Counting on connection
Andre Contino wears a clergy collar to his downtown office in Oklahoma City every Wednesday, where he offers prayer and communion to more than 100 people gathered in the parking lot at 1200 S. Walker Ave. Though not all ask for communion, many will ask to talk or pray. That’s when they step into his office: the shade of a cottonwood tree.
The weekly gathering is part of Skyline Urban Ministries’ efforts to serve homeless and impoverished communities in Oklahoma City. The outreach started as a way to provide people living on the street with a hot meal, but it has grown to include clothes, hygiene kits, groceries, haircuts and pet food. Contino credits the growth to a single concept: connection.
As Skyline’s street outreach manager, Contino is tasked with helping the nonprofit expand their outreach to the homeless community in a sustainable way. He said the need is too great for any one church or organization to address alone.
“This would be impossible for us if it was just Skyline,” Contino said. “How can we be this practical, hands-on ministry that our denomination wants, our churches want, our members want? …There’s a lot of people that want to find the answer, but how can we actually do it?”
To help answer that question, Contino has started to connect with churches and organizations located in areas of socioeconomic poverty to see what assets they can offer and what needs hold them back. He then facilitates partnerships that address those needs, allowing groups to help each other meet the needs of the community together.
One such ministry is Ice Angels, an outreach to homeless people started in 2009 by Lenny and Mary Kaplan at OKC-Epworth (now a part of OKC-Mosaic). The Ice Angels food truck was the starting point for the Wednesday afternoon outreach. Mary Kaplan said having church partnerships helps their ministry offer more resources to more people than they could do on their own.
“It makes such a difference having volunteers because not only do they volunteer their time, but they bring a lot of supplies,” she said. “We couldn’t do it without the volunteers from churches.”
Lenny Kaplan agreed, noting that organizational partnerships have allowed them to offer legal services, medical services and housing connections.
“Skyline has been the biggest help because when we’re doing this, they supply the food so we can cook and get a meal going, and it’s just been wonderful,” he said. “We’ve been able to serve people a meal that you’d go to a restaurant to get. It’s improving every year.”
William, a homeless man who comes to the Wednesday outreach on a regular basis, said he appreciates the spiritual aspect of the outreach ministry and the volunteers who help make it happen.
“They care about me,” he said. “They call me by my first name, so I know they care about me, and I care about them, too.”
Rev. Debbie Ingraham, the executive director of Skyline, said they have doubled the number of meals they serve each month since Andre started, going from an average of 300 to more than 600 since July.
Ingraham said their food resources for the homeless are available to any church or organization in the state that wants to take food to people on the streets, and Contino is available to provide training.
“We have food, and I can get materials; it’s finding people who are willing to risk getting out of the pews to ‘see all the people’ that we need,” Ingraham said. “This is what we’re called to do, and this is what grows us as disciples. It’s going out and meeting Christ in his nakedness and hunger and taking care of that.”
Contino said the outreach ministry is not about building up Skyline, but rather empowering local churches to engage in ministry they may not feel equipped to do.
“It’s almost like connecting the dots,” Contino said. “There’s a lot of people in our churches that are looking for purpose, asking, ‘How can we be the church other than just be in this building on Sunday morning?’ And that’s a great thing.”
At every opportunity, Contino invites others to join him for the Wednesday outreach. He believes helping others is a blessing not only for the recipient, but for the volunteer as well.
“It’s not just because we are giving out of our abundance; we need to feel this, we need to be part of each other, and we need to be part of this community,” Contino said. “For me, this is the core of discipleship. It’s not just to learn a principle… It’s when you live faith so deeply that it really changes who you are.”
For his part, Lenny Kaplan is looking for a new partnership to provide an ongoing need: showers.
“If anybody has a shower trailer or knows where we can get one, holler.”
Skyline Urban Ministries is a connectional ministry through the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church.