Family Dinners Under the Bridge
Pretty much everyone in Reading knows that the one bridge by Reading Area Community College is a popular gathering spot for our community members who are homeless.
It’s lesser known – if known at all – that Pastor Yoli, founder of Ashes to Beauty, hosted family dinners under that bridge, each night coming home from work, cooking up dinner, and driving over there.
Then, she stayed to eat with the people under that bridge, slowly building up mutual trust and respect. And after a while, she started bringing them back home with her so that they could get a shower or good night’s rest (something she still does). She eventually solicited cots so that they didn’t have to sleep on the floor of her studio apartment.
“We were a family,” she said. “I wasn’t scared because I knew it was God asking me to do it. God has asked me to take these people into my home.”
Yolanda Mendoza – Pastor Yoli – was once left for dead. She has known the physical, emotional and spiritual pain and suffering that so often accompanies domestic abuse, addiction and mental health issues. She has even cried out for the earth to swallow her up, so that she might be relieved of her pain.
But today, through her transformative relationship with God, she has turned that pain into a mission of radically loving our community members who are broken, ignored, under served or unloved, “I have a passion for the broken because I can identify with them,” she said, “their story is my story.”
And she does it one conversation, one shower, one meal at a time.
Ashes to Beauty: Filling in the Cracks and Offering Dignity
Constant streams of visitors pop in and out of The Gathering Place (Ashes to Beauty’s official office) on the first first of a narrow row home on Reading’s Court Street. Sometimes, Ashes to Beauty can help fill in the cracks between other local resources.
One participant, nicknamed Chewy, explained a particular barrier to moving forward, “You can’t get a job if you don’t have a mailing address, or if you show up to an interview in dirty clothes and smell. But you can’t get many services if you don’t have proof of employment already.” Others listed a lack of mental health diagnosis, lack of transportation, or lack of meeting other ‘qualifiers’ as common barriers.
On one afternoon, an Ashes to Beauty member needed a five-dollar check to complete crucial legal paperwork. Five dollars is a small sum to many of us – not a major barrier to progress – but the five-dollar check from Ashes to Beauty helped this woman to keep her life moving forward towards stability and independence.
Other times, the organization has helped out with things like work boots or rent payment for folks who may not qualify for those services offered elsewhere.
“There’s always a hurdle; there’s always something in the way,” said Pastor Yoli, “See, I don’t have a lot of expectations when I help them out. I’m not here to enable them but I am here to love them. I know their story because it is MY story.”
Many community members stop by The Gathering Place to check in with Pastor Yoli and seek her counsel on certain matters, or are simply seeking her encouragement. They also check in with each other, offering each other support and information about available resources.
“We’re here living life together,” said Chewy.
Pastor Yoli and her team lead a weekly Bible study and meal at The Gathering Place, and with help of volunteers, host a church service and free meal in the pavilion down by the Schuylkill River, not far from the bridge where she began the work of Ashes to Beauty (now an official 501c3 non profit organization),
“Ashes to Beauty was birthed because…God led me to Crystal, Aimee, Bryhem, Alex, Freddy, and Aumary. I would meet them every night with a meal — and that led us to the pavillion where we now serve a meal and do a service on Sundays,” she said.
It was under the bridge that Pastor Yoli began to practice ‘the ministry of presence,’ a foundational approach of the organization, “[The Ministry of Presence means] loving people through it. Listening. Crying with them. Serving them…I look at these people and I see my life lived out in them. I don’t tell them what to do, because that makes them invisible. I won’t label them. I ask them what they think they need to get where they want to be,” she explained.
But her dedication and passion don’t necessarily mean it’s always easy to do the work she’s been called to do, “I hear very hurtful things about myself out on the street sometimes…I get deleted on Facebook a lot…people in their addiction can be hurtful when they don’t get what they want, you know…But think about the things they said about Jesus!” Her theory is that if nobody’s saying anything bad about her, then she’s probably not doing her job.
She works to find the difficult balance between giving people the space and dignity to learn their own lessons – and even to make their own mistakes – and also to stay close enough to remind them that she loves them and that she is still there for them,
“I can’t fix you but I can love you. I can stay when you push me away. That’s ‘agape’ love. I pursue them and draw them back in and say, ‘I still love you.’”
Deanna, an Ashes to Beauty member, remembered one time when she was mad at Pastor Yoli and made it clear that she was just there to ‘eat and leave.’ “And Pastor just told me, ‘That’s OK. I love you. See you later.’… She gives tough love, but she tells us the truth even if it [makes us mad].”
“Pastor Yoli will check in on us but still respect our space. That makes me feel loved,” said another member, Janis.
Pastor Yoli strives to find ways to offer forgotten community members a little bit of comfort and dignity, both meeting them out in the community as well as creating a space of temporary relief at The Gathering Place,
“For example, what do you do when you have your period and cramps and all you want to do is to lay down? Where do you go?” she asked rhetorically. “And what about the heat wave? What do people do who don’t have AC; not just the homeless but also the elderly, or anyone else? Every church building with air conditioning should be opened up to our community members!”
She’s constantly thinking about the small details to make someone feel loved and honored. As she solicited donations for a gala this past winter, she made it clear that she didn’t want chicken on the menu, but rather, beef. She also solicited haircuts and evening wear for attendees. “I am a beggar for Jesus!” she said.
The Future of Ashes to Beauty
On one July afternoon, a mother and daughter duo had found their way to The Gathering Place for the first time. They were new to the County and having trouble finding services that they qualified for. Pastor Yoli gently asked an Ashes to Beauty participant, who was not long ago homeless himself, if he would give them a ride to his place so at least they could get a cold shower and clean t-shirts.
He already had the same idea.
“See, this is the future of Ashes to Beauty,” Pastor Yoli said, motioning to the people sitting around the small space. “They are already leading it. They want to go serve each other…If I sit them down, how are they going to rise up?” She feels thankful for the support of other organizations, namely Reading City Church and Hope Rescue Mission, who have helped her to get Ashes to Beauty off the ground and have offered many kinds of support. Space and food for the winter gala were donated by The Double Tree by Hilton, Reading.
Pastor Yoli is looking forward to continuing to build up Ashes to Beauty with the support of her fiancé Minister David Williams, who she will marry in September, and who is often at her side supporting her vision. (She shared the story of how, on one rare day-off together, she turned them around from Blue Marsh in order hand out cold ice water around the city during a heat wave. She proudly showed a picture of David lugging two blue wheeled-coolers filled with water bottles.)
“Under the bridge…I thought I was just feeding people…and it turned into this outreach. Actually, the people have responded, and claimed this as their Church. It’s our Church.”