A group of about 100 homeless Wichitans gathered in a parking lot radiating with heat on a recent 95-degree Sunday morning.
Sweat dripped off Glendell Henderson’s head as he sang backup for a band singing Christian songs to the homeless assembled there.
After a message from the biblical Book of Job — about a man cursed by suffering — the group, called Church on the Street, fed the homeless.
Soon, Church on the Street may get off of the street and move into a fixture of Wichita history.
Joe Wright, who had pastored at Central Christian Church for 20 years before leaving in 2007, is leading a renovation effort at the long-abandoned and vandalized downtown church at Central and Market.
Wright, who said Church on the Street “captured (his) heart pretty quickly,” intends on making the homeless ministry a part of a grand master plan for the building at 445 N. Market — the former Central Christian Church and First Christian Church building.
It’s the first time the Gothic cathedral, teeming with activity a half-century ago, has seen major activity in four years.
“We have a lot of big plans if we can pull it all off, and God seems to really be pleased with what we’re doing,” Wright said.
“We’re reviving this historic church, bringing it back to life and hope to see it really being an exciting church here in the future in downtown Wichita.”
Haven for homeless
The cathedral, which sits across Market Street from the downtown YMCA, has not had a permanent tenant since 2005, when First Christian Church dissolved and put it on the market.
It was dedicated in 1948 as the home of Central Christian Church, then one of the largest churches in town.
Central Christian left the building in 1980 for its current facilities at 29th and Rock, and First Christian — which was composed of former Central Christian members — remained in the downtown church until 2005.
A man in California who grew up at Central Christian bought the building in 2006.
Over the years, it became a haven for the homeless, who broke out its windows to take up residence inside of the abandoned building.
Many have wanted to purchase the building to raze it and construct office buildings or apartments, but its owner refused, wanting to see the building become a church again.
Wright said he has entered into a lease agreement with its owner to use the church, provided he fix up the building, which still is in need of heating and air-conditioning.
He has a sweeping vision for the building.
In its main sanctuary, he plans on establishing a regular, nondenominational Sunday morning congregation.
Meanwhile, the basement of the building will play host to Church on the Street, a ministry that preaches to homeless people and then feeds them.
Wright plans on renting the cathedral’s small chapel to another church — possibly the Source Church, which currently rents space at 147 S. Hillside, he said.
Then, pending city and county approval, his most ambitious proposal: Wright wants to house homeless women and children in the 15-plus classrooms in the church’s education wing.
“The police department tells me there’s plenty of places for men to be sheltered but very few places for women and children, but they’re mostly full,” Wright said. “This (Homeless Outreach Team) met with me and said … ‘We meet women every week and women with children who we can’t find a place or shelter for. Why don’t you specialize in that?’ ”
The housing would be paired with classes about topics such as reading, writing, balancing a checkbook, living on a budget, how to apply for jobs and how to dress in a job interview, Wright said. The classes would be open to all homeless people.
He said he would gradually encourage the homeless to come to his regular Sunday morning service and the congregants of that service to come to the homeless ministry, to encourage dialogue between the two groups.
Eventually, he hopes the two congregations may be able to merge.
“That’s the big experiment we’re going to have is how to co-exist, get homeless and non-homeless people to worship together and co-exist together in one church, because of the comfort levels of both groups,” Wright said.
“The last thing I want to do is get up and preach on Sunday and look out and all the homeless be sitting on one side and all the non-homeless be on the other.”
The goals Wright has set for the building are lofty, especially considering Wright himself is 73 years old.
The energy and optimism with which he’s pursuing this project, though, belies that fact.
“It’s like my life has done a complete circle,” Wright said of returning to the former Central Christian building, though he never ministered in the building he’s renovating.
One of the main challenges the project faces — as so many do — is finding the money.
Every Saturday since March, teams of volunteers have worked to make repairs to the building in hopes of moving in. It now has power, water, gas and plumbing, but it still lacks heating and air-conditioning.
