How “giving back” means giving to the community’s least fortunate and most neglected.
Article by Michael DeVault and Photography by Martin G Meyers
Bill Dye and his wife were pastoring a church in Texas and building a house when they got the call. For Michael Sammons, the call came soon after he resigned as pastor of his church, and he and his wife were packing their belongings, literally unsure of where they were going to live, much less what they’d be doing. Lynn Daniel knew she wanted to provide help to women in the community, but the typ of help had been up in the air for a long time.
In the cases of each of these three individuals, the word ministry is about more than just preaching a message or telling someone about Jesus. Ministry for Dye, Sammons, and Daniel is a hands-on confrontation of the problems they encounter each day, as they meet them. Along the way, these three have helped create a safety net of truly transformative community organizations that impact thousands of lives a month – and in the simplest of all ways: the ways of Jesus.
And through the lives of each of these ministers of the Gospel, a common thread runs: they each took a leap of faith.
“I had tendered my resignation from the church where I was at, not knowing where we were going to go, where we were going to land or how we were going to land. We just knew it was the right thing to do,” recalls Sammons of the day he told his wife they were moving to Ouachita Parish. “A friend called out of the blue and said, ‘I don’t know why, but I just feel led to call you and ask you, do you need a house?’ We hadn’t even told our family yet that we had resigned.”
Dye’s story is just as compelling. He and his wife were at a church in Bridgeport, Texas. At the time, neither of the Dyes had any designs on leaving Bridgeport. They were so committed to the community that they’d were amidst building a home when the call came. North Monroe Baptist Church needed a pastor, and they were interested in Dye.
“My wife was not exactly a happy camper at the time,” Dye says. “It was our first house.”
Nevertheless, they visited North Monroe and both fell in love with the church, which Dye says even then exhibited a servant-hearted attitude toward the community. That was 2001. When Lynn Daniel’s call came, the leap of faith she took didn’t require moving. Instead, she’d have to stay put, relying on faith in the face of tremendous adversity.
While she wasn’t exactly a Monroe native – she was born in Minnesota and moved south with her family when she was 10 – Daniel grew up in the Twin Cities, graduating from Neville High School in 1973. She attended college with designs on becoming a graphic designer. But the call of the ministry was strong, and she worked in churches for more than 20 years, beginning when she was just 17.
By 1992, Daniel could see her church ministry future was coming to a close, and she knew her next step was to take her ministry to the heart of the community, to find people in need and serve those needs. Confirmation of that mission came when the owner of the Alvis Hotel approached her.
The Alvis Hotel was a 7-story Renaissance Revival building situated on the corner of 4th Street and Desiard in downtown Monroe. Built in 1928 by Monroe developer Fred Kalil, the hotel had been abandoned for more than 20 years. The current owner told Daniel she could have the hotel for whatever ministry God was calling her to, and all she had to pay was the back taxes on the seven-story building. Other area ministries and churches stepped up to provide support. But the project would never come to fruition because local leadership opposed her plans.
“They decided they didn’t want that downtown,” Daniel says. “Talk about the death of a vision, it just kind of died.”
If temporarily, Daniel’s hopes of a downtown ministry were blocked. Daniel moved on from that location and, relying on faith, continued to search for what her mission would become. Meanwhile, the Alvis Hotel caught fire several times, and in 1998 the hotel was demolished. The lot remains empty to this day.
Daniel’s mission became apparent when she pledged to support “the biggest need in the community” – whatever that may be. She commissioned a survey and, after receiving responses from professionals, ministers, caregivers and other leaders, her mission became clear.
“Over 300 responses came back from clinics to the walking public,
that there was a need for helping people with a drug addiction and other related problems,” Daniel says. Her course set, Daniel took the first steps, holding community meetings at the Osterland Recreation Center and forming a 501(c)3.
As their local missions grew, each of these individuals – and their families, friends, and multitudes of volunteers – remained committed to ministry, and ministry in the purest sense of the word. Dye sums up the idea of Christian ministry succinctly.
