“It’s all about being seen,” says Aisha Figilis-Williams, Food Pantry Director for First United Methodist Church Pasadena, a role she has served since 2020. Every Tuesday at 10 AM, Figilis-Williams and an all-volunteer crew welcome between 40 and 50 individuals who come for a cup of hot coffee and so much more. Her other titles include Office/Facilities Manager, Wedding Director and Camp Sky Meadows Reservationist. Still, she says, “Serving our regulars on Tuesdays, as well as welcoming newcomers, is what God has put on my heart to do.”
FUMC Pasadena has stood in its present location at Colorado Boulevard and Oakland Avenue for a century, and the edifice is sweeping in its grandeur. Carved tracery, pointed arches, glowing stained glass, quatrefoils and ribbed vaults in the French Gothic style will be familiar to students of medieval sacred art, with one notable omission: the exterior niches which house figures of saints in Roman Catholic churches and cathedrals stand vacant. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, formally rejected the idea of canonization, holy relics, and the veneration of saints as distractions from the primary focus of the Christ-centered life. However, the material absence of saintly forms does not signal an absence of grace.
The group of locals who stream through the stately doors at 500 East Colorado Boulevard on Tuesday mornings generally arrive with more than coffee in mind, although “…sharing a friendly ‘Good morning’ and a warm cup of coffee with them is a great moment of my day,” says volunteer Randy Godshall, a retired trust and estates attorney who is a member of the congregation and sings in the choir, accompanied by FUMC’s impressive E.M. Skinner pipe organ. The Tuesday morning arrivals are low-income to no-income individuals, many of whom lack a permanent address.
“The word ‘homeless’ is offensive to many, and we prefer to identify their situation as ‘unhoused,” explains Figilis-Williams.
“The word ‘homeless’ is offensive to many, and we prefer to identify their situation as ‘unhoused,’” explains Figilis-Williams, who has worked for FUMC Pasadena since 2018. “They are all experiencing food insecurity. Some may live on the streets from time to time, some may live in their cars, and some of them are employed. They work but cannot secure housing in our area that they can afford now.”
The hands-on team of volunteers greets everyone with a printed resources guide, referrals, and “a listening ear,” as Godshall says, over hot coffee and fresh pastries, a package of take-away perishables (salads, milk, yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, string cheese, apples, sack lunches) and canned or dry goods like pasta, water, toiletries including TP, and essentials like new tee shirts and socks. Tortillas and hot sauce are always a hit with the group. The team also provides cat and dog food for unhoused neighbors with pets.
“Sometimes, a dog is the only companion someone on the street may have,” says Godshall.
“Sometimes, a dog is the only companion someone on the street may have,” says Godshall.
“We touch their lives in the ways that we can,” says Figilis-Williams, noting that some Tuesday regulars are also familiar faces at 10 AM Sunday worship.
“We also make a deliberate effort to connect them with other locations around the area where they can receive help, like medical care, as well as a shower and a hot meal during the rest of the week.”
The language used to describe the individuals served by the Food Pantry matters because the vocabulary reflects deeper attitudes. Those of us who have never experienced anything close to being unhoused probably want to keep it that way, so we may choose to “other” – as an active verb- individuals in that situation. By seeing them as “others,” we distance ourselves from what we view as undesirable and validate our perceptions of ourselves as safer and better.
Figilis-Williams shakes her head with a soft smile and says, “That’s the illusion. It can never happen to me, or it can never happen to someone I know, someone I love. We realize that it can, and it does. That person on the street you avoid and won’t even look in the eye could be your parent, your child. It could be me, and it could be you.”
Although The National Weather Service identifies 2024 as an El Niño year associated with milder temperatures in California, baby, it’s cold outside, even here in the Golden State. Figilis-Williams and her team are now accepting donations of winter items, including new and clean, gently used sleeping bags, blankets, quilts, sweaters, jackets, raincoats, scarves, hats, mittens, gloves, and those perennial favorites: NWT (New With Tag) long underwear and socks. While scorned as unexciting holiday gifts by the fortunate, these last two items are among the most welcome contributions to the well-being of an unhoused person. Long winter nights feel longer and colder with wet feet.
The Housing Conversation
Housing, of course, is a crucial element in the conversation. Encountering the growing unhoused population in our area is a source of public distress. Homeowners fear for their property values. Businesses protest the presence of unhoused people, reasoning that they drive away customers. Parents voice alarm when their encampments form near schools. Some of us pretend that the unhoused are invisible as if pretending will make them magically disappear. As a result, we may respond with anger (and thinly veiled fear) when the uncomfortable reality—the family, child, woman, teen, elder, veteran, sleeping in our doorway or asking for spare change outside “our” gourmet coffee shop in the morning—intrudes upon our fantasy that all is well with the world. A common question, posed rhetorically and with exasperation, is, “Why don’t they just go to one of the homeless shelters?”
“There are many factors and many reasons why a person may choose to be on their own.”
