ROCKINGHAM — The last 12 months have been a time of growth and expansion for the Place of Grace Rescue Mission, a community for homeless and transitioning men, women and children in need of a hand up, rather than a handout.
In May of 2014, the Rev. Gary Richardson of New Life Church said he received a message from God urging him to help the homeless in Richmond County.
“I didn’t realize how big the mission of that message was,” he said.
The year before, a fire — which began in a neighboring, vacant building — destroyed the Baker House homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Rockingham.
When the Mental Health Society approached city leaders in March of 2014 about rebuilding, the request was denied, leaving those who called the Baker House home with no place to go.
To escape the elements, the city’s homeless took refuge by setting up a tent city beneath an overpass near the railroad tracks.
Rufus Miller told the Daily Journal that’s where police told them to go. But because the property belonged to the railroad, police returned, telling them to pack up their tents and go somewhere else.
Richardson, along with Mark Joplin, eventually founded the Place of Grace tent ministry on the church’s property. A few months later, they moved into a leased building just a few doors down.
The pastor said one of the residents told him, “That rain sounds better hittin’ that tin roof than my tent roof.”
“They were very thankful to get out of the weather,” Richardson said.
As the mission continued to gain more support from local and distant individuals, agencies and organizations, The Place of Grace amassed enough donations to start planning a building of its own on the church property.
In May, Pat’s Kitchen — now out of business, but once a thriving Rockingham restaurant known for championing those in need — put on a second fundraiser benefit for the the shelter.
“When Gary came to me about doing one, I said, ‘Let’s do this one,’” said Marshall Berry, co-owner of Pat’s Kitchen. “I feel like this is going to be our last boat going out. I’d love to see it be one good one.”
“This place will house 16 men,” Richardson said in August. “We’re hoping to do as much as we can in this building, but we’re keeping it close to the church. We’re building it closer to the highway for visibility. What I envision is a campus. This building will be first, but it’s not fair to only have a place that can help men. Back behind where this one will be, we’ll build another facility for women. And then even closer to the church, a facility for families. It’s not fair to separate families during times when they need help.”
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT
For two years now, the Place of Grace has followed through in making connections that have led to residents achieving educational, personal and employment-related goals.
Richardson said he is thankful to the community for helping the Place of Grace come so far from its humble beginnings as a tent city for the homeless.
“All the guys who are coming in are doing well,” he said of the residents. “They’re getting jobs, getting back on their feet.”
Richardson said people coming through the program are getting their general education diplomas and finding work in local companies and through Mega Force.
“That’s temporary of course, but it gets them out and starts giving them some responsibility and accountability for what they’re doing,” Richardson added.
During Hurricane Matthew, several Place of Grace residents went out assessing damage. After the storm passed, they went to work doing what they could to help clean up, Richardson said.
“We had trees that were down on cars and peoples’ houses in the community,” he said. “So we sent our guys and went out and just cut trees off of peoples’ vehicles so they could get out. That’s worked out real well.”
“All things are possible to them that believe,” he said. “It’s not just been a church, it’s been a community. Since the burning of the old shelter, so many groups and organizations of people with big hearts have been working to secure this place, and now they have done just that. And now here we are, looking at a ribbon-cutting or a formal dedication of the building to the Lord and the community some time around the first of the year.”
“I remember being moved to tears by the outcome of the shelter and the reactions of the people on both sides of the issue as I listened to a city meeting one evening addressing whether to rebuild the shelter or not,” Richardson said. “I left that meeting feeling the hurt of the people on both sides of the issue, and felt that somehow God was about to intervene.”
Richardson said that intervention came through the combined efforts of many people, and that if things continue to go as well as they have for the men’s shelter at New Life Church, more construction will follow.
“The Bible says, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he,’” Richardson added, quoting from the Book of Proverbs.
“It takes God to perform it,” he said. “But it takes man to listen and obey. (I’m) looking forward to the new women’s shelter to come up as soon as God sends the finances. God is good.”
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin. William R. Toler and Matt Harrelson contributed to this article.