Mark Wilson 1

Program volunteer Mark Wilson on the steps of Bethel Lutheran Church.

MIKE DeVRIES — The Capital Times

If you tell Mark Wilson that the Lord works in mysterious ways, he'll tell you he can't help but agree.

How else to explain how his job managing a Taco Bell store on State Street, and a friendship with one of the homeless men who frequented it, led to a growing web of support for the homeless at one of Madison's largest mainline churches?

But after Eric Manley, the homeless man with whom Wilson had forged a bond, died three years ago on the steps of Bethel Lutheran Church, a couple of blocks off the Capitol Square, Wilson found himself searching for a way to commemorate Manley's life. He turned to Bethel Lutheran, where clergy helped organize a memorial service. The ceremony marking the life of a homeless man lit a spark that engendered a program that provides nourishment, spiritual succor and dignity to people who have found themselves homeless.

"If you had told me 10 years ago that I was going to be doing this, I would have told you you were out of your mind," says Wilson, who volunteers to manage the four-day-a-week program. "I didn't know about homelessness issues until I hit State Street. I didn't know what was inside of me either — maybe from a compassion standpoint. But I really give a s---, I really do."

The Bethel community — certainly its staff members — were not strangers to the needs of the homeless people who sometimes walked through their doors, but the poignancy of a man's death on the steps of their church challenged them to more fully open their hearts. It has been a transforming experience.

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Tuesday mornings at 10:30, Bethel Lutheran hosts a homeless spiritual support group in its cathedral-style church at 312 Wisconsin Ave. At a recent session, some 50 men and women sat in and around a circle of chairs to share their lives, support one another and ask for the grace to move forward. They included middle-class parishioners, at least one man who slept outside the night before, men and women who stayed at homeless shelters and some who have managed to find housing. Some are Madison natives, some are new to the city, or originally from another state. Several interviewed for this article professed no connection with the Lutheran church, others no religious affiliation at all. One declared herself an atheist.

The tone of the circle would be familiar to anyone who has been part of group that opens its gatherings with a "check-in" by those who are present. Upbeat expressions of gratitude for the small victories likely in a week's worth of living draw vocal enthusiasm. A few participants who are stubbornly silent, one or two who can't seem to stop talking, and a couple whose lines of thought are a little hard to follow are met with practiced tolerance.

Group members also offer moving expressions of hope and determination as the men and women speak of searching for work and for housing, and about reaching out to family members estranged by the hard circumstances of their lives. They make plans for the future. They take life one day at a time.

The roomful of participants is a far cry from the handful who gathered in the program's early days, wondering at times if it could continue. As word about the circle has spread and the program's offerings have increased, more and more people have arrived.

That it happened at all is something of a marvel. Wilson says he wasn't a church-going man when he got a phone call at the Blanchardville home he shares with his wife the morning after Manley's death. But where else would he head but Bethel to try to make some sense of the sudden death of the man he'd called a friend?

"I still get choked up when I talk about this," says Wilson, a burly 57-year-old with a touch of his native Oklahoma in his voice. "I wish I had been there so I could have done more ... he might still be alive."

Manley was just one of many homeless people Wilson got to know running the Taco Bell on State Street, the campus-area shopping strip where panhandlers tend to gravitate. He just had no stomach for corporate policies that banned anyone who wasn't buying something from spending time in the store, Wilson recalls.

"I figured that I had a public restaurant so it would be open to the public. Period." So the word soon spread that Taco Bell was a place to get a drink of water or use the restroom.

Wilson found he had a soft spot in his heart for Manley, a loner on the street. He fed him more days than not, and often found himself assisting Manley when he had one of his frequent seizures. "I don't know how many times I held him on the floor of my store until the ambulance came," Wilson recalls.

Manley reciprocated with gestures of kindness. "He'd see me sweating on the job, get on the bus and go to the mall and come back with a little fan that squirts water," Wilson remembers.

Hoping Manley would be able to reconnect with his family, Wilson helped him save money to take a bus to Florida. But that didn't work out, and Manley made his way back to Madison. The pair reconnected, but Wilson had retired from Taco Bell with health problems and wasn't around Madison much anymore. He didn't see much of Manley. And then he heard of his death.

