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Hope for the Down and Out

Reno ministry provides help for the homeless.
Alex Johnson had lost all hope. After both his parents and his wife of 30 years died as a result of alcoholism, Johnson, 61, depleted all his savings — as well as his faith. He descended into a deep, dark, and empty depression.

For more than a year while living on the streets of Reno, Nevada, Johnson became a stereotypical homeless man, scruffy long hair and beard, unable to care for himself. In September 2017, he walked into a local men’s shelter. The next Sunday he walked next door into a church service at the Reno Sparks Gospel Mission and heard a message of hope that would change his life. Local pastor Paul Curry and Assemblies of God U.S. Missions missionary associate Jay R. Van Sickle provided the service.

“The pastors spoke with passion, truthfulness, and raw emotion,” Johnson recalls. “They did not talk down to us; the words were easy to understand and related to me.”

Van Sickle is pastor of Pioneer Assembly of God Church, which he launched in 2017 with his wife, Dawn, also a U.S. Missions missionary associate.

“Pioneer AG is called to minister to the homeless people of Reno and Sparks,” explains Van Sickle, 58. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the first 40 years of his life, Van Sickle says he understands what it’s like to be lost and seeking truth.

“I found the true Jesus and His saving grace,” Van Sickle says. “We found ourselves drawn to those in need.”

Tim L. Thomas, national urban liaison for U.S. Missions, says the Van Sickles are compassionate to the homeless of the region.

“They have been on the streets, under the bridges, and in the shelters distributing food, clothing, and a message of hope to hundreds of hurting people,” says Thomas, a U.S missionary with Missionary Church Planters & Developers . “More than a mission, Pioneer Assembly is preaching the gospel and discipling those who are coming to faith in Christ.”

Cal D. Swenson, pastoral care and church planting director for the Northern California and Nevada Assemblies of God, believes the Van Sickles are uniquely gifted to minister to those without shelter.

“Their heart for the homeless community is recognized by those living on the streets and those in the community,” Swenson says. “Jay and Dawn love what God has called them to do, and it shows. This isn't a job for them, it's a calling.”

Pioneer AG is a parent-affiliated church connected with Destiny Center in Reno. Terrance A. Fred, Destiny's pastor and founder, says the Van Sickles are representative of Christ’s Church extending help to the homeless and those in transitional living in Reno.

“Without judging, they share resources, friendship, and wisdom with folks who find themselves on or near the bottom of society,” Fred adds.

Johnson rededicated his life to Jesus soon after hearing the message of hope from Van Sickle. A few weeks after arriving at the shelter, he found a job and an apartment. Even after moving to the other side of the city, Johnson still attends services every Sunday.

“I looked forward to the sermon, fellowship, and a place to feel safe and not be judged based on my clothing, lack of a vehicle, or not living in a big house,” Johnson says. “I have a place to call home and I am officially alive again. Both my children are in my life.”

In 2017, around 1,500 homeless people lived in Reno, a number increasing due to a housing shortage and the sharp increase in rental costs. After Sunday services, the Van Sickles hit the streets and serve coffee and doughnuts. Early in 2018, they purchased a used truck and cargo trailer, which they modified with a serving window and shelving.

“The trailer carries all the supplies we need for ministry and we are able to take our ministry anywhere in the city,” Van Sickle notes. “One of the most challenging parts of our ministry is building a relationship with the people. One of the most gratifying things is when you see someone who is broken and lost walk into church and come to know the saving grace of Jesus.”

Eric Tiansay

Eric Tiansay has been a full-time journalist since 1993, writing articles for Christian media since 2000. He lives in central Florida, where he is an active member of an Assemblies of God church.