“One of our philosophies is, if you see a need, then meet it,” Dye says. “If you see a weed, pull it. Whatever the Lord puts before you becomes yours.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Sammons and Daniel, each of whom also minister to individuals where they are, in their moment of greatest need. For Sammons, that need is met at Ray of Hope, a food pantry in the heart of Monroe’s Southside community. For Daniel, it’s Rays of Sonshine, a sprawling network of drug treatment and residential support facilities for women. For North Monroe Baptist Church, with campuses in Monroe and Bastrop that serve thousands of members, the mission of ministry includes local community outreach at the DeSiard Street Shelter, hands-on local and national disaster relief, adopting Swayze Elementary School, and dozens of other needs the church and its members meet by a one-on-one basis every day.
On a busy Monday in November, Michael Sammons is at the Ray of Hope, a sprawling, 5,000 square-foot warehouse facility situated just off Winnsboro Road in southern Monroe. The building is home to a food pantry and a thrift store.
Looking around the facility, Sammons can hardly believe the growth the ministry has seen in the 15 years it’s been operating. Moreover, everything the facility is, has been driven not just by meeting needs of the clients. The volunteers themselves are what keep the facility operating and growing.
“We’re totally dependent on those volunteers,” Sammons says. On this particular Monday, he estimated 17 or so volunteers were in the facility, drawn from all faiths, all races, and all ages. Moreover, many of the volunteers have been there since the beginning. “Some of them have been with us 12, 13 years, some a decade, and some just joined us this year.”
Where Ray of Hope sits today is a far cry from where it started just a few years ago. In fact, Sammons can hardly believe what’s transpired over the last 15 years. The ministry began, quite literally, as an operation out of the Sammons’ living room – in that house a friend had provided. A couple of other facilities came and went in the interim, including a much larger, 2,000 square-foot facility, before they settled into the location they have today.
One of the biggest surprises for Sammons has been how the work affects the volunteers, how they quickly integrate Ray of Hope into their lives. They come multiple times a week, work hour after hour distributing food and care to those in need, and always express their appreciation for having a place to go to minister to others.
“That’s one thing that caught me off guard,” Sammons says. “I knew we’d be meeting the needs of people in plight, sharing the gospel of Christ, and the love and hope that’s available through Him. But I’d completely overlooked the need that it was going to supply for our volunteers.”
That need includes giving senior citizens the motivation to get out and get involved, and more importantly, offering area Christians an outlet to be of service to one another. And because the volunteers find the work so fulfilling and enriching, they spread the word. That’s how Robert, 46, found himself working his first Thursday at the food pantry.
“I had a man who goes to my Sunday School class,” says Robert. “He’d been talking about it the last couple of Sundays. I figured since he was good enough to share it with me, I should come see what it was about.”
After a day of helping load bags full of groceries and carting boxes out to patrons’ cars, Robert says he will definitely be back. The sense of fulfillment he’s received is unlike anything he’s experienced before.
“It was wonderful. I really felt uplifted to help people,” he says. “A lot of the people really needed the things they got, and it made me feel honored.”
By the time Sammons could peel himself away from the busy work of this particular Monday, around lunchtime, and spend a few minutes talking about the ministry, Ray of Hope had served more than 100 families. He expected just as many would come through before the end of business. That’s a lot of food and a lot of ministry.
The food they distribute comes from a variety of sources. They’re an official agency of the Food Bank of Northeast Louisiana, from which much of their distribution comes. They also receive support from other area non-profits, government programs, and private donations. Area corporations, too, provide contributions. One business contributor does so without credit – preserving their anonymity is a condition of their involvement. Support comes from far beyond the Twin Cities, too. Once, Sean Peyton sent an 18-wheeler full of food to Ray of Hope.
All along the way, Sammons and his volunteers feed bodies and souls at the same time. For many of the visitors who come through the doors in search of food, it’ll be their only interaction with Christians – and that provides the volunteers an opportunity to deliver ministry to their souls, as well.
“They may not come into the facility looking for Christ, but we’re there to make sure they experience him in some shape or form,” Sammons says. A few minutes later, he notes Ray of Hope’s unofficial motto. “We’re not here to send people to Hell with a full belly. If all we’ve done is put food in their belly, how have we helped them where eternity is concerned?”
In any given month, Ray of Hope distributes food to 1,100 families, which translates to more than 2,500 individuals. In one of the poorest regions of the country, the food and goods Ray of Hope distributes is a vital service for one of the most under-served and neglected segments of society.
