Melany Jackson's faith journey of working with the homeless began with a prayer. Not her own prayer and not one said by a friend or a pastor.
Instead, it came from a homeless man. He was praying for her and others, who, unlike him, knew they would have a warm, safe place to sleep that night.
"Four years last week is when God grabbed my heart," Jackson told me last week as we talked at the Phoenix, a drop-in center in downtown Champaign that's open to all, especially the homeless.
It was the last Monday in November 2010. Jackson was on her first night of volunteering with the Canteen Run, an outreach ministry for the homeless run by Dan and Barb Davies and other volunteers. From the back of a used Salvation Army truck, volunteers pass out food, drinks, blankets and clothing. And on this night — and other nights, too, — human contact and compassion were being shared as much as physical comforts.
Three men approached the truck, which was parked at the old IHOP on Green Street in Campustown.
"One of the guys didn't have gloves, and his fingertips were starting to get dark," Jackson said. The man had frostbite.
After distributing blankets, one of the volunteers asked the men if they would like to join in a prayer. Sure. The volunteers got out of the truck and formed a circle with the men.
And then came the moment.
One of the men asked if he could pray for the volunteers.
"That was huge for me," Jackson said, "to know that this guy was talking to my savior on my behalf, that he had the same faith that I did."
And that was the beginning of C-U at Home, Jackson's ministry to help the most vulnerable homeless people on the streets.
Over the last three years, many of you have read stories by reporters Julie Wurth and Debra Pressey about Jackson and her efforts. Those efforts led C-U at Home to acquire five houses to get people off the street for a year so they could find their way to a fuller, more sustainable life.
About the same time as the "aha moment" in the IHOP parking lot, she was reading "Radical," a book by Alabama minister David Platt that tries to shake Christians into recognizingthat they manipulate their theology to fit their materialism.
"This book is a challenge to live a much more sacrificial type of life in all realms — your time, your money, your material possessions — a life more like Christ," she said.
By spring of 2011, she was fully committed, having given up jobs and a residence. She put all her time into C-U at Home and moved into Restoration Urban Ministries for the next 18 months.
In the last year, Jackson and her ministry have undergone more change, and again, the catalyst was a book — in this case, two books: "Toxic Charity" by Robert Lupton and "When Helping Hurts" by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.
The underlying theme for both books, Jackson said, is that many charities despite their best intentions are actually hurting the poor.
After reading "When Helping Hurts," Jackson thought: "There are a lot of things in there that are really true. And this ministry that I'm leading is largely a one-way charity. Largely, 'Here's your key, good luck.'"
And that's where C-U at Home is today, working at becoming not a one-way charity, but an interactive and supportive one:
— Recovery House, a residential environment for four men recovering from addiction. C-U at Home provides both case management and Christian counseling.
— Family House, a place for a family with dependent children. Again, case management and counseling are provided.
— Street Outreach, a service that drives people to addiction rehab and detox appointments in Peoria, Decatur and Charleston.
— Phoenix Drop-In Center, at 215 S. Neil St., C, the "storefront" for all of C-U at Home's new efforts.
The center takes its name from that bar that used to occupy the 3,000-square-foot commercial place. But for Jackson, the name is appropriate: the mythical bird that rises to new life out of the ashes of its former self.
Open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the Phoenix re-imagines what a drop-in center should be. There are no "visitors" and "volunteers." Everyone is a "friend" wearing the same kind of name tag.
"It doesn't matter if you live in southwest Champaign, you're a friend of the Phoenix. Or if you live north of Bradley, you're a friend of the Phoenix. Or if you slept under a tree last night, you're a friend of the Phoenix," she said.
The center provides guitars, a piano, puzzles, games and art supplies. Want a cup of coffee? It costs a quarter. Need a resume? The center has computers and Internet access, along with a helper in case someone has a question.
The Phoenix exists, Jackson said, to be an "equal ground for people to come and spend time together."
"A simplified way to say it would be: Bring people into a room and just see what God does," Jackson said. "See how people learn from one another. See how people have stereotypes broken both ways. And that really is happening here."
Dan Corkery is a member of The News-Gazette's editorial board. He can be reached at 217-351-5218 or firstname.lastname@example.org.