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For I was hungry…

Carol Jackson sings with others who attended the Micah Ecumenical Ministries Thanksgiving Eve service at Fredericksburg Baptist Church. Photo by Peter Cihelka/The Free Lance-Star

The setting was a bit plain. There were no choirs. Or stirring sermons.

Just a small basketball court with round, plastic tables and metal folding chairs.

But the people who held tonight’s Thanksgiving Eve service are pretty clear on one thing: Jesus was there.

The event was held in the fellowship hall of Fredericksburg Baptist Church, where Thursday nights, volunteers feed hundreds of those who are homeless and down on their luck.

Tonight, some of those people said “thank you.”

The evening was based on Scripture verses found in Matthew 25:

Then The King will say to those who are at his right, ‘Come, blessed ones of my Father, inherit the Kingdom that was prepared for you from the foundation of the universe.’ 35For I was hungry and you gave me food, and I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you took me in. 36I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick, and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you came to me.’37Then the righteous will say to him, ‘Our Lord, When did we see you that you were hungry and we fed you, or that you were thirsty and we gave you drink? 38And when did we see you, that you were a stranger and we took you in, or that you were naked and we clothed you?’ 39‘And when did we see you sick or in a prison, and we came to you?’ 40And The King answers and says to them, ‘Amen, I say to you, as much as you have done to one of these my little brothers, you have done that to me.’

Six homeless and formerly homeless men and women stood up to tell their stories, and to tell the crowd of about 60 how Micah Ecumenical Ministries changed their lives. They spoke of simple things–food, clothes, medicine. And those that are not so simple–hope, charity and friendship.

They talked of how Micah helped them find jobs and homes, spoke of overcoming addictions and reuniting with families.

Micah Executive Director Meghann Cotter said that in the past three years, 94 people have moved from the streets into permanent homes.

Gene Keith said that his life before Micah was filled with “homelessness, helplessness and hopelessness.” He’d been in jail, in the hospital and on the street.

But now he works full-time and has a regular place to stay, he said.

Cotter said that at Micah, they’re grateful when people like Keith come through the doors. When people show up who leave the hospital with nowhere to go. When the walk through the doors with nothing to eat. When they come to the cold weather shelter to get refuge from winter nights. When they go to area churches for a hot meal for their empty stomachs.

She said that is when Micah’s staff can see Jesus at work–in the volunteers and donors who turn these stories around.

She told the audience that she has seen nearly 100 people move off the streets. And she has seen people who cost the community thousands of dollars because of arrests, hospital stays and other services turn into hard-working people trying to give back.

“And all because you saw Jesus in them,” she said.

April Standfield told the audience that she is homeless, and comes to Micah often for food, coffee, clothes and support.

“Thank you for the food, for the clothes, for doing the work of the Lord,” she said.

Spike Burton performs "Let the Whole World Shine" during the Micah Ecumenical Ministries Thanksgiving Eve service at Fredericksburg Baptist Church on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011. (Peter Cihelka/The Free Lance-Star)

Only one person mentioned Micah’s recent controversy in the community, and that was a passing remark by Carol Jackson. She said that Micah offered her hope when she’d given up but that the agency “is going through a tough spot.”

Micah recently stopped offering breakfast after area residents and business owners complained that the group was attracting homeless people to downtown Fredericksburg. At the time, some critics said the agency simply enables homeless people and wondered why it didn’t find them productive jobs instead.

For Peg Phillips, who lived in a tent last summer but now lives in an apartment, holds a job and is ringing the bell for the Salvation Army this holiday season, Micah offers more than a handout. She said that she now has hope and that the agency offered not just a way out of homelessness, but a boost to her spirit and soul.

Robert Minlionica wipes away a tear while recounting how Micah Ecumenical Ministries helped him during the organization's Thanksgiving Eve service at Fredericksburg Baptist Church on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011. (Peter Cihelka/The Free Lance-Star)