Crystal, Cujo, Charles and Twin.
Of the hundreds of homeless people cared for by Kelli Irby through the Jackson Street Ministry, they are just four whose stories and friendships permanently touch her heart.
Irby, an administrative assistant in the office of School of Dentistry Dean Gary Reeves, gathers with several dozen members of metro-area churches every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in a parking lot at First Baptist Church in downtown Jackson. They grip hands or shoulders, and they single out in prayer the men and women who for the next three hours will accept sack lunches, mosquito spray, clean socks, reading glasses, cold water and other comforts most people don't see as anything special.
Jackson Street Ministry's ultimate goal, Irby said, isn't to collect donations and distribute them to those in need. It's to build relationships with the city's homeless, and to address their spiritual, emotional and physical needs.
Irby spends time with homeless resident Jerome Robinson.
Through those friendships, Irby said, the street ministers representing different denominations can earn their trust and help them to kick their addictions and bad habits, with the goal of getting them into a healthy environment where they can live and work.
"You can throw money at people in need, or you can build relationships," said Irby, who's married to Tim Irby, UMMC's associate director for publications in the Division of Public Affairs. "They need food and water, but relationships change people."
Irby has a heart for service, both on the streets and in the workplace. Earlier this year, she organized and conducted on her own time two 12-week weight loss challenges for UMMC employees in a School of Dentistry classroom. All told, the 82 employees who took part lost almost 600 pounds.
Those sessions have concluded, but "we need someone to champion the cause of employee fitness and health, and a place to do that on campus," said Irby, a former fitness director and personal trainer.
Irby ministered to hundreds of children while on a church mission trip to Malawi in 2008.
Eight years ago, Irby went to Africa on a church mission trip. "The people there had nothing," she said. "They didn't have what we consider the necessities of life, but they were so happy. And here, we go into a panic when our cell phone battery dies.
"When I heard about the Jackson Street Ministry, I think God had already planted a vision in my head," she said. "I went out on my first night and was hooked."
Said Tim Irby: "The plight of the homeless in our city seems to be an unsurmountable problem to most people, but Kelli has shown that by taking the time to build personal relationships with these people, real change is possible."
Jackson Street Ministry's first stop is Smith Park in downtown Jackson, a stone's throw from the Governor's Mansion. "We have anywhere from 20 to 45 who meet us there. They know we will be there at 10 til 7," Kelli Irby said. "We pray as a group, bless the food, and then we pray one on one with folks if they desire."
Their next stop is the bus station on Amite Street next to the train station. "When it's closer to the end of the month, we have a huge crowd because no one's gotten their disability checks or government money," Irby said.
Irby, an empathetic listener, spends time with the homeless in Jackson's Smith Park.
Their final inner city site is an empty lot across from Stewpot Ministries' Opportunity Center, a day shelter for homeless men and women on Amite. "It starts to get a little risky there," Irby said. "They put a fence around the center for good reason."
One night, she found herself there trying to break up a knife fight involving a homeless man she knew well. "He was high, and very upset," she remembered about her friend Charles. "I got between the two of them because I know them. I thought I could talk them down. It was a touchy situation."
But Irby isn't afraid when she ministers. "We tell everyone not to leave the group. One woman says to always pray with your eyes open."
Kelli Irby sees the men in ragged clothing and scantily clad prostitutes as family. "The Christians in Africa are my family, just like the Christians on the street are my family. I have family here that does not have the necessities of life."
That group includes Cujo, who was living literally in a space created by a slit in a bridge, less than a foot wide. She walked up to the tiny space one night years ago and called out to him.
With his permission, she stuck her hand into the crevice to hold his as she prayed with him. "When he held my hand, it was so rough," she said. "I was praying with a person, not an animal living in a slit under this bridge. I can't tell you what that did to me."
And then there's Crystal, a young prostitute and regular at one of the sites.
"She's always without shoes," Irby said. "One night, she hugged me. She asked me how I was doing, and she had a picture of her daughter who's 12. Crystal started to cry. When a street prostitute cries, that is huge."
Irby had a pair of donated shoes on the group's bus. "They were her size," Irby said. "It was an answer to a prayer. "
Perhaps her most infamous survivor is Twin, a friend she made on her very first night of street ministry as he hung out with prostitutes on Valley Street. Homeless for 26 years, Twin earlier had lost a leg - but gained a titanium one -- after inadvertently stepping in front of a car involved in a high-speed police chase.
In July 2012, Irby said, Twin was run over not once, but twice, by an 18-wheeler as he panhandled on Gallatin Street. His midsection crushed, Twin was hospitalized for six months and endured a series of surgeries. With no access to alcohol, Irby said, Twin dried out and "got right with God."
"We helped him get off the street and into a house," Irby said. "He is my dearest homeless friend. Even though we are the same age, Twin gave me a Mother's Day gift - a red bow pin -- that he found in a dumpster one year.
"It is one of the dearest things I own."
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