Apart from the fact that even the most conservative estimates regarding the number of unhoused people in Los Angeles County far outstrip the number of available beds, Figilis-Williams says, “It is often difficult to convince them to go to shelters, and we know that this annoys people who don’t understand why. There are many reasons why a person may choose to be on their own.” Figilis-Williams and her crew are not in the business of persuading, cajoling, or even necessarily changing their Tuesday morning comrades, although the news that a long-time participant in the Tuesday morning ministry has at last found housing is cause for Amens, Hosannas, and Hallelujahs.
“We believe the Homelessness Count conducted by the Pasadena Partnership to End Homelessness is an important program that gives city officials quantitative data on the unhoused in our city, and helps them understand the needs of local organizations addressing the issues of hunger, health, and housing in our community,” said Figilis-Williams. “While we have seen an increase in the use of our pantry, our prayer is always that the number of unhoused has gone down and more people have found stable places to live.”
When asked if the source of homelessness is economic or something more profound, like a mental health issue, Figilis-Williams explains that it isn’t either/or. Our region’s extraordinary cost of housing, paired with job losses related to COVID, is undeniably an element. For decades, we’ve all heard that all but the most privileged among us are X-number (the number varies) of paychecks away from, at the very least, a foreseeable future of couch-surfing with sympathetic family and friends. Race and racism also play a role. While statistics vary, Black people are disproportionally represented in the count of unhoused Pasadenans, Californians, and Americans.
Concerning the question of mental health, it may be a chicken-and-egg matter. Consider the last time you missed a flight, lost your phone, ended a relationship, lost your way in a new city, or lost a job. Panic ensues. Once we face the fact that a few twists of fate can jeopardize our fragile sense of personal security, we begin with a shudder and a shiver to move closer to understanding how a night of sleeping on the street might feel. Let’s re-phrase: There is probably no actual sleep due to hunger, thirst, pain, possible illness, cold (or blistering heat in summer), noise, regret, and anxiety. Is there any more explicit description of despair? Living in the reality of the street may quickly produce the effects of what might loosely be called “mental illness.” Paranoia that you are in personal danger (because you are) of assault, rape, robbery. What clinicians call “hyper-vigilance” makes rest and relaxation impossible. Shame and guilt for things done and not done, antagonized by the hostility of strangers who just want you off their property and out of sight. Forever.
Godshall reports that drug use, violence, hate speech, threatening language or other disruptive activity are not tolerated on Tuesday mornings.
“This is a safe, warm, welcoming environment for all because we don’t tolerate troublemakers.“
“As a matter of fact,” he says, “we almost never encounter anything like that here. We have clear boundaries, which we uphold. This is a safe, warm, welcoming environment for all because we don’t tolerate troublemakers.” Figilis-Williams adds that First United Methodist is a “Reconciling” church. The church website reads: “All people are welcome at First United Methodist Church. We are proudly part of the Reconciling Ministries Network and welcome all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, age, physical or mental capacity, and education, socio-economic or marital status.”
Figilis-Williams says that although she’s hopeful that her regulars will find their way to safety and stability, “I look for them wherever I go. I worry when they’re not here on Tuesdays. And I ask everyone, where did he go, where did she go? Because what happens to them happens to all of us.”
“We are all works in progress,” she says. “I never ask, or even think of my regulars, ‘Why are you still here?’ We do not diagnose. We do not judge. We are not doctors. We are absolutely committed to offering care, help, and support to everyone who comes to our door. But it’s not with the expectation that we can fix anyone. We are not their savior, and I do not presume that I am here to reform or change anyone. I do feel that this work is what God asks us to do, and we do it gratefully. We serve with grace, joy and compassion.”
First United Methodist Church Pasadena offers many programs dedicated to the physical, mental and spiritual wellness of our community, including a Prayer Quilt Ministry for those with sewing skills who come together in fellowship and stitch prayers into quilts,Mindful Monday Yoga, anger management, Narcotics Anonymous, CoDa (Co-Dependent Anonymous), Turn-A-Page Book Group, study and fellowship circles, Ending Well free Zoom workshop for end-of-life planning, Grief Share, Meals on Wheels, youth group, Children’s Sunday School K-6, + Sunday nursery care, movie night.
Worship at 10:00 AM, Fellowship at 11:00 AM
Download the app! https://www.fumcpasadena.org/app
Want to do more?
- Here’s the ministry’s Amazon tax-deductible wish list: https://www.amazon.com/hz/wishlist/ls/19F9158VH5FB9?ref_=wl_share
Speak to Miss Aisha!
First United Methodist Church Pasadena
Office: (626)796-0157 ext. 245 [email protected]
- In-kind donations of new (NWT) or laundered, gently used winter clothing and bedding are welcome.
- In-kind donations of fresh, perishable food and dry/canned pantry items are welcome.
- Tax-deductible monetary donations are welcome.
- Community residents are invited to volunteer and spread the good news on Tuesday mornings!
- Volunteers, including grant writers, are welcome to contact Aisha.