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More Grace, Less Judgment: Mercy Station—A Fresh Expressions US Interview

Mercy Station is a ministry that flowed out a fresh expression/dinner church in Lexington, North Carolina. Here’s a glimpse of what God is up to there!


Want to get started? This fall we have hands on training for anyone who wants start a Dinner Church, in Seattle, Texas, North Carolina and Kentucky!

We recently got to speak more with Bob Harmon, the Executive Director of Open Hands/Mercy Station. 

Fresh Expressions US: I’d love to hear a little bit more of the story of how Mercy Station got started.

Bob Harmon: Well, it goes back to a United Methodist Church. I think in the video you can see where Pastor Dave talked about it and it began basically out of a disciple Bible study. The church was out the country and they began bringing people out there-  and soon said, “Instead of bringing them here, let’s go where the people are!” They started doing a cookout at a local, small hotel where a lot of people live… because of the fact it’s not an easy place, not a very nice place. But it was just a place they could get into.

We began doing cookouts there and then we began doing it at a small church. Jay Belk was a pastor of small Methodist church, just across the highway from the Hotel. We talked to Jay and opened up the doors. We had it there and it kept on growing until we ended up having to move to a Church of God location that had a much bigger auditorium. we had it there just continue to feed people and we’re still going! In January 2014, we opened up our daily ministry, which is Mercy Station. We decided doing our meals on Monday nights, doing dinner church is wonderful and great but, it wasn’t yet getting us into the relationships we wanted to have with our friends. So we opened up the Mercy station at that point in time.

We used the Monday night meals to introduce people to the Mercy Station- let them know we’re here. We’d say, “We’re here tonight. Enjoy yourselves. We’re going to have our meal, music, and message- and a great time. But for other needs, come and see us Monday through Friday. We’re open!”

We’re had a little store front, then, that we were in, and they’d come in and we’d have food boxes, prayer, daily devotions. We have conversation, we have prayer… We just invited people in so we could have time to really build a relationship.

On Monday nights, with fairly large crowds, it’s hard to really get into a long conversation with people. So, doing this, they could come and spend time with us and we could help them with other things- help get them into detox or get into rehab. We helped them get even simple things like their IDs or birth certificates. Like I said, we have food, we have clothing. We’re working with a local diaper bank and we get moms or dads free diapers for their kids. We actually became almost like a community center in a lot of ways. People would come in and hang out and just talk. They can have that sense of belonging, whereas it’s hard to do that sometimes in a regular church environment due to just the timing and staff.

Looking out here today, I’m looking at eight or nine people just hanging out. It’s hot here and we’re kind of like a cooling station.

People build relationships, friendships that they probably never would have had because out on the streets, it’s hard to get some of that going. There’s a lot of suspicion. But here, there’s a feeling of comfort and a feeling of safety that gives them an opportunity to get to know people better. Plus our volunteers have the opportunity to work with people that in their normal life, (I hate to say normal life)… that is, their regular timing, they probably would not have the opportunity to get to know some of the folks that we consider close friends.

We’ve watched a lot of people go from homeless to homes from unbelievers to believers. And that’s the main thing we’ve really seen grow: the building of disciples among some of our friends, who at one point in times were just really in bad situations but they’ve become more.

They’re accepting Christ and now they are working with people that are in the situations they are in and can really relate in ways that I personally cannot because I have not been through similar situations.

But these men and women can go through them. They can say, “I was where you were. I was on crack. I was drunk, every day.” And they were able to get out of that because they were able to talk to the people they needed to help bring them out of it, to where they needed to be. Bit by bit, building disciples, building disciples…

You know, it’s just been really amazing to watch. And all of it goes back to the dinner church they were doing! Now we do our breakfast three days a week, feeding an average of around a little bit over 100 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The Salvation Army does that on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Our little fellowship hall downstairs in the small church we’re in only seats 35, but we’re feeding 100.

Fresh Expressions US: Wow!

Bob Harmon: Yeah- They come in shifts. We’ve got a group that comes in at 8 o’clock. We don’t tell them to do it that way. We don’t tell them, “You come at 8:00, you come at 8:20.” But we have a group that comes at 8 o’clock, another group that comes in at 8:20, another group that comes then about 8:40, 8:45 and then a few that wander in right at 9 o’clock. And we don’t tell them, we don’t set times- it just flows that way. And how it goes, we never have people standing outside in the rain or anything it just comes together has been really good. And the breakfast works out really nice, because our devotions are at 930 and we get a good crowd on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays that appear from downstairs, and that get the feeds them again with the Gospel, and a message of grace and acceptance, that we want to get out there. No matter what they’ve done or what their past is they are still loved and children of God and they have a place in his kingdom.

And we’re not going to judge them on what they’re doing. You know, we’ve got this mantra that we use: More grace, less judgment. We’ve really, really pushed that with our friends. We don’t care what your past is. We want to build your future. There’s just been so much change in people that we’ve witnessed and it’s exciting!

Fresh Expressions US: Yeah! I love it. That sounds exciting!

Bob Harmon: That sounds like the Spirit, you know, when you see someone go from homelessness to homes. We’ve got two that are transitioning into homes right now. That just blows me away to watch their faces when six months ago they were just feeling so hopeless and all of sudden things have come together in different ways and they’re able to get into a place.

They do give credit to God on this and that’s what I love seeing- them saying , “God has blessed me with this.”

It’s just phenomenal! You can tell I get excited just to watch the life change. That’s what we’re all about.

