When Joe Marsh came in for a job interview, it was his first time inside the Union Gospel Mission.
Looking across the common area, the Men’s Shelter director asked Joe what he saw.
“I was looking at a lot of men who were battling depression or just being lost. No glimmer in their eye; they’re just existing. It just tore my heart.”
But what he saw alongside the pain was a great opportunity for ministry: “What I saw was a field ripe for harvest … Part of my goal was to build relationships with these men, to buy into their lives, to find out what they’re battling or what they need encouraged in. How I can help them.”
God had already given Joe a tender heart toward men who are hopeless and broken. In a previous job he had worked alongside and ministered to many men who came there right out of jail. Actually, it’s a bit surprising he hadn’t heard of the programs beyond food and shelter at UGM until about a year ago, when he discovered two friends from church were on staff.
For those who don’t work at UGM, the “day desk” might be a confusing term, so let’s clear that up: The day desk is the first thing men encounter when they come through the East Door. It’s where they check in, do their drug and alcohol tests, report any problems and get their chore assignments. The folks at the day desk are responsible for the safety of guests, keeping an eye on the common area right inside the door, which is usually called the “day room.”
Joe manages a group of residents who staff the day desk 24-7. They are his first ministry focus: to teach and exemplify Christ-like accountability. Responsibility No. 1 for Joe is “to model what ‘grace-based’ looks like. Because these guys are all broken, they all come from varied backgrounds, they’re all at a different emotional level. … They get to watch me interact, so a lot of it is I need to walk the talk.”
Because the day desk staff are the rule-enforcers, they often have to deal with difficult situations, with Joe again as the point man. But he emphasizes that the goal in these situations is always based on building a relationship of trust.
“Usually if something's going to go bad there's some warning signs you can pick up on and see before it does escalate. … if you can de-escalate, you can separate the two men, usually what you can do is conflict resolution and to bring them together and talk about it.”
Most of the time, those potential conflicts don’t come to a head because Joe and his colleagues are intentional about knowing the guys, their personalities and their struggles. If they don’t show up for their chores or are starting problems, he wants to dig down to the “why.”
“We have to figure out what's going on here. A lot of it is just finding out what's going on in their lives, why are they not doing their chores, or why are they having a hard time in this area?”
And even with less than a year on the job, Joe is already seeing results from investing in those relationships. More of the men are “taking ownership in the home,” he says: looking out for the shelter facility, for staff and their fellow guests, addressing potential problems early and collaborating with Joe and the day desk staffers in finding resolutions. And he’s seeing permanent changes in individuals’ lives.
“I’m seeing men come here, they’re broken, and seeing men restored back to their families. I’ve seen men be fathers and husbands again. I’ve seen men stay clean and sober. I’m seeing God work powerfully.”
Darrel, at right, a cancer survivor who had been homeless many years due to a disability, recently moved into his own apartment with the services he needs thanks to the efforts of Joe and other staff and volunteers to get to know him, his background and specific needs. Joe visited him recently and was encouraged to see him in good spirits in his new home.
Joe’s soft heart toward struggling men stems from how the Lord has worked in his own life. “I just think about those times in my life where if somebody would have come alongside me it would have changed some of the hard times I had to go through. And to help these men to, first of all, meet Jesus -- that's the main thing. He's the healer. If they don't meet Jesus, they're going to cycle in and out of that destructive behavior for the rest of their lives.”
Since the beginning of 2017, Joe’s been meditating on God's words in Isaiah 43:19-21:
“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they might proclaim my praise.”
“I had that passage come to me from about five different people and in a sermon,” Joe says. He is excited to see how God is doing new things both in his own life and in the shelter. “I think it started with the card system … just building relationships with the guest population. We put all our time and energy into the [recovery] program, and the fruit from that is obvious, but there wasn’t a lot of time and energy poured into the guest population. I think God is saying, ‘Focus on this.’ Those are my guys.”
Even when they relapse or seem to be going backwards, Joe has faith in the seeds God is planting in them through UGM chapel and day-to-day relationships. “When they go back to the streets and back to their drug behavior, sure, that’s sad to me. That’s depressing. But just keep pressing in, and they’ll still come for services, and one of these days God’s just going to turn on that seed in them. And then: look out!”
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