Welcome to the Inn

Back in spring 2011, our church became aware of a huge, perhaps unusual, mission field that exists not only in Fullerton, Calif., but also in most U.S. cities: motel families.

If an individual or family lives in a motel, they are technically considered homeless. That’s because they usually have to move out of the motel for one night every 28 days, which keeps them from establishing residency.

Low-cost motels are scattered all over the Orange County area, but in certain areas they’ll line a mile of street. In my immediate area there are 32 motels, and this isn’t counting the upper-scale motels and hotels that typically lodge tourists. For the most part, if it’s a low-cost motel, there are people who are calling it “home.”

Leaders at First Evangelical Free Church-Fullerton began to look for a motel that would welcome our involvement. They eventually discovered one about 20 minutes away that welcomed partnering organizations, so they set up a meeting with the motel manager.

Photo: Shou Mo. Wayside Inn is home to more than 700 people in Southern California who might otherwise be homeless.

Wayside Inn1 holds 240 units and thus is one of the largest low-rent motels of its kind in Orange County. When First EFC leaders asked about the needs of the residents, the manager was welcoming but skeptical. Always grateful for outside resources, she was nevertheless cautious about the negative impact on long-term residents when groups who offer to help “float” in and out. Everyone assured her that they planned to be there for the long haul.

As soon as this story was conveyed to the church, about 25 people expressed interest in participating, no matter what the ministry would eventually look like.

The church’s first ministry presence at Wayside was a high-school summer servant team. Close to 100 children are often living at this motel, so the teens held a weekend overnight retreat there, then returned four times over the course of the summer.

Soon, a few women began reading to some of the younger children in the courtyard. When they realized the children were hungry, they decided to serve lunch. Not only did these children show up but also their parents and some other adults.

Eventually, after the first two weeks, it was clear that “presence” at the motel was critical if this ministry was to thrive and expand. Someone needed to be on-site, strengthening relationships and becoming a trusted member of the community.

So we asked the manager if people from our church could come and live there for a week at a time, with an agreement that we would pay rent. She loved the idea.

First EFC’s first missionaries at Wayside were Shou and Sharon Mo, a husband and wife who committed to spend two months on-site. When the Mos finished their two-month commitment, I was asked to move in as the next on-site missionary, and my goal was to be there long term. You’d have to know a bit of my history, to realize how natural a next-step this was. . . .

God’s preparation

I had first attended First EFC’s college ministry in 2010. After college, while working full time, I started serving two days a week in a homeless ministry in Long Beach, Calif., alongside many others from the church. We would gather under a freeway overpass and feed 20-30 people, ranging from active drug users to the mentally ill and the chronically homeless.

It wasn’t long before I started seeing that there was a relational gap between myself and those we were serving: We were outsiders and were referred to as “the church kids.” After praying for a week about this, I thought I heard the Lord telling me to quit my job and move to Long Beach. I wouldn’t be “the church kid”; I would be their neighbor.

So I quit my job and moved. The very next day I received a phone call from one of the homeless men I had grown close to. He told me he was in the hospital and was diagnosed with cancer. When I drove to the hospital to be with him, he told me that he wouldn’t be able to receive treatment until he had a permanent place to live.

That same week, I found an apartment a block away from the bridge where we had met, moved him in, and became his caregiver.

I lived as a missionary in Long Beach for a year, watching God provide for my needs. As that time ended, I knew that I wanted to continue living incarnationally. So I began looking back at my life, paying attention to areas and habits from which God had rescued me, perhaps preparing me to minister to people in that same situation.

What stood out was the fact that, for a period of time, my mother had raised me in a motel. My mother, a strong follower of Christ, had made this motel room a godly home and taught me that God was still good and was blessing and loving us. She told me that all this was part of His plan for our lives.

As it turned out, she was incredibly right.

After my year in Long Beach, I returned to First EFC and arranged to meet with one of the pastors. I shared my and my mother’s story, as well as my heart to see if God was preparing me for something. And that’s when I learned about the church’s nascent ministry at Wayside Inn. By August 2011, I had moved in, with an initial six-month commitment that has grown.

Day by day

As a missionary at Wayside, I make myself completely available to residents 24/7. In a sense, I am the chaplain; my room is where people go when they are in need or hurting emotionally.

Each morning, after I have my own time with the Lord, my door is opened and stays open the whole day. People come throughout the day to talk, pray and ask questions. There is never a “normal” day. If you’re living at the motel, it’s never under good circumstances. So with 240 rooms and three or four people in most rooms, that makes for a lot of hurting, broken people in need of someone to talk to and in need of a life transformation through Jesus.

Photo: Shou Mo. From serving lunch to initiating children’s storytime, these volunteers bring Jesus into the mix for all who call Wayside Inn “home.” Author Kyle Gardner is kneeling in front.

The year and a half that I have been living and ministering at the motel have been extremely rich, watching Jesus transform lives. In every conversation, for example, I always pray out loud with them. Residents have started doing this with each other too. So at times when I walk through the courtyard, I’ll see residents publicly pray together.

When I first started living at the motel, residents never really talked to each other, but now they are seeking friendships with each other. We have been doing a community dinner once a week at the motel, and this is largely what’s responsible for this new level of community.

Some of the biggest life transformations, though, have come out of tragedies.

In my first few months at the motel, a resident who attended my weekly Bible study passed away unexpectedly. I led her memorial service at a nearby church, and most of those who attended were residents from the motel. Her death had stirred up emotions, and four residents came to faith.

One of the most exciting things is that our nucleus of Christ-followers has grown into a church. In July 2012 we began meeting outside in the motel’s courtyard every Sunday. Fifty of us have breakfast together and worship, and I do the teaching.

As people come to faith in our outdoor motel church, we are doing baptisms in the motel pool. Residents have also started caring for the street homeless who inhabit the parking lot next door. While Wayside’s residents are technically homeless themselves, they share what they do have with those who are in greater need. They’re really living out the gospel.

Teamwork that makes a difference

But I definitely don’t engage in this ministry alone. I meet regularly with First EFC’s cares and concerns pastor, and we have quite a large group of people who participate. Our weekly dinner is cooked and prepared by seven teams that rotate, with 15-20 in each group. We also have two teams—one, young adults; the other, high schoolers—who help with breakfast for our church service. So it’s definitely a church-wide effort.

I don’t think that I will be at the motel forever, but for now I will live and work like I will be there forever, until the Lord calls me elsewhere. I’m engaged to be married in October 2013, and my wife-to-be and I are planning to continue ministry at the motel and live there.

I remind myself that God was working at the motel before I arrived and will continue to if I were to leave. I would like to see the church become fully self sufficient, with the residents operating the ministry themselves.

My wife-to-be and I are passionate for Christ-centered community development. We want to see Jesus change lives and see those lives change neighborhoods and see those neighborhoods change whole cities. Right now my focus is on the motel and the residents who live there. But I know that God will continue to guide me, to spread His kingdom in areas of His choosing.

1 The motel’s name has been changed.

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