Generally, in a month, not counting breakfast and not counting Monday nights,  we serve about 650 people through our office. We’re serving about 1,100 people every month and around 500 on Monday nights for the month. So, we’re seeing a lot of people, exposing a lot of people to the gospel and giving a whole lot of love.

Fresh Expressions US: You said things started as a dinner church. Was Fresh Expressions a part of you getting the vision for that dinner church? Had you heard of Fresh Expressions or did that come after?

Bob Harmon: Fresh Expressions came after, really. Beginning way back with Opportunity House which began in Kannapolis and Concord, North Carolina in 2008, I believe. They began with a Thursday night and called it Narrow Gate. I volunteered a lot with them, and pastor David Talbert who was there at Bethany was with them a lot. His dad had begun that ministry and that kind of inspired what we’re doing up here. This came prior to Fresh Expressions and really became part of the Methodist conference here.

I believe Fresh Expressions came here in 2015 or 2016, was when they really started coming through the conference and we were exposed to FX that way. But what was really neat was the concept of both, even though they were a country apart, the whole idea of what they were doing just blended together wonderfully was what Fresh Expressions has brought out from the Seattle area. It translates well here.

You can tell it a little more of a Southern flair than the Pacific Northwest flair-  but they both are perfect. And whenever we’ve met with the Fresh Expressions folks that come over and work with them. I’ve loved the way that it looks and how it dove-tails together.

We’ve watched the other dinner churches in the area. What started down in Albemarle, North Carolina with Soul Food/Grace Place. Grace Place had started under our final 501(C)3, an even though they started separately, they are part of us at the moment. They’ve just really grown doing the same type thing as we are doing. They just started their daily thing about a year ago and going through the idea and the concept of Fresh Expressions and dinner church- that’s a great way to get people exposed! And if those doing the dinner church want to take that next step and really dig into our friends lives, the more daily thing just really makes a huge difference. I love seeing the ones that take that next step because that’s where we really were able to dig in, and help people make a change.

Fresh Expressions US: Tell us more about what discipleship looks like in this kind of Dinner Church/ Mercy Station environment- How does it work for you guys?

Bob Harmon: What does it look like? A lot of it started off with the volunteers we’ve had in since we first began. I’m the only paid staff member and I came in December of 2013. I began just trying to get to know the people and talking to them. And so many of them, as you’ve probably seen any time you’ve had people at dinner churches or when you first start work with people that are struggling, that are on the margins-  they have a suspicion a lot of time about “church people.” They figure, “They don’t really care about me.” They figure, when I was a kid, I got pregnant or I was doing drugs or I had trouble… the message many of them heard from “church people” was, “You’re not good enough to be in church anymore” or they get shunned. And a lot of them have been through that. So what we try to show them is that now that doesn’t matter.

You are loved, you’re a child of God. I mean, when your dad’s a King, you’ve got it made! We talk to them about that and just show them that God loves them and God can make changes! And watching them when you’re going through devotions or going through Bible studies or having deep discussions about how their life has been or what they’ve been through and just showing genuine concern and love for who they are. And they begin to see, that love comes from Christ, and they feel it.

They come and say, “You will never guess what happened!” And they tell me a story about something they never expected that would change their lives. Small things like a job pops up, or a home opens up or a relative they haven’t spoken to in years contacts them. Things just happen and they’re beginning to see God working in their lives in different ways and when they see this they understand that they are part of something a lot more than just the street. That God is working with them and when they see this they begin following the example of those who have been working with them and they begin seeing they can do that with others. I can tell somebody what’s happened with me! I’ve see Bill and Bill is struggling, but a year ago, I was in the same place! And they’ll start working with him. Like I said earlier, when it comes from someone that’s been in the position of the person they’re talking to- “God can help you with this! God can get you through this! Here’s what He did for me! Listen to God. Study this, read this in the Bible…”

And they actually do this- it’s like a family tree spreading and bringing more people in and it just blows me away! When you see someone that at one time not that long ago was on the very bottom and struggling and suffering and next thing you know they’re proclaiming the glory of God and how God has done it for them and what God can do for someone else. I mean it’s unbelievable to watch!

Fresh Expressions US: That is! It sounds like some really great things are happening there! This is so great to hear.

Bob Harmon: We’re in a small town and up until 2016 we were in a storefront, and right now we’re in what was an exclusively African-American church that was began in 1868 right after the Civil War. Started by former slaves, the church had been a segregated black congregation for one hundred and forty-seven years. And now people that have been a part of our fresh expression have now joined this church. So this church is now de-segregated with some people that came from the streets and had been in tough situations. They’re now being welcomed into this church and it’s just been phenomenal to watch that, and to see the 94 year old African-American who comes every Sunday and seeing him working and being here with people that he probably never would have associated with three years ago and the acceptance that this church and the congregation has had for our friends… It’s beautiful.

Our demographics, the people we serve is probably 65 to 70 percent Caucasian, probably 25 percent African-American, then about five percent Hispanic. But the demographics don’t matter! Everybody is shown love here. Folks from the church congregation making friends with folks from the street-that’s just really cool to watch.

Fresh Expressions US: Have you pastored in more traditional settings?

Bob Harmon: I’m not a “Pastor!” My title is executive director of the nonprofit. I would say I have ministered. I’ll put it that way. Before this I was in corporate America and I’ll tell you what, the people I work with now are a whole lot more fun than people in board rooms!

They asked me if I would consider this, and I was at a point in my life where I could do it. I said, let’s go! It’s made a definite change in my lifestyle, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.


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