Lynn Daniel’s network of residential treatment and rehabilitation facilities is a far cry from where Rays of Sonshine began. Their first ministries began as a drug therapy program in a rented building on the corner of North 3rd and Arkansas Streets in Monroe.
Daniel and a handful of volunteers delivered drug treatment to men using the Life Link technique, which treats and supports the whole individual in a community setting. As the operation at North 3rd grew, the opportunity arose for Daniel to purchase the building, which she did. Operations expanded to include a community kitchen. All the while, the organization remained focused on men. The ministry shifted a few years in when the Department of Health and Hospitals approached Daniel with a request.
DHS liked the results they were seeing with Rays of Sonshine’s men’s treatment program. They wanted Daniel to create a similar program for women. Daniel and her team examined the problems, and before long, their path was clear.
“We finally found a place to convert into a life facility for women,” Daniel says. “Eventually, we graduated the men out of the program and became a women’s residential recovery center.”
Quite soon, DHS returned with a new set of problems they hoped Daniel could address. Women who were tackling substance abuse programs were one thing. It was another all together when the woman facing down addiction had a family. Few places in Louisiana provided residential addiction recovery for women with children. That meant women who had children, who were addicted to drugs, and who needed help, couldn’t get treatment without giving up their children first. This need struck Daniel to the core, and Rays of Sonshine set about transforming itself again.
Or, to put it another way, they began responding to the need that had been placed before them.
Daniel had two women’s treatment houses side by side, and between them sat an empty lot, which the organization owned. They knew this was the ideal spot for a residential support facility for women with children, but building a new structure was cost-prohibitive. Then, one morning, they found the answer to their prayers in the classifieds.
A textile company, AmeriPride, was expanding operations at its Louisville Avenue location, and in anticipation of growth, the company had purchased two lots on Hudson Lane, behind the facility. The purchase had included two houses. Rather than demolish the houses to make room for the expansion, AmeriPride was offering the houses up to whoever wanted them – so long as the recipients moved them.
“We moved the two houses to the lot that connected to the other home in Monroe,” Daniel says. Moving two houses wasn’t without challenges. “It was quite a feat to bring those two houses through downtown Monroe.”
Nevertheless, they succeeded. The homes were placed on the lot and renovated. Just before Rays of Sonshine was ready to cut the ribbon on the new facilities, a fire struck one of their residences next door, damaging the new properties. A 6-month setback, some additional renovations, and the recognition of additional needs, the organization finally opened the region’s only residential addiction recovery facility that could accommodate women with children.
More needs followed as the organization became more embedded in the community. Women who sought treatment came, predominately, from communities with lower levels of education than other sectors of the community. An education facility followed. Later, Daniel and Rays of Sonshine added vocational training to the mix.
Within just a decade, Rays of Sonshine evolved into an addiction center that treats the whole individual, tending their needs and helping prepare them for the world. These days, Rays of Sonshine has embarked on a permanent supportive housing program, at the behest of WellSpring.
They’ve renovated a three-story home on Breard into an 8-unit apartment complex. And they’re looking to the future. Current plans call for the eventual construction or acquisition of 150 housing units or more. Daniel says that, so long as there is a need, she hopes to help fill it. That includes immediate needs.
“We’re needing to build 7 more houses — three and four bedroom homes for families with more children,” Daniel says. These days, the organization is beginning to see more and more women with more than two children, which precipitates the need for larger homes. Looking ahead, she has big plans on many fronts. “We have a dream of having a farm, a place outside of Monroe where we can put people where they won’t have such a draw to leave and just walk to a place where they can get drugs.”
One area she’s most proud of is the volunteerism aspects of Rays of Sonshine’s rehabilitation programs. The program consists of former drug convicts and addicts volunteering in the organization’s food kitchen.
“When the women graduate from us, the exit survey shows that one of the most impactful things they’ve learned is that they have something of value to offer to the community,” Daniel says.
Rays of Sonshine continues to flesh out new areas of ministry. When a board member passed away and left the organization a substantial sum of money, the influx of funds enabled Rays of Sonshine to build a state-of-the-art emergency shelter facility. Other ministries have developed, as well. They’ll celebrate their 20th anniversary next year.
