DALLAS – Six days a week, a parking lot in downtown Dallas looks plain and unremarkable, but on Sundays it turns into something special.
For 22 years, Servants of Our Lord, more commonly known as SOUL Church, has used praise songs to send a message that it's here to feed mind, body, and soul.
There is much feeding to be done. Family Gateway says homeless camps in the Dallas area have multiplied from 40 to 200 in the last two years.
Pastor Leon Birdd heads SOUL Church. He said they welcome the hurting and broken with open arms. The team arrives at 5:00 a.m. and starts setting up tents.
"At my church, you can come drunk, you can come strung out – and a lot of them do – and they have a repentant spirit and they're broken," he shared. "They just come to get back where they were. Some have been to church. Some have never been in church and they just come here to get loved on. Seeking acceptance."
Serving up Hot Meals and the Gospel
He says he knows about these things all too well.
"I was free-basing cocaine when I got saved and I didn't care if I lived or died. And so I can understand where they're coming from," he explained.
Hot meals are served along with the gospel and while the menu has changed over the years, the church's message has remained the same.
It all began when Birdd and another man, Robert Sheumake, started serving coffee to people living on streets. Sheumake had been doing the service for a number of years and he challenged Birdd to take over. After initially saying no, Birdd finally agreed.
"We started off with 10 gallons of coffee and a basket of doughnuts. Now it's feeding hundreds of people at one time, really good food like salmon, you name it," said Birdd.
The ministry's push for better health goes beyond the physical. The church's motto is 'Jesus Squeezes' – which means giving lots of hugs.
"When they come on this parking lot they're not invisible and I don't care what you smell like," said Jennifer Birdd. "Jesus Squeezes is a hug. That's what Jesus would do. He would give us a squeeze."
Since SOUL Church started it has never once canceled a service, because those who need it always show up. "If it's raining we have hefty bags," Birdd said. "We poke our head through the top, arms through the sides, that's our sole attire. And then we'll be dancing in the rain, getting crazy."
Pastor Jeffrey Parker said those who attend the services come from all ages and backgrounds.
"It really breaks my heart when I see our seniors and they are living amongst this population and homelessness, some of them without any hope, some of them very sick," said Parker. "So the demographics you have from 16-year-olds to 70 and 80-year olds."
Yet he says he still sees the ministry making a strong impact.
"We begin to see the testimonies of them getting jobs now, and moving into their own apartment now, and showing up at Bible study now and so all of these are evidence and signs that, you know, what they professed on Sunday they begin to walk it out during the week and so we see life change taking place here," he said.
He Came for Food and Left a Changed Man
After living on the street for nearly 13 years, George McGregor said love from the church changed his life. He first came for food.
"I started coming to SOUL Church back in 2003 when I was homeless and living under the bridge…and I just fell in love with the pastor and Jennifer and congregation and they fell in love with me and so when I got off the streets and got my own apartment I just never stopped coming," he said.
Debra McKernan once blamed God for the death of two of her children and wanted nothing to do with church, but after serving time for drugs and prostitution the outdoor church literally called out to her. She was living in a nearby shelter and was annoyed by the music, so she decided to pay the church a visit.
"It took me 2 months of getting very aggravated every Sunday about being woke up that I actually stomped over here – 'Turn your stupid music off' – and I walked onto this parking lot and I didn't realize I was in church and it drew me in and I saw people, I saw love is what I saw and with that I saw no judgment."
"Everybody was just like me – broken. Just broken," she explained.
"And I started staying later and later, you know and eventually I found Jesus in this parking lot. And now I know that God positioned me here because He knew I was not ready to walk into a church with walls, I couldn't do it."
"I'm Still a Mess, but I'm Not Where I Was"
She now serves at SOUL Church.
"I'm still a mess but I am not where I was...it's all because of the Lord," she says. "I gave him nothing and He still gave me His everything and I can't thank Him enough."
These are just a few of the many reasons and miracles that Birdd and his congregation continue to spread hope, one soul at a time.
"On any given weekend there'll be 30 to 40 people that want to come up to get prayer, commit their self to the Lord."
"I just pray that this goes on for a long time," he said.