Serving those living outside is nothing new for Calvary Presbyterian Church in Riverside, California. The church has a history of feeding homeless guests since 1985. For more than 30 years the congregation of Calvary, with support from the community of Riverside, has provided a healthy and balanced meal every Sunday night to people living outside and others in need. And volunteers from Victoria Presbyterian Church in Riverside make sure there’s a sweet ending to every meal by baking fresh desserts for Calvary’s guests. In 2015, the church served over 7,000 meals and has served more than 35,000 since 2011.

Win Carey, Nancy Gylov and Corkie Mensinger, three women who saw a need and went to work to address that need, started Calvary’s Hot Meals program. “Calvary is a three hundred member church in downtown Riverside that truly opened its doors to the ‘least of these,’” said Sonja Almgren, one of eight Hot Meals coordinators. In fact, it was the church’s outreach ministry and particularly the Hot Meals program that led Almgren and her husband to join Calvary.

“We saw a church that chose not to close their doors to the homeless but chose to open their doors and show the love of Christ to people who needed help. We could see the church’s passion for mission and for social justice, and that’s what attracted us to the church,” she said.

Calvary, however, is doing much more than serving meals to the weekly 150 to 200 guests who are fed through the Hot Meals program. In addition to the feeding program, the church’s clothes closet is a popular ministry, providing clothes, shoes, blankets and hygiene items for guests each week.

“The work Calvary does is only possible because of the tremendous partnerships we have throughout the entire community,” said Almgren. “This is truly a communitywide ministry. We have volunteers from many different churches and faith-based organizations in Riverside. We also have volunteers from groups like Boy and Girl Scout troops, Rotary Clubs and many other organizations and individuals.” Businesses of Riverside also give financial support to the Hot Meals program.

The Hot Meals program ministers to virtually every facet of a person’s life. Other aspects of the program include free dental service provided by Loma Linda University Dental School. Throughout the year the school brings its fully staffed and equipped dental van to provide dental service for the guests of the program.

A clothes closet volunteer at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Riverside, California offers a Batman shirt to a young boy.

A clothes closet volunteer at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Riverside, California offers a Batman shirt to a young boy. —Photo provided

Students from various schools and colleges serve the guests through the Sole Exchange Program, a student-driven initiative that not only provides shoes for the Hot Meals program’s guests but also includes the symbolic act of foot washing by the students. Another unique ministry partner is Taking It to the Streets, a local nonprofit organization that ministers to the pets of Hot Meals program guests by providing dog food, help with getting the pets spayed and neutered and other services.

Path of Life Ministries, which at one time housed its administrative office at Calvary, provides free medical exams for guests of the Hot Meals program, through free use of its Health to Hope medical van staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses. The organization is also on the forefront of getting chronically homeless people off the streets and into permanent housing.

“The Hot Meals program serves those who are chronically homeless due to mental illness or other reasons,” said Almgren. “These are people who live at the river bottom or behind dumpsters, and it’s really hard to find places and landlords who will rent to these individuals. But Path of Life Ministries is doing an outstanding job in finding housing for these individuals.”

When asked how this ministry had transformed the lives of the members of Calvary, Almgren said, “I’d like to emphasize I am one member of an eight-member team; some are Calvary members and others are part of the community or other organizations. For those of us who volunteer, we get more out of this than we give. It is an amazing experience to minister to the ‘least of these.’ If there are 150 people there, there are 150 individual stories. When you talk to these people, you find that we have many things in common. These are not bad people; these are people who have had tragedies in their lives through things like divorce, war experiences, violence, mental illness or substance abuse. We all have people we know or someone in our family who has suffered some of these same things, and we see that these people are valuable and they have something to offer. That sort of relationship can transform anyone’s life.”

Almgren added, “The best news for this program is when we open our doors on a Sunday night and no one comes because they have all found jobs and homes, their needs have been met and there are no more homeless. If this was true throughout the country, wouldn’t that be wonderful? Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening. So we are just happy to be doing what we do, with huge support from the session and the members of Calvary and the community.”