AYER -- The temperature inside the Apple Valley Baptist Church hovers around 60 degrees. Visitors from heated homes "think it's too cold," said Rev. Stephen Wells. "For folks coming in from the street, they're just fine."
On March 5, 1995, the church's doors opened in the former Len-Art printing and office supply store located at the corner of Newton and Columbia streets. In 2007, the church bought the building subject to its mortgage.
Wells hopes someday to rebuild the steeple atop the church built in 1875. But Wells focuses on the church's mission of feeding the area's hungry.
It began in 1998, when Wells met Edward "Eddie" Kyser. Just released from prison, Kyser visited the church after disembarking a train at Depot Square.
"He had his release papers in hand," said Wells. "He just wanted somebody to talk to."
"We sat down and talked. I offered him some coffee, and I asked if he wanted something to eat. He said sure, so we went out for a hamburger," said Wells. Kyser visited daily thereafter.
"I asked 'Where are you living?' That's when the reality hit me that he was living on the streets and in the woods. I thought he was the only person," Wells said.
"It took a while for us to build up that relationship, but he took me to where he was living. He furthered that relationship by showing me where other people lived. I started knowing where all of the homeless lived.
"I realized others would come by for coffee, but they were hungry," said Wells.
A lunch offering began.
"Anybody who walked in got soup, a sandwich and coffee."
No questions -- if you're hungry, you eat. It remains the rule today. Church deacons called it "God's Kitchen." Hot meals were served each weeknight.
But budgets and manpower dwindled. God's Kitchen is now open just Monday and Friday nights from 5:30 p.m. until 6:30 p.m.
"It's really a lack of funding," said Wells. "We do it all on our own. We don't get anything from food banks or anything. We don't qualify."
Parishioners prepare meals at home. Food is reheated in the church's well-appointed kitchen. Visitors eat in the freshly-decorated cafeteria.
Wells hopes community groups will sponsor God's Kitchen on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, at least through the colder months.
"If you're going to do it, do it!" said Wells. "We furnish the plates. You just furnish the food and the people to serve it." Call Wells at 978-621-6083 or visit the church's website at www.avbc-sbc.org.
To buy fruits and vegetables, Wells said the church accepts supermarket gift cards. Wells said the homeless frequently exist on pizza and hamburger scraps from trashcans.
Sunday worship and praise services start at 10:15 a.m. A hot meal follows at noon. Wells takes no offense if a visitor sleeps through his sermon.
"That's OK. We just feel they probably didn't sleep very well that night," said Wells. "Or we've had them come in to use the bathroom and leave." Wells welcomes donations of packaged toothbrushes, combs, soap, small-sized toiletries, socks, hats and gloves.
"We don't exclude anybody."
Wells estimates there are 100 to 150 homeless in the Ayer-Shirley-Groton area. Without an address and utility bills to prove residency in the pantry's service area, they cannot receive food from Loaves & Fishes pantry on Devens.
"People need to understand this very clearly. Most are dumfounded when they find out," said Wells. "People wonder why the (local) homeless are not being fed. The answer to that is they do not have an address. They live outside someplace. What are they to do?"
In weather emergencies, Wells said the police contact him about sheltering the homeless at the Ayer Motor Inn. "They do call us (but) we're a church of 20 people, and 90 percent of our people are retired with fixed incomes."
"We don't have it in our church fund, and we don't have a benevolent fund. We dig into our own pockets to put people up," said Wells. "The police ensure folks are not intoxicated. Sometimes we have to say 'no' if there are no funds."
The church strives to open in extreme weather. "We invite everyone in," said Wells. "We don't exclude anybody."
Wells said homelessness is a year-round issue and affects all ages.
"We have homeless people going to Ayer High School," said Wells. "Most just don't know it." Some live on the street, others live in homes without heat.
Overcoming homelessness is onerous if not impossible. Saving money for first and last month's rent and a security deposit is one hurdle. Injury or illness frequently devastates creditworthiness. Court-ordered child-support obligations spook landlords seeking assurances rent will be paid.
Wells said Level 2 and 3 sex offenders have an added barrier to living in Ayer. A new bylaw prohibits sex offenders from establishing their residence within 1,000 feet of parks, senior housing complexes and bus stops.
"I've had them come in here and say 'Pastor, can you show me where I can live?" said Wells. "I say 'See that right here? Here's a little place where you can put up your tent.' Isn't that terrible?"
"I do know there are repeat offenders out there and some don't want to change," said Wells. "For some I say, 'The best advice I can give you is move out of state."
Wells is peeved by those who say the homeless should just get a job.
"Give me a break. Your kids get sick? Your car breaks down? It all happens and it all tumbles downhill," said Wells. "Folks say 'I handle my money better.' Well, we'll see what happens when it happens to you."
At the Sept. 11 selectmen's meeting, Selectman Christopher Hillman suggested Ayer had a homeless "problem." To support his argument, Hillman said the homeless sit on Main Street park benches and peer into restaurant windows, upsetting patrons.
"He better not visit New York City because that is what will happen in New York City, I can guarantee it," said Wells. "Maybe he shouldn't go to Boston."
After that Sept. 11 selectmen's meeting, Wells said that a homeless shelter in the woods of Ayer had been burned down in recent weeks. Wells doubted the homeless would have torched their own shelter. The Ayer Fire Department provided a report of a fully involved structure fire which destroyed a known homeless encampment in a wooded area of Ayer on Aug. 29. The cause of the fire was undetermined. The Ayer Fire Department asks that anyone with information on the cause of the fire can contact the department.
Wells said he prays for another man in the board's crosshairs who lives in a home targeted as being in poor condition. "He has a home to live in but in reality, he's homeless. He doesn't have any heat in his house."
Wells estimated an even split between the voluntarily and involuntarily homeless. "There are some that are sick that need help, and society needs to give them help."
For addicts, Wells said, "AA is not going to work. Meetings are not going to help them. They need someone who will take them aside and bring them off the alcohol and drugs."
"We're a society that doesn't want to get its hands dirty, but we're a society that doesn't want to do that with our own sons and daughters, so will we do it for a stranger?" suggested Wells. "We put our arms around you and say 'Here's my number. Call me."
"We have a man that started a job yesterday. It's the first time he's had a job in 10 years," said Wells. "We've been working with him for a year now. But see, it has taken time. And there are people who would have written him off."
"I'm proud of him, but he's proud of himself. That's the most important thing," said Wells. "He was just beaming."
"You want to get someone off the streets? Put some time in with them. Don't talk about them," said Wells. "If everybody did that, it would be a different world. That's what we do here."
Wells said an appropriate town response is "not to send them out of town, but to help them find homes, jobs and to become productive citizens. Become brothers and sisters to them. If we call ourselves a friendly community, then let's be one. If the selectmen really want to do something, zone it so we can have a shelter."
"If you want to be in Ayer and you don't have empathy, live somewhere else. I'll just be blunt," said Wells. "I have zero tolerance for people who are smart but act stupid, but I'll educate people who are willing to learn."
Wells said he'll continue to feed the hungry. "They might have to listen a bit about God. But I'd be neglecting my duty as a pastor to not talk to them about God. I'm not going to beat them to death either. They're going to see Christ through me in a different light. Actions mean more than words."