Tucked off Fowler Circle, north of the Loop near Cherokee Street, sits a small church with a modest steeple that opens its doors every week to New Hope Mission.
Each Sunday, Union Chapel United Methodist Church feeds about 100 people both breakfast and lunch, totaling more than 5,000 meals since the effort began in 2000.
Various churches in the neighborhood support Union Chapel UMC’s noble efforts, donating buses that run the seven or eight routes to collect the men and women in need.
The cooperation by other congregations was Pastor John Woods’ dream for keeping the community connected.
“Every church in the area, just about, works with us,” Woods said, who was born, raised and educated in Cobb.
Woods attended the segregated all-black Lemon Street High School before graduating from South Cobb High School in 1969.
At 7:30 a.m. Sunday, the small buses began to arrive, filled with passengers hungry for warm food and fellowship.
Within a few minutes, there was a large group of mostly men dressed warmly for the chilly morning air and some women in their Sunday best.
This past weekend, volunteers, church leaders and dozens of homeless adults prayed outside before the sun had fully risen, reciting with a cadence, “God is good all the time. And all the time, God is good.”
Then an announcement of blessings was shouted out, such as Friday’s successful fundraiser for The New Hope Mission and one man finding a job.
On Friday, Union Chapel UMC hosted its first annual benefit dinner and silent auction, which drew in $500 of profit to keep The New Hope Mission’s kitchen cooking for another few weeks.
“God will make provision for this ministry to continue,” said Minister Terrence Haul, who has been with the church for five years.
A heart for the homeless
Debra Hawkins, 59, who lived in Marietta for many years until she recently moved to Cherokee County, was one of the first volunteers at New Hope Mission and is now the organizer.
Outside the church on Sunday morning, Hawkins told the gathered group of young volunteers and homeless adults that together they are a community and like a family to her.
As she invited them inside the church, Hawkins reminded everyone to be kind and smile all week long.
Like a manager of a bustling restaurant, Hawkins, a tall blonde, stood larger than life as she constantly moved from one side of the room to the other asking each person by name if they needed more to eat.
“You got everything you need?” Hawkins would ask. Then, almost without an answer, she would run the empty plate back to the kitchen to add the next item.
Although Hawkins said she is often in the kitchen, her favorite moments are in the fellowship hall where every corner is filled with either a long rectangular or large circle folding table.
The well-oiled operation actually begins Saturday, when Hawkins dedicates her time to grocery shopping, baking biscuits and grilling meat. Then at 4 a.m. on Sunday, the grits and eggs start cooking.
By the time the line of homeless men and women form, there are several options including cereal, fruit, chicken nuggets, mini sausages with beans and fresh baked desserts.
“We try to give a breakfast that is nutritious,” Hawkins said. “I always want to serve a breakfast that I would eat.”
Immediately after plates are scraped clean, a few regular diners start collapsing the tables and mopping the floor.
“It just happens,” Hawkins said. “A lot of the guys put their hands in to help.”
One of those men is Rick O’Neil, who has been cooking for New Hope Mission for the past two months. O’Neil said he grew up in a large family where his mother taught the kids to cook at 5 years old.
O’Neil said Union Chapel UMC is a place where everyone feels welcomed, giving them hope Monday will be a fresh start to a new week.
“Hopefully, things will get better,” O’Neil said.
A loving refuge
Many of the men who enjoy a free breakfast at Union Chapel UMC live in tents with sleeping bags, Hawkins said.
“This is their life and a lot of them don’t even have that,” she added.
Hawkins said her father was homeless in the last years of his life, and organizing New Hope Mission is her way of understanding what those days were like for him.
“If you don’t own your past, it will own you,” she said.
Hawkins said everyone is the same, but some peoples’ paths have gone in a different direction.
“I grew up in a lot of destruction,” she said.
But the reality of their harsh living situation did not cloud the Sunday morning meal. Instead, the lively bunch of men were busy joking, catching up with old friends and welcoming new faces.
One man said he had been eating breakfast at Union Chapel for the past six months after hearing about the charitable meals through word of mouth.
The man did not want to be named, and said he served for two years in the Vietnam War.
The veteran said he grew up in the area when it was called Baptist Town and Union Chapel has been part of the neighborhood his whole life.
In his role as pastor and has a retired Atlanta police officer, Woods said he knows how to relate and interact with the men and women, who are often veterans suffering from addiction or mental impairments.
“They get love here,” said Woods. “We appreciate people just as they are.”
Union Chapel UMC will even hold funeral services for members of the community who died while homeless.
“Everybody has somebody that they are connected to,” Woods said.
Woods and Hawkins also highlight how orderly the men are during the breakfasts and how many of them offer skills in electrical work, painting or playing an instrument with the praise team.
“There are a lot of really brilliant people that come through here,” Hawkins said.