By Jamin Osborne
Homelessness in the Inland Empire is not a well kept secret. But many do well in averting their eyes and hearts concerning the homeless population in the community; but not Jim Ward. Extremely tall and slender with a long white beard, Jim Ward looks like one of those old country depictions of Santa Claus, and indeed he dons the attire during the holiday season. But during the rest of the year, Jim looks a lot like Jesus.
On Thursday evenings at Fairmount Park, off Main Street and the 60 freeway in Riverside, in an area just on the other side of the chain link fence that borders the well manicured sixth hole green of the park’s golf course, you can find Jim Ward and other committed volunteers serving a home-made hot meal to a substantial gathering of Riverside’s homeless.
Jim has been doing this every single week for over nine years. It started when Jim joined others at his church and went to the park to give peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the homeless, with the hopes of sharing the gospel with them. Jim recognized how this deed was only scratching the surface of something meaningful, and when the church quit this particular ministry, Jim heard the call of God to carry on.
“Let them know I love them and have not forsaken them. Show them My love,” was the call of God that Jim responded to, but not without wrestling for two months with the idea of taking on the responsibility. “I didn’t want to go down there. It is a lot of responsibility and a lot of work,” Jim said in explaining his two-month long Jonah experience in running away from what God had called him to do. But eventually Jim answered the call, and with his eleven-year-old daughter, who now is a student at Riverside City College, went down to Fairmount Park carrying three pizzas and a Bible. He walked up to a bench where a group of homeless men were gathered relaxing and drinking some King Cobra beers.
Jim looked at the men and said, “I will share this pizza with you if you just give me ten minutes of your time and listen to what I have to say. I’m not trying to sell you anything. What I have is free.” The men agreed to listen. Jim read them a passage from the Bible, interpreted it for them, and shared its message. And then he did something earth shattering, he ate pizza with them.
“I didn’t just leave food with them,” Jim said recounting the experience. “I sat down and ate pizza with them. That was a big deal right there.” He stayed and visited and told them he would be back the next week and they can do the same thing. That following week the group at the table had doubled.
The ministry began to grow and other volunteers started joining in to help. Today, the ministry consistently serves anywhere from fifty to a hundred and twenty-five people a week. The formula is the same as it was when Jim started at that picnic table over nine years ago. Before the meal is served, there is a half-hour message presented by Jim or one of the several local ministers that have joined in support of the ministry. Sincere and powerful prayer is also integrated throughout the evening along with time for worship.
Everything is supplied and financed by donations. They don’t receive a lot but they seem to always get what they need when they need it. Jim simply says, “God supplies.” Second Harvest Food Bank, located in Riverside, is a great support. Second Harvest distributes food to over 400 nonprofit agencies that feed the homeless and low income families in the Inland Empire. There are also people, like the golfer who hopped the fence and handed Jim a hundred dollar bill after hearing the message Jim gave, who encounter the ministry taking place while at the park and feel compelled to give a gift on the spot to support the ministry.
The City of Riverside has programs that offer help in the areas of housing and job placement for those homeless who can maintain sobriety. Not everyone can do that. But for the ones that can, there are great opportunity for them. For those who struggle with sobriety or are battling with mental illness, there are differences in opinion in how to best address their condition, and the disagreements can lead to tensions and conflict between local government and local ministries. The current Mayor of Riverside, Rusty Bailey, has openly supported ministries like Jim’s, and has previously taken part in a community service award ceremony where Jim was one of those recognized.
Jim’s congregation also gets to experience the joy of giving and serving others themselves. The group as a whole sponsors a young girl in Indonesia and many of the homeless give out of what finances they have to support her. Jim shares updates and pictures with the group. The satisfaction, joy, and personal encouragement in helping others in need can be inspiring for their own personal progress in overcoming life’s struggles.
Jim puts it plainly, “We are supposed to do what we do. Help people when they are down, sick, or poor. We should be visiting in hospitals, in jails, and encouraging them. That’s our job as Christians. Most people [here at the park] aren’t believers and the only way they get to know God is through us. Our ministry is all about what God can do through us. If you want to thank me, you gotta thank Him, because, He is the one that sent me. He is providing.”
Trust, consistency, and unashamed engagement in their lives, serving them as a pastor, endeared Jim to the homeless community. Much of Jim’s commitment may come from the recognition of what Jesus Christ has done in his own life, a life not much different from many of those he now serves. As an ex-president of an outlaw biker gang and experiencing first hand the corruption and deception surrounding alcohol and drug addictions, Jim is able to speak from experience and share his wisdom in overcoming a lifestyle prone to bad decision making, and share the message of the hope and salvation that can come from pursuing Jesus Christ and the spirit-filled life.
There is always a need for volunteers and donations. For those who hear the call of God, love, and community and desire to be a part of supporting this local ministry, visit Manna Ministries at www.mannaministriesriverside.com. The Manna Ministry website also lists many of the other area resources and services for the homeless and low income population in the Riverside area. Of course, there is also the invitation to just show up on a Thursday evening around 4:30 p.m. at Fairmount Park, go toward the golf course and look for a church congregation sharing a meal. Look for the tall slender man named Jim Ward who looks a lot like Santa Claus, but loves a lot like Jesus.