MOULTRIE — On Jan. 4, it will be 14 years ago to the day that the Rev. Cornelius Ponder III and Greater Newton Grove Cathedral first opened their church to shelter homeless people from the freezing temperatures and the chance of wintry precipitation that year.
Since that time, Ponder has been opening some kind of shelter every year when the temperatures drop, and he is still working toward having a homeless shelter that is open seven days a week.
“Fourteen years and we’re still doing it. It’s still in our hearts,” he said.
Initially, the church opened its Development Center, a building next to Greater Newton Grove as an emergency shelter from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m., and they also took the church van out to look for people who might need a warm place to stay.
“That was an experience,” he said laughing.
The way it started, Ponder said in an interview at the time, was that he was lying warm in his bed on the Sunday night before and had seen the weather report and how cold it was going to be, and God spoke to him.
“The question was asked to me … why I didn’t just open it up,” he said.
First thing Monday morning, he called members of the church and told them that they would be opening the church up to people to shelter them from the weather. He also extended a welcome to people who weren’t necessarily homeless but didn’t have adequate heat in their homes.
“I just got up that day and went and opened the building. I remember it like it was yesterday,” Ponder said in an interview Friday.
That was where it all started, in 2010, and since then Ponder and members of Greater Newton Grove Cathedral have continued their mission to shelter the homeless.
“Now we do have a permanent structure that has been solely dedicated for the Compassion House. It has been dedicated to homelessness and a food bank,” he said.
The Compassion House, located at 724 First Ave. N.W., is open, Ponder said, and right now, they do everything by appointment.
“They call me personally and arrange housing and I’m there. I open up between six and seven each night for the homeless,” he said. “If no one calls, I don’t open up.”
The current facility has a single room with four beds. When they have men in the shelter, they can’t take in women, and vice-versa.
“The last three weeks, we’ve probably had about ten occupants. … and that’s men and women,” said Ponder.
The shelter works to minimize conflicts between occupants to keep everyone safe. Anyone trying to come in while under the influence of drugs or alcohol is turned away. There’s no television and no stove, therefore fewer things for residents to get into a fight about.
“We have no cooking in the facility at all but people are more than welcome to come by and drop off food for the homeless.” He added that they do have a microwave and a refrigerator. “… What I have discovered is a lot of people are bringing the quick stuff that they can just open and eat,” he said.
He said there was one lady who made four or five sack lunches and brought to the shelter for the people staying there that night.
“And I think they really enjoyed that. Even though it was not a hot meal, they didn’t go to bed hungry,” Ponder said.
He said that anyone could call him anytime if they know someone in need, but because he works, he can only open up in the afternoons.
“And that’s why I’m reaching out. I’m just praying that I can get some more help, people that will help me with it because if someone needs food, they can go and get the canned goods during the day,” he said.
Ponder said that money and donations are great but he really could use some volunteers. Maintaining and cleaning the facility have been a big job for him by himself.
“And I know that it’s not on everybody’s heart,” he said. “You don’t want people to do stuff out of obligation, you want them to do it from the heart. So I don’t push for my church members to do it.”
He said that he’s thankful for the help that he’s had so far from United Way, which gave him a climatization grant for the heating and air, and he’s had help from the Women’s Club.
“I’ve had help from local churches,” he said including Friendship Alliance and Greater Believers, and from some individuals, as well.
He said that in order for the shelter to run daily, it will take more than just him trying to manage it by himself because the place has to be cleaned and sanitized regularly. There are sheets that need to be washed and the bathroom and shower need to be cleaned and the toiletries replenished.
Other needs include someone to help with a roofing repair issue and some minor electrical repairs, which he’s willing to pay someone to do. He said it’s been hard to find a company to do it because the jobs are so small.
“We definitely need more contributions with our food, definitely, because we are getting low with that. We’re getting low with our canned goods and stuff. I think for 2024, we want to do more food drives,” Ponder said and added that he wants to be able to give food to families that are in need.
The shelter can also use things like cleaning products, bedding items, toilet paper and toiletries like soap and razors.
A local organization has donated a duplex, which will allow separate his-and-hers areas, but the facility needs to be totally renovated before The Compassion House can move there.
He said that no funding goes back to the church. Any donations that come in are to pay the utilities and water and maintenance and taxes for the facility, he said.
“We have no monthly contributions coming in so actually everything is done out of pocket,” he added.
He said what he really loves about doing the homeless shelter over the years, is that there have been some rewarding stories. He said he remembered when they were able to reconnect a man with his mother after about 15 years. He said when the man heard his mother’s voice, all he could say was, “Mama.”
“It was so touching,” Ponder said. “… And that’s why 14 years later, we still, we still push it. This is something that we just do or did on a whim, it hasn’t been profitable to us personally but it’s been profitable to us spiritually to know that we’re being obedient to God. Fourteen years later we’re still trying to make a difference in the homeless community,” he said. “We’re just trying to do what the Bible says to do.”
To volunteer or make donations of food or items or to make a monetary donation, contact the Rev. Cornelius Ponder III at (229) 798-0902 or message The Compassion House Facebook page.