You could drive by and not recognize Will Shewey's storefront as a United Methodist church, but a lot of passers-by in this downtown block of Kingsport, Tennessee aren't driving or passing through. They're stuck in place, in limbo. Shewey and his congregation at Shades of Grace are determined to help them climb out, and up.
Rev. Will Shewey: “As someone once said, ‘I’m not where I want to be, but thanks be to God, I’m not where I was.’ Isn’t that our story today?”
More than half of the people who worship here are homeless. But they’ve found a church home at Shades of Grace, a United Methodist congregation in Kingsport, Tennessee.
(Shewey reading letter) “Don’t give up on me, I understand I’m a terrible sinner and made the church look bad.”
The message in this letter-from a member of the congregation serving 8 years in prison-is one Pastor Will Shewey hears again and again. He calls the area around the church “down-and-out Ground Zero.”
(Shewey preaching) “Don’t ever take hope away from anyone.”
Rev. Will Shewey, Shades of Grace United Methodist Church: “The United Methodist Church says ‘open hearts, open minds, and open doors’ and we literally try to honor that in every sense of the word.”
Seventy-percent of those who come for Sunday services at Shades of Grace live in poverty or on the streets. Some, like William Roberts, have done time. He comes to eat… to get a pair of shoes…
(Volunteer) “I gave you some new socks but do you need another pair to take with ya?” (Roberts) “Yes ma’am.”
… to take a shower at the church… to feel like a human being.
William Roberts, Shades of Grace United Methodist Church: “They don’t discriminate on nothing. They look at you as someone that’s sick, that needs help, not someone that’s a burden to society.
(Shewey preaching) "Have you ever been in church and somehow you left that place feeling like everybody else got a blessing except you?"
Rev. Will Shewey: “A lot of the folks because of their addictions, because of where they found themselves in life, have lost their ID’s. They don’t exist. So, the first step is to be able to give them their identity back.”
Sherri Knight, Member, Shades of Grace United Methodist Church: “Forget getting work, forget getting housing, and you better make sure the police don’t come over and want to see your ID.”
In vans provided by other Kingsport churches, Shewey periodically shepherds folks to the Health Department, to replace birth certificates… so they can then get a government ID at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Costs paid by the church.
Twelve hours a day, 7 days a week, Shades of Grace volunteers try to address whatever issues come in off the streets.
Rev. Will Shewey: “Oftentimes they will call on me to come to the courthouse, to have someone there that would not judge them and would not look down on them.”
(Jean struggling to read to a teaching volunteer) “God give me blessing at the church.”
Jean was illiterate until she learned to read here.
But no matter how much you invest in trying to change lives- and instill faith. There are more failures than successes. Shewey measures progress incrementally: someone’s Facebook page demonstrates less anger and profanity than it used to. Someone else goes to prison but doesn’t forget the feelings he found at Shades of Grace.
(Shewey reading letter) “I miss being a part of Shades of Grace. Even if I wasn’t the best part.”
William Roberts: “This is the only safe place I got to come to and if it wasn’t for this place I’d probably be dead.”
William isn’t certain he’ll never deal drugs again. But Will Shewey’s street-front church keeps him going for now.
William Roberts: “They want to help you so you can love yourself so you can go on from day to day life.”
Shades of Graces meets on Sundays at 4 p.m. at 313 East Sullivan Street in Kingsport, Tennessee. Learn more about Shades of Grace United Methodist Church.
This video was produced by United Methodist Communications in Nashville, TN.
This video was originally posted October 27, 2015.