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Alabama Man Serves Homeless Community By Offering Laundry Service

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, Ala., right down the street from where Dr. Martin Luther King once preached, a man is recording a video on his phone in a tiny parking lot behind his church.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

PATRICK AITKEN: We're up here at River City Church for the Loads of Love event. We had a great turnout today.

GREENE: That's Patrick Aitken. He is wearing a black T-shirt that reads, homeless lives matter. And the Loads of Love event that he's referring to in that video is a cleaning service he runs for those in need. This morning, about 20 people are waiting outside to pick up their laundry and get a warm meal.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

AITKEN: We've been passing out shoes, clothes, doing I don't know how many loads of laundry.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Gentlemen, I've got some clothes out of the dryer.

GREENE: So that hum you're hearing in the background there is a generator that is powering a silver trailer that Aiken calls the clean machine. There are the washers and dryers inside. There are also two shower stalls for the homeless, and both are occupied.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

AITKEN: Rod (ph), did you enjoy it?

ROD: I enjoyed it.

AITKEN: Good deal.

ROD: Thank you, Pat, and God bless everyone.

GREENE: Patrick Aitken is the missions coordinator at River City Church in Montgomery. It is a city that in recent weeks has shown a troubling new spike in coronavirus cases. Aitken is concerned that Montgomery's homeless community, already so vulnerable, could be forgotten in this pandemic.

AITKEN: I dare say half of our congregation is either homeless or formerly homeless. So we've been doing this for eight years. We did it before COVID-19. We'll continue to serve our homeless friends after COVID-19.

GREENE: Yeah. Aitken has really devoted himself to this work, though it comes with plenty of risk right now. River City Church has moved even more of its outreach outdoors.

AITKEN: We're out in the wide-open public. We're out in the fresh air. People still practice social distancing. Hey, Jerry (ph). How you doing, my man?

JERRY: (Unintelligible) See you on a phone, or...

AITKEN: Yeah, I'm doing an interview. How you been doing?

JERRY: So we're doing good.

AITKEN: Yeah. Come on in and get whatever you need, brother. I'm sorry. One of my friends from the streets I hadn't seen for a while came by.

GREENE: That's OK. Who's Jerry?

AITKEN: Jerry, you want to say something?

JERRY: (Singing) We're in a circle. Be unbroken. By and by, Lord.

AITKEN: By and by.

JERRY: Yes, sir.

AITKEN: Get you some food.

JERRY: Yes, sir.

AITKEN: (Laughter).

GREENE: Aitken's rapport with people like Jerry is one reason the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper has called him a community hero.

AITKEN: I'm no hero. I have wonderful volunteers that serve. They are heroes. The people that we serve on the streets, they are true heroes. They're able to survive in situations that most Americans couldn't even fathom.

A lot of our homeless friends, they don't come to church because they don't feel worthy. But I tell my pastor, we need to take the steeple to the streets. We've got to go where the people are. And if that means going out at 10 o'clock at night to take someone some supplies that they called up and said they desperately needed, that's what we're going to do.

GREENE: The stories of the people you serve, they clearly move you. Is there one story that stands out to you from someone as they've lived through this pandemic and this crisis?

AITKEN: When I see the tears in their eyes when they look at me, and they hug me, and they shake my hand, and they're crying, and they say, thank you - I say, you don't have to thank me for anything. It's our honor to serve. He said, no. Times like this, people have always looked down on me. But right now, they look down on me even more. You know, I'm not allowed to come inside a gas station to wash my hands or use the bathroom. People avoid me like I have the plague when I'm walking down the sidewalk. It just breaks my heart.

GREENE: You know, Patrick, I listen to you talking about hugging people who want to be hugged so much and shaking hands of people who want to have their hands shaken so much. I just think about all the advice we're getting today to socially distance. I mean, how do you manage those kinds of moments and those kinds of decisions?

AITKEN: If Mother Teresa could go serve the communities that she served, she survived. She worked the lepers, and God protected her. If someone that I'm working with on the streets, if they want to shake my hand, I'm not going to deny that. For me to pull back and say, please don't touch me, that just hurts them to the core. Trust me. So I keep some hand sanitizer in my pockets. So anytime I do shake someone's hand or something, I say, here - share some sanitizer with them. You clean your hand, I'm going to clean mine because you never know.

GREENE: And what do you say to people who hear that and say, as much as you want to hug someone, you know, right now, living through a pandemic, you just have to stop yourself - like, if someone hears that and is not comfortable with the decisions you've made.

AITKEN: Well, I can respect their opinion. I ask that they respect me for having mine. If any of my volunteers want to wear a mask and gloves, I don't shame them. Go ahead and wear that. But no, I'm not going to deny anybody a hug if they want to hug me.

GREENE: To Aitken, River City Church is essential right now. And he underscores that point by posting videos like this one from the church parking lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

AITKEN: Oh, there's Ms. Patricia (ph). She got her some new clothes after her shower. She looks - oh, look at them shoes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I know. She looks like a whole new woman.

AITKEN: Hit the runway, lady.

(LAUGHTER)

AITKEN: Oh, it's a blessed day down here. I love it.

GREENE: Is there a certain prayer or anything from the Bible that you turn to for inspiration or for hope in terms of you and your community getting through this?

AITKEN: That's a very good question. I'm not a Bible scholar. I couldn't quote you the scripture. But I just - America's got to turn back to God. He will heal us of all our transgressions, plagues and pandemics. That will be healed. But we've got to ask for his forgiveness and turn to him. I'm not saying that we don't rely on medicine.

And I have a lot of respect for paramedics and doctors and nurses. We have a nurse here from Montgomery that is actually up in New York City serving at one of their hardest hit hospitals in the COVID wing. Her husband got in touch with me about a week ago - said she had heard about our outreach here, and she wanted to donate financially to our outreach. And I told him - I say you tell your wife she's the hero. She is out on the front line in a very dangerous hot spot.

So I have a lot of respect for the people in the medical industry. I know they're having to be separated from their family. So I don't know if I answered your question about a particular Bible verse. America's just got to turn back to God. We will get through this.

GREENE: That was Patrick Aitken talking to us from River City Church in Montgomery, Ala.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAMBLES' "TO SPEAK OF SOLITUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.