Embracing the Poor and Needy in Durham, North Carolina

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By Alice Clarke

If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

1 John 3:17

The Bible is clear that God wants us to love and care for the poor. Jesus told us that when we care for the needy, we’re caring for Him.

Justin and Kelly Rife lead Embrace Durham, a ministry that reaches out to the homeless and disadvantaged people in their city. As they’ve begun to reach out in simple love, they’ve seen God partner with their efforts, and seen life-changing encounters and transformation in the people they meet on the streets of Durham.

I recently talked to Kelly about their journey, and the incredible things they’ve seen God do through Embrace Durham.

Making a Radical Move

In 2015, Justin and Kelly were ministering to gypsies in Eastern Europe with Georgian and Winnie Banov, when they heard God speaking to them about their next steps. Kelly said, “While we were in Turkey, the Lord spoke to us and said, ‘Your heart’s for the streets. I want you to do this kind of work on the streets all over the world, but I want you to go to leadership training. Will you say yes?’”

Their response was immediate: “We came home and sold our home, and everything, and took our three daughters and He pointed us here [to Catch The Fire]. We went through the School of Revival and began this ministry.”

Beginning Embrace Durham

“He pointed us in the direction of Durham, and we just began to go. We just started going at night with sandwiches and water bottles. We started taking people who wanted to go with us and He just kept opening doors.”

They listened to the Holy Spirit for where to go, and ended up in places they didn’t expect. “We’d have people down there say, ‘You’re on the hottest heroin corner,’ ‘You’re on the hottest corner for prostitution,’ ‘How did you even end up here?’ Places that people would warn us, there’s been so many shootings there, and we’d just end up there and we just didn’t feel afraid. It was just so the grace of God.

“What we do now is we go to three areas of the city. We go on Tuesdays and usually, we have a bunch of grocery stores and places that donate food to us.”

Becoming an Answer to Prayer

One of the areas that they visit is the Budget Inn, a run-down hotel just 10 minutes from the church. After driving past the Inn for six months and feeling the Holy Spirit highlight that they should go there, in November 2017, they felt it was time to go.

“We went down with hot chocolate and cookies, and we had these invitations. We throw feasts down in a park in Durham, one of the parks that there’s a lot of drug activity and homelessness. We do Thanksgiving feasts the week before Thanksgiving each year.

“...There was a lot of drug activity at this Inn and a lot of prostitution there as well. This woman approached me, and at first she looked a little scary! She was coming at me and I just had cookies and hot chocolate in my hand.

“...She said, ‘My name’s Jane’, and I said, ‘My name’s Kelly. We’re just here to pass out cookies and hot chocolate and love people, and if you don’t want us here we understand,’ I was almost apologetic.

“She said, ‘No, you don’t understand. I’ve lived here seven years, in one of these small rooms.’ The rooms are just tiny, they’re really run down. A lot of roaches and bugs and things like that. She said, ‘My daughter Annie and I live here, and she cleans the rooms. A church used to come here, and they stopped coming a year ago. Every day in the last year, Annie and I prayed that God would remember us and come back, and today God has heard our prayers.’

“It was really amazing. She just took our cookies and hot chocolate and began knocking on doors, and before we knew it we had this huge group of people there because she’s like a mama to all of them. We began to just pray with people, and people gave their lives to the Lord. We had to pick up van-fulls of people for our feast the next day in the park. We began relationships that a lot of them have become just like family to us.”

The Embrace Durham team now visit the Budget Inn every week, and distribute food, giving the bulk to Jane and Annie, who regularly cook for the other residents.

Training Students to Reach Out

Last fall, Justin and Kelly started teaching a class in the School of Revival. They decided from the beginning that they wanted it to be less teaching, and much more hands on experience. “I think often we talk so much in the church about going out and reaching people… we tell great stories about what we’ve seen, what we’ve done... but often they won’t end up going out because they think that experience is just for those who’ve already had it and not necessarily for themselves.”

“We just we really taught them the basics. The very basic thing that was most important to us, was just start out listening, be a really good listener. When you’re on the streets, so many people out there and in impoverished areas, they don’t get to be heard, and they don’t have people around them that actually care about them… Don’t just go for the miracle right off the bat, don’t just go for the salvation right off the bat. That’s all obviously very important but we want people to trust us and feel heard.”

Planning a Wedding

The team met a recovered addict, Melanie, who was taking other women into her one bedroom house. She often had nine women sleeping on the floor, and ended up getting bed bugs in her home because of it. The team prayed with her for a solution, and that night a donor gave $2,000 to the ministry, without knowing Melanie’s story! They used the money to get rid of the bed bugs and get her house cleaned up.

Kelly shared more of Melanie’s story, “Melanie ended up meeting another recovered addict. Both of them just love the Lord. They ended up getting engaged and wanted to get married in the courthouse because they didn’t have money for a wedding. Right around that time was when our students started coming down with us.

“The week before she and her fiance were going to get married, we said, ‘What if we were to marry you and you wouldn’t have to get married in the courthouse?’ Melanie said, ‘Oh my gosh, that would be amazing, but I don’t have money, I don’t have anything.’ So in a week we asked the students, ‘Would you want to throw Melanie a wedding in her home?’

“I’m telling you all of the students were on board, and they were so excited. Each of them took a part, and in one week we put together this amazing wedding. We came to her house the next Tuesday... We had one team take the flowers and they had bouquets made… It looked like the most beautiful wedding day in her home. Justin and I ended up officiating the wedding… The students went and got food to throw a reception afterwards, got a wedding cake made. One of our students was a professional photographer for the last 30 years, and she did professional photos… we have so many beautiful pictures of that day.”

Encountering God on the Streets

The Embrace Durham team have seen healing miracles and lives touched by the love of God, including an addict get saved, delivered, and free of his drug addiction in just one day.

Kelly described how it’s impacted them to see this kind of transformation right around the corner from their church, “What amazes me, just thinking that we’ve been in Brazil, we’ve been in Romania, Turkey, Bulgaria. All these places where there’s third world type stuff happening, slums and things you wouldn’t think you’d see in America. We’ve found 10 minutes from our church building the Budget Inn, and cities out in the woods where the homeless are living, and kids are even living with their parents.

“We don’t even realise that exists right here. We don’t have to go to all these other places to find it. It’s good to go to those places and see how God is using people there, and what he’s doing, and how God wants to use us, but… we found it 10 minutes away from our church.

“...I think when we begin to take those small steps, they don’t have to be big steps, outside our own comfort zones... we find it’s not that scary, and we find there’s a lot of need. It can become overwhelming, but the Holy Spirit knows exactly what He wants to do, and how He wants to use us.”