The coroner ruled the death was from natural causes, but Wilson struggled with guilt. He vowed that there would at least be a memorial service, and after family members declined to be involved, he arranged to have Manley's body cremated and for the service at Bethel. "We had two pastors and I catered lunch. There were about 35 people, mostly homeless people who knew there was going to be a meal, but it was really kind of cool," Wilson recalls.

Laura Sutherland, a former associate pastor at Bethel, recalls coming home after Manley's funeral saddened and frustrated at the limitations of the church's ability to help the homeless. "We should be doing more than just burying these people," lamented Sutherland, now pastor at a church in Rochester, Minn. You run support groups all the time, she recalls her daughter told her. Why not a support group for homeless people?

Sutherland had not known Wilson before he appealed to Bethel for help with a funeral for Manley, but she could tell he had street credibility with the homeless, she recalls. When she asked him to volunteer, Wilson recalls that he felt he couldn't refuse. Today, he is grateful for and proud of the web of services that has developed, but he remarks that it likely never would have happened if he hadn't befriended Manley and if he had not died where he did. "This is his legacy," Wilson says.

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The support group and other services at Bethel are just part of the small constellation of services available to Madison's homeless. The city office that tracks services to them estimates that 3,023 individuals were served in Dane County shelter programs through mid-December this year, not much changed from the 3,136 served in all of 2010.

The city itself has stepped up to provide some services. In the wake of the closure of the Central Library for a two-year renovation project and the indefinite closure of the Capitol basement to the homeless — two popular daytime hangouts — housing advocates pressed the city to let services provider Porchlight Inc. use a former East Washington Avenue auto dealership the city purchased for future redevelopment for a homeless services program this winter. That new center opened Dec. 14.

Churches other than Bethel are also part of the web of services, and some have been active for years. For more than two decades, Grace Episcopal Church at 116 W. Washington Ave. has leased space to Porchlight for the city's largest homeless shelter, and depends on neighboring churches for overflow space. First United Methodist Church, 213 Wisconsin Ave., provides lunches and showers to homeless people, as well as money management assistance; St. John's Lutheran Church, 322 E. Washington Ave., runs a day program for the homeless and other people with mental illnesses.

Bethel seems intent on becoming a steady force. Congregation leaders there are formalizing the program by seating a board of directors to oversee the ministry and creating a line for its expenses in its 2012 budget. Bethel member Arlen Christenson, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin Law School and chairman of the board, characterizes it as a natural outgrowth of the congregation's commitment to Christian ideals. "This is what we do; this is who we are," he says.

It's not that there hasn't been opposition to welcoming sometimes scruffy people in off the street, Christenson acknowledges. "Some of these guys look scary sometimes," he remarks. Others in the Bethel community tell of a crusade to close down the program after the theft of a couple of coats by someone it turns out wasn't part of the program. There was also an unfounded scare about the spread of tuberculosis by homeless people coming into the building. Some church members are grateful for the presence of the homeless, they say. Others wish they would go away. But the homeless services program has persisted, slowly drawing more people.

It's hard to gauge the program's reach as a transformational agent in a congregation numbering more than 5,000 members, Christenson says, but to the perhaps 20 people who participate in the homeless services program and to the 150 or more who have volunteered monetary donations, it has made a difference, he believes.

"I know, like me, they've been changed by it. You have a different view when you recognize that people you used to look past or look through are human beings. You relate to them differently," he says.

Some efforts of the homeless services program are aimed at what usually are seen as basic needs: packs of new long johns, socks and gloves donated by parishioners and dispensed from a tiny storage room; access to and training on computers for job and housing searches; referrals to free medical care; a connection to a LensCrafters program that provides free eyeglasses to the indigent and the homeless.

But the Bethel program also seeks to relate differently to homeless people than might be expected. For example, the program includes a book club where during a recent session group members penned mini-memoirs inspired by passages from Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory." And the heart of the program, to which all comers are challenged to open themselves, is that Tuesday morning circle. "Everything here has grown out of the spiritual support group," says Christenson.

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Kent Potthast was familiar with Bethel long before Wilson approached him to be one of the first members of that support group. His family attended the church when he was a boy and he recalls Boy Scout meetings and confirmation classes within its walls. "I've always felt comfortable in this church," he says.