In the years the church sat vacant, someone stole the heating and air-conditioning units out of the building, likely for scrap metal, Wright said.
Wright is currently working with local York and Carrier dealers to persuade one of their corporate offices to donate new units to the church.
“They’re emphasizing might — with a capital ‘M’ — they might supply us with new equipment to put in because of what we’re going to be doing with the building, helping the homeless,” Wright said. “If they do that, it will be a great, great blessing.”
If that plan falls through, a friend of Wright’s, J.D. Sooter, has donated used heating and air-conditioning equipment from a recent demolition project.
Once the equipment is installed — either the new units or the used ones — the church will be ready to go.
“That’s really the only thing that’s keeping us from getting started,” Wright said.
Once a regular Sunday morning congregation is established, Wright will have potentially tithing members who can contribute to the church’s upkeep.
“That’s one of the main reasons I have to establish a regular congregation in the sanctuary that’s not a homeless congregation,” Wright said. “I’m not expecting any salary from it, but we’re going to have a lot of expenses.”
Wright hopes to move Church on the Street in within the next two weeks.
The new church he’s starting in the main sanctuary will open as soon as the air-conditioning issue is resolved. He hopes the recent influx of downtown dwellers may help swell his congregation.
“We’re ready to do it now,” he said. “We already have a music team put together, teachers, all the functions we need.
“Everything we need to start the church upstairs is in place, except we have no A/C.”
Homeless women, children
Every day, the Wichita Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) gets about a half-dozen calls from homeless women and families seeking shelter, according to Officer Nate Schwiethale.
Often, the HOT Team can’t help them because there is not enough space in shelters for women and children, he said.
“We’re constantly turning women away,” Schwiethale said. “That’s very frustrating for us, telling a female that she has to sleep outside, but then there’s plenty of room for the men.”
Finding overnight shelter for homeless women in Wichita has “become more of a challenge” in recent years, according to Deann Smith, executive director of the United Methodist Open Door.
Whenever it cannot find shelter for a homeless woman, the Open Door will provide her a blanket and some safety information, Smith said. She estimated about 30 percent of the people Open Door serves are women.
“Ultimately we’d like it to be housing instead of a shelter, but it’s that immediate safety concern with having a place to go,” Smith said.
There is only one shelter in Wichita that accepts single homeless women who are not in a domestic violence situation — Inter-Faith Ministries’ Inter-Faith Inn near Central and Broadway.
Catholic Charities’ St. Anthony Family Shelter accepts families, though it is often full.
Anne Corriston, executive director of Inter-Faith Ministries, said providing shelter for homeless women can be difficult, as many have behavioral issues.
“For whatever reason, we’re seeing homeless women who have some really tough challenges … whether it’s severe mental illness or it’s severe addictions,” she said. “They’re just much harder to help.”
Wright’s group will have some hurdles to overcome before it can potentially house homeless women and children, perhaps the most pressing of which is finding funding.
“I’ve seen a lot of good-hearted people try to establish shelters,” Corriston said. “The biggest barrier is not their desire or their commitment — the biggest barrier is just the lack of funding.
“You might even be able to mobilize people behind establishing a shelter, but it’s the ongoing day-to-day expenses that are just challenging.”
To house people in the church at Central and Market, the building would need a “change of occupancy” to make the shelter legal, according to the Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department.
The Central Business District, in which the church is currently zoned, permits group residences, so zoning would not need to be changed.
J.R. Cox, with the building department, said the most important step for Wright’s group would be to contact an architect who can ensure the building itself is up to code.
Wright said he will work with city and county planners when the project progresses to that stage.
He remains optimistic about his chances of success, and the prospect that one day his group may be able to buy the building.
“God has just shown his blessing on this so many times,” he said.
“My wife said to me just recently, she said, ‘Honey, if you wanted to back away from this you couldn’t because God has confirmed so many times that this is what he wants to see happen with this building.’”
How you can help
For more information about Joe Wright’s project at 445 N. Market, to volunteer time to work on the building, or to donate to the cause, call Wright at 316-680-2578.