In Montgomery, Ala., just down the road from where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, a noisy trailer sits in a tiny church parking lot.
The trailer is like a mini-laundromat, equipped with three washers and dryers and two shower stalls. Every week, it serves a homeless congregation at River City Church — even through a pandemic.
Patrick Aitken, the church's missions coordinator, calls the trailer "The Clean Machine." For the small crowds that pass through the parking lot to pick up their laundry and a hot meal, Aitken is a familiar face, always in a T-shirt with bold lettering that reads Homeless Lives Matter. Aitken is concerned that the city's already vulnerable homeless population will be forgotten.
"I dare say half of our congregation is homeless or formerly homeless," Aitken says during the church's recent Loads of Love event, where volunteers wash clothes and offer showers to those in need. "We did it before COVID-19 and we'll continue to serve our homeless friends after COVID-19."
He devotes himself to outreach in his community, though it comes with plenty of risk. The Alabama Department of Public Health announced the state's biggest single-day increase in COVID-19 cases last week, and Montgomery County has emerged as a coronavirus hot spot.
"We need to take the steeple to the streets," Aitken says. "We've got to go where the people are. If that means going out at 10 o'clock at night to take someone some supplies that they called and said they desperately needed, that's what we're going to do."
Along with shoes, clothing and food, River City Church now supplies care packages with hand sanitizer and hygiene products.
"I see the tears in their eyes when they look at me, and they hug me, and they shake my hand, and they say, 'Thank you,' " Aitken says, acknowledging that he doesn't always follow social distancing guidelines during his ministry. "For me to pull back and say, 'Please don't touch me,' that just hurts them to their core. I'm not going to deny them a hug if they want to hug me."
Aitken says a man in his congregation recently described his own experience in the pandemic this way:
"He said, 'People have always looked down on me, but right now, they look down on me even more. I'm not allowed to come inside a restaurant, I'm not allowed to come inside a gas station to wash my hands or use the bathroom, people avoid me like the plague when I'm walking down the sidewalk.' It breaks my heart," Aitken says.