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Now 51, Potthast knocked around jobs as a cook at restaurants in New Orleans and Madison — including the State Street Taco Bell — until a few years ago when his habit of flying off the handle left him out of work, out of luck and out of a place to live. The homeless support services program has been a good way to build connections, he says, and it was here that he met Linda Hansen, a formerly homeless woman to whom he now is engaged. The couple plan to marry in April.

Hansen, 54, also is a Madison native who worked a decade in a clerical job for the state until symptoms of mental illness reared up. Eventually, she wound up on the street, drinking to try to tamp down the voices in her head and having minor brushes with the law. Stable now with appropriate mental health treatment, she is grateful those frustrating years are behind her, "but you still kind of worry in the back of your head you could become homeless again," she says. The support group lends a reassuring sense of camaraderie, she says. "You can talk about almost anything that is bothering you, or if it's something good, they like to hear about it," she says.

Potthast values the group because members don't judge people. "Almost everybody is or was once in the same situation," he says. But it's not for everyone, he observes. Down-and-outers who come for quick help — a bus ticket or money for rent — may not get it. "That's not what Bethel is about," says Potthast.

Beyond the limits of financial assistance that Bethel can supply, organizers demand participation in the program in order to spend time at the church, and forbid intoxicants, foul language and aggressive behavior. The demands — and the church setting — may weed out more disruptive sorts, Christenson acknowledges, explaining why behavior problems are rare.

Ministering to any group of people presents challenges, says the Rev. Scot Sorenson, the new senior pastor who was installed at Bethel earlier this month. "We're dealing with people. It doesn't matter which socio-economic strata you work with, there are going to be challenges to be met with every group," says Sorenson, who worked with communities of faith as well as private and public agencies serving the homeless at his previous parish in Sacramento, Calif.

Sutherland, the former Bethel pastor, recalls that embracing the homeless group called for a "top to bottom" culture change in the affluent congregation. What made it difficult, she reflects, is not how different the homeless people are from the parishioners, but how alike.

"Ultimately, we all are vulnerable. We may not be homeless, but we have some degree of brokenness. It's scary to acknowledge that and talk about it," she says. After the group was started, she was surprised to hear stories from parishioners who had homeless family members. "They were ashamed, but now they felt they could share."

The candor that at times emerges in the spiritual support group is remarkable, says Associate Pastor Sarah Harrold, who has been leading the group since July. It is a generous offering to the Bethel community, she says. "When someone lets you into their lives, it's easier to let them into yours." What has moved her most, though, is the open gratitude of the group's homeless participants to what the congregation offers them. "It's humbling," she says.

•    •    •    •

Rick Dunning was filled with astonished gratitude at a recent meeting of the Tuesday morning group, his first. Dunning, who is from Columbia County, told of how he has been struggling to find work since a layoff in 2009. He headed to Madison in hopes of better opportunities, but after a long-sought job lasted only a couple of months, he soon was out of money. He had used his last bus ticket several days earlier to get to the Men's Drop-In Shelter at Grace Episcopal Church, he said. There he struck up an acquaintance with another man who has been showing him the help that is available from Madison churches.

"I didn't know what to expect," he says of going to a shelter, his voice shaky with emotion. "I can't believe how much the churches help out. I feel fortunate to have my health, be well-fed and have a place to sleep at night."

There are other heartfelt offerings. One woman introduces the group to her 15-year-old daughter, whom she's been asking them to pray for. "This is my pride and joy — she's doing a lot better now," says the woman, who identifies herself only as Becky. Speaking to the girl she says of the group: "This is my extended family."

There is real feeling in Wilson's gruff voice when he takes his turn to thank the group for their expressions of concern after he suffered a heart attack — his seventh — just a couple of weeks before. "There's a lot of people who want to make sure I'm doing what I am supposed to be doing," he says. "This group is just amazing, the inspiration we give each other, how we take care of each other."

After everyone has spoken, Harrold asks for prayer requests. Heads bow as she says a few words, and the group prays for — among other things — all the homeless people, the people who are not homeless, and political leaders.

Then they sing, in a surprisingly certain pitch and a key that's nice and low: "Lord, listen to your children praying ... Send us love, send us power, send us grace."

There's just a moment of silence before the group erupts in cheers. There are birthdays to celebrate and lunch to share.