals to their new neighbors every day and invited them to worship and church activities.
“The next day after we got here, they offered to buy us food from a food truck that was coming. I’ll always remember it because it was called Rasta Pasta, and it was the best pasta I ever ate,” Seth said.
“We went to a few services,” Kamara said. “We wanted to see what it was like, and we thought it was the least we could do.”
The pastor also did their laundry using the child care’s washer and dryer. He took them to the YMCA, where his wife works and where he leads exercise classes, to take showers.
Richter got even more deeply involved. He took the young parents each Thursday to visit with their baby daughter, who was born last November and immediately placed with a foster family by the department of children’s services.
He spent hours on the phone and drove the couple all over town to help them jump through hoops to get on lists for housing and food aid and to take parenting classes and other steps to eventually gain custody of their daughter.
"I’ve been through those poverty simulation activities, but it’s nothing like living with people who are actually going through it,” the pastor said. “It’s incredible, to see the runaround they get. You don’t have a car, but you’re supposed to be here and there. You’re supposed to get a job, but then they schedule classes and meetings or want forms filled out when you’ve got to be at work.”
The gray car and its residents – who sleep in the car or sit in a shaded doorway of the church with their dog when they’re not working – are visible from the highway. People yell “get a job” from the road or call the police to complain about them, Seth says.
Richter described a stormy night when he dropped by the church to check on a laundry load. A police officer was shining a light inside the car and “the kids” were crying and trying to pack, believing the pastor had betrayed them. Richter interceded and discovered that someone had called the police, claiming to be the pastor who wanted Kamara and Seth removed from the parking lot. In the end, the police officer apologized and shook the couple’s hands.
“I didn’t learn this in seminary,” Richter said. “I didn’t learn how to deal with homeless young adults in my parking lot. I didn’t learn how to talk to the police.”
Some neighbors are kind when they inquire about the church’s residents, even sending food or toiletries their way. In every confrontation, Richter insists the goal is to help the couple get out of the parking lot as soon as possible but into a better situation.
“What would you do with people who are in your care?” he says to people who ask why his church is hosting a homeless family. “They’re like tomato plants, and we’re like the stake that’s supporting them. We want to protect them and help them grow.”
Kamara has been working at a nearby dollar store. Seth has been helping at the church’s food pantry and doing odd jobs. This week, the couple finally got good news. A teacher in their parenting class was able to expedite their request for housing assistance in Oak Ridge, a city northwest of Knoxville. (The last time Richter checked, they were 158th on the housing waiting list.)
On July 14, Kamara, Seth, and Apollo are planning to move out of the parking lot and into an apartment. Kamara’s dollar store will transfer her employment to an Oak Ridge store within walking distance. Seth says they’ve arranged to sell their Chevy Cruze for $400.
A few weeks ago, Richter and his wife told the couple, in one of his many “dad talks”: “If you just want us to patch you up and get you out of the parking lot, we’ll do that. But if you want us to help you raise your child, we will. We want to stand with you.”
Richter plans to reach out to United Methodist churches in Oak Ridge to see if they can help. Richter’s wife, Donna Richter, a mentor who works with families coming out of poverty, is onboard to help, too.
The members of Cedar Lane are “weary,” just as Kamara and Seth are, while happy for the couple’s next step, Richter said.
“No church is perfect. But we have been allowed to love and guide and protect these people, and it hasn’t turned into a fight. That’s a miracle,” he said. “I’ve seen people in this church go from transactional ministry to transformational ministry.”
Seth and Kamara hope to welcome their baby daughter home for the first time by the end of summer. Their second child is due in November.
Holston Conference includes member churches in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia, with main offices in Alcoa, Tennessee. Sign up for a free email subscription to The Call.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.