Bill Dye’s ministry at North Monroe Baptist Church began with a phone call and a visit to the congregation – what is known in ministry circles as “coming in view of a call.” What first impressed him about the church were the people and their attitude.
“They were a great church, great people, with a great spirit,” he says. “Even then, it was a real, servant-hearted church.”
Unlike Sammons and Daniel, Dye’s ministry is centered on a single church community and the efforts that church can make to be a transformative force within the larger community it serves. As such, North Monroe Baptist Church works extensively with ministries throughout northeastern Louisiana to meet needs.
As a church body, on the group ministry level, or as individuals, North Monroe members support Rays of Sonshine, Ray of Hope, Family Promise, and dozens more area providers. That includes reaching out on an individual-needs basis.
Recently, the men’s group held their customary luncheon. During the course of the luncheon, one of the men brought forward the story of a Bastrop mother whose young daughter had been murdered. The mother, who worked full time as a waitress, couldn’t afford to make funeral arrangements for her daughter. The men’s group collected an offering and, in short order, had raised more than $1,000 to help defray the cost of providing the young girl a funeral.
Another gathering resulted in another outpouring of support, in this instance on a much larger scale. In early March 2016, North Monroe Baptist Church was in the middle of raising money to improve its facilities on Finks Hideaway Road. On the morning of their fundraiser, Dye says God showed them a larger need. Flood waters were rising into homes across Ouachita Parish, and the rain was showing no signs of stopping.
North Monroe Baptist Church has long been the home of a disaster response ministry, which it has dispatched dozens of times, from New Orleans and Katrina to Oklahoma City and the devastating tornado there. This time, the disaster was close to home. Without missing a beat, the church changed course. That day, they pledged more than $100,000 for local flood recovery. The church also distributed 20,000 meals over the course of the weeks following, and went into houses throughout the community to engage in the needs of the community.
“We knew then,” Dye says. “We said, ‘What we do during this time will define who we are in people’s lives and memory.’ That became a real marker for us.”
The church owns a mobile disaster response kitchen is capable of serving thousands of meals a day. They also dispatch recovery and support teams that specialize in helping individuals in the immediate aftermath and recovery process.
During recent hurricanes and flooding in south Texas, they sent four teams to affected areas. One trip in particular speaks to the church’s “meet the need” philosophy. Entergy had dispatched teams to the affected areas, and they had restored power to many locations. However, none of the grocery stores were stocked, which meant the communities and the people sent to help them had no ready source of food and supplies. North Monroe Baptist Church secured an 18-wheeler, went to Sam’s Club, and loaded the truck before sending it south with one of its recovery teams. For Dye and the folks at North Monroe Baptist Church, it was just another day at the office.
“We can’t meet every need that’s put before us, but I don’t know many people we turn away,” Dye says. “Our core identity and our core values — it’s not just social justice. our primary mission is the Gospel, but we realize that, to bring the gospel, we can’t just care for their soul and not care for their bodies.”
Dye notes the church exists on a “balanced diet” of its five core missions: worship, discipleship, evangelism, ministry and service, and fellowship. That means North Monroe Baptist Church faces outward into the community. Dye says service is “built into the DNA” of the church.
“We exist for the benefit of our non-members,” he says. “It’s not about ‘you.’ We try to be purposeful and attentionful.”
The impacts these three individuals and the organizations they lead are as immeasurable as the lives they’ve touched. Throughout the past 15 to 20 years, each of these ministers – and dozens more like them – have become pillars of a community in need, a vital source for support for believers and non-believers alike.
It would be incorrect to assume that Dye, Daniel, and Sammons are alone in this mission. For every Brother Bill, Rev. Sammons, and Sister Lynn, there are a dozen or more individuals equally worthy of recognition, honor, and support.
Yet, the constraints of time and space limit the possibility of calling attention to each and every one. Moreover, for each organization or individual willing to talk about their ministries, there are more – like that nameless corporate supporter who serves anonymously – who eschew public mention.
It is in the honor of all of these service providers, ministers of the Gospel, and those who help in a time of need that BayouLife has selected Bill, Michael, and Lynn – three servants – as BayouIcon for December. Merry Christmas.