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A ministry of hope can be found under an interstate

by KYLE PEVETO The (Baton Rouge, La.) Advocate on January 18, 2014 10:34 AM

BATON ROUGE, La. — The crowd beneath the Interstate 10 bridge counts on the bright green trailer.

Twice a month, along with a cavalcade of pickups, it comes loaded with coats, blankets, shoes and hot meals for anyone in need.

There’s no in-your-face sermon, no pressure to accept Jesus. Just help.

“They’re not trying to make people do something to get something to eat,” said Virginia Frazer, 56, who is staying in a nearby house with no electricity.

Under a program called Serving People in Need, a consortium of Baton Rouge area churches has helped the homeless — and those close to it — for three years by meeting on Sunday afternoons to give food, clothing and prayers to those in need.

Fifteen minutes after it arrives, the green trailer is open, and tables are set up for a makeshift marketplace that gives the crowd a place to peruse stacks of donated clothes.

About 80 men, women and young children gather, and Chad Hebert, from Fellowship Church in Prairieville, directs the crowd, bringing the children to the front of the line.

“Everybody this way!” Hebert said, motioning toward a chain-link fence. “Everybody’s gonna get fed!”

Folding tables fill with pots of spaghetti, pasta sauce, corn, trays of bread donated by Raising Cane’s and boxes of Southern Maid doughnuts.

The smells of sweet icing waft across the cold wind.

A volunteer from the neighborhood leads a prayer, asking for pure hearts. Then the crowd shuffles through the line. They receive a full plate and a ticket for something warm to wear.

“We eat the way we would feed ourselves,” said Hebert, 40, a maintenance worker at a plant in Ascension Parish. “We’re not just bringing ham sandwiches.”

Three years ago Hebert and his brother started coming Sundays to serve people in need. They recruited volunteers from their church, and three other area churches took on the available Sundays.

“In the church, God calls us to go out and serve,” Hebert said. “As a Christian I feel compelled to serve, knowing the things God has provided.”

Hebert brings his family out to serve. His daughter, Kaileigh, 14, said she chooses to spend Sunday afternoons ladling heaps of pasta onto plates.

“They make me laugh because they’re always happy,” she said. “You expect them to be mean and hateful, but they never are.”

Most of the people who accept their help hear sermons all the time, Chad Hebert said. Instead the volunteers ask them if they need prayers.

“Most of them just want to be talked to and treated like I would want to be treated,” he said.

Several ministries use parking lots beneath the bridge near the Mississippi River levee to feed the homeless and other needy families, said Richard White, pastor of Mercy Church, which serves the first Sunday of each month.

“We’re close to where many of them live over the levee,” he said. “If it’s raining, there are dry places under the bridge.”

Last year Hebert and the group from Fellowship formed a bond with Leo and Edna Price, a couple that regularly came to the Sunday afternoon ministry. After learning of their wish to be married, Fellowship gave them a wedding ceremony at the church.

“They’re just like family,” said Leo Price, 41. “They treat us like they would treat anybody else.”

Within an hour of the green trailer’s arrival, the crowd has eaten, and most carry a new blanket or coat.

Manning the clothing tables, Jim Gradine, 51 of Gonzales, helps a girl search for something her size.

“They get treated like nonhumans sometimes,” he said. “To have a conversation with them and treat them with love and compassion means a lot.”

Ninety minutes after they arrived, the crowd begins moving on and the crew from Fellowship Church cleans up.

Chris Armstead, 29, a volunteer from Baton Rouge, helps bag trash and talks the Bible with the Fellowship group.

“They do it from their heart,” Armstead said. “You can tell. They’re not at home watching football. They’re out here volunteering their time.”

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