How One Church Raised $5 Million for Homelessness

On March 6, 60 Minutes aired a report on “new homelessness”—a sudden wave of people without homes due to the economic downturn—in Orlando, Fla. Pastor David Uth of First Baptist Church of Orlando saw the report, as did author and speaker Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez). While speaking at First Baptist, Wilkinson challenged the congregation to meet the needs of the homeless in their community. And so, in one weekend, the church raised $5.6 million. We spoke with Uth about how it came about, how it will be used and what other churches can learn. Here are his tips:

Ask God to Show You a Need

This year, we have been really intentionally asking God to show us what passion for God looks like, and to give us more passion so that we’re willing to do whatever [God] asks us to do. We fasted in January for a week, a week-long fast with a solemn assembly at the end of that fast on a Sunday night, and we asked God, “Lord, show us, what is it that passion looks like?” And I think one of the ways God revealed that passion is doing what God would do and meeting needs that are around you that God shows you.

So cultivate [your mission] field carefully. And by cultivate, I mean you immerse it in prayer, you immerse it in the presence of God and worship and the call to honor God’s Word and obey God’s Word. If you cultivate it correctly, then when that moment comes or you hold up a need, I think [people] respond out of that context. If you don’t have a context and somebody holds up a need, there will be response, but it will not be to the measure that we saw or that you could see. Context is important.

Cultivate Community Awareness Among Your Church

60 Minutes aired this program about Orlando and a new homelessness, and we took that personally. That exposed a need right here in our own community. We’re not going to ask somebody from the outside to come in and help to fix this, to meet this need. We believe God will raise up churches to meet this need.

We had [Bruce Wilkinson] come the week after the episode aired. So he called and said, “Look, I really feel impressed to ask your people to go beyond where they’ve been in terms of giving and their involvement in homelessness.” And so he spoke to that and said, “I believe God wants First Baptist to take the lead and to do something.”* Our people responded in a magnanimous way immediately Saturday night and Sunday morning, pledging over $5 million. In the first month, we’ve received almost 1.8 million of it [that] has already come in in cash.

I think the timing of this was divine. The fact that it was a nationally exposed need, our people took [it] almost as a personal thing, saying, “You know what, we’re going to do something.” It was—as Scripture would use the word—kairos. Kairos is a Greek word for “time,” but it doesn’t mean chronological time; it means significant, meaningful moments.

And sometimes it’s simply [that] God speaks to our people. For example, when we felt God wanted us to feed these families during our spring break, the idea came from two teachers in our congregation. They said: “David, whenever kids are in school, they have two meals a day. But the school’s not going to be in session, it’s spring break. Who is going to feed those children?” And they said, “What if we were to? What if our church did?” So that’s how we got involved.

Go Local

For a while now, we have always prayed that one day we could spend as much locally as we do globally. We give over a million dollars globally every year. And so we have been very involved in work outside of central Florida. We’ve just always said, “God, it’d be awesome if we could do the same amount in Central Florida.”

Form Relationships with Mission-Minded Organizations

The immediate need [we saw] was the feeding of families, and we were able to buy the food in partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank, which is one of our partners in ministry. We have also networked ourselves with some of the ministries that address [homelessness]. Whether it’s the Coalition for the Homeless, whether it’s Frontline Ministries, whether it’s Christian Service Center downtown, we stay in contact with them and they partner with us. Sometimes it will be through those ministries that the need comes to us and we know about it and therefore we can address it.

Make it Personal

You have to demonstrate the need through a personal story. In other words, need is need, but it becomes personal when you see a family. When you meet a single mom, that’s when it becomes personal. So somehow you’ve got to make sure that people get a face on this need and get a personal connection to this need. That’s why we had our people deliver boxes. We could have relied on another ministry or organization. But that does not personalize it. Once we personalize it and they go, we have heard these stories of delivering boxes of food and their lives being touched and literally changed by the people they met.

Sustain the Generosity

As a pastor, we can sustain this spirit of generosity by celebrating the stories, showing the people what happens when you are generous. Sometimes we have a moment like this and people are generous, and then they never hear about it anymore, or they never know if it did anything. Did it work? Did somebody’s life get changed? What we are committed to doing is keeping the story before them, celebrating the result of that generous gift—[saying], “Hey, you made this happen.” We’ve got to tell that story over and over, and the stories of lives that have been changed.

Commit for the Long Haul

[Our commitment] will be ongoing. It won’t be the same project ongoing. For example, we fed because it was spring break. There will be other projects that come up that give us [a] personal touch. But our commitment is that we’re not just going to give money. We’re not just going to throw money at homelessness, we’re going to invest our lives in homelessness.

Be Good Stewards of What You Have

We’ve identified two kinds of homelessness. There’s a chronic homelessness, which is typically someone who may have a mental illness, a drug addiction, alcoholism—but they are chronically [homeless]. That is a different kind of homelessness than what 60 Minutes addressed. 60 Minutes addressed a new homelessness, which are families in transition, families who have lost a home, because of the economy they’ve lost a job, and they’re trying to regather, to recoup. So what we’re doing is, to meet chronic homelessness, we’re trying to partner with some of the ministries that are doing that very well, so some of the money will be in those partnerships. And then we are meeting every week to identify other ways to address the need of [new] homelessness. So when we identify those ways, then there will of course be an outlay of money to help us do it. It could be some transitional housing that we’re looking out for—how we can create a way for people to go into a place, a transitional home, for a season until they get on their feet. And then they move on and we bring somebody else in there. That’s one of the things we’ve entertained. So right now it’s all in the prayer and analysis and looking at options.

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