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By Sam Hodges*
The week before Christmas carried special emotion for Spring Woods United Methodist Church in Houston, as it remembered a homeless woman found dead on the church’s grounds after a cold night.
The church held a memorial service for Sherry Ivy on Dec. 18. About 100 people gathered, including church members and homeless friends of hers.
Ivy, 50, was a fan of traditional country music, and volunteer musicians played hymns in that style. The service included tributes to Ivy from her friends, who described her as kind and generous, and an animal lover, said Paula Arnold, communicator for the Texas Annual (regional) Conference.
After a singing of “Amazing Grace,” those in attendance were each given a rose to carry out to the spot where Ivy was found dead. A reception followed, with playing of recorded country music she loved.
The episode, including the service, is likely to be formative for Spring Woods United Methodist, said the Rev. Jon Sims, who is co-pastor with his wife, the Rev. Heather Sims.
“Our prayer has been as pastors … that we would be a church of the community, not just in the community,” he said. “This is one step that might help us get to that point.”
Church custodian Ryan Babineaux found Ivy, 50, bedded down and apparently asleep outside the sanctuary doors of Spring Woods on Tuesday morning of Dec. 10. He brought her an extra blanket and a plate of food for when she woke up.
When he checked later in the day, she was in the same position. He went to get Heather Sims, and they determined she was dead.
Heather Sims, in writing an essay about the episode, said she prayed over the woman and made the sign of the cross on her forehead. Then she searched for identification, finding a birthday card and prescriptions with a name and phone number.
“I called the phone number and spoke to a woman who has known and cared for Sherry for over 10 years,” Sims wrote. “When EMS and police arrived, they knew her name before I told them. They also shared with me the name of her partner: Stewart King. It was comforting to know she didn’t die a lonely woman. She was loved by many.”
Sims said she wrestled with the wisdom and practicality of trying to have a memorial service for Ivy.
“While driving to church and arguing with God, I sensed that he wanted me to pull over and speak with a homeless man I saw standing at the intersection,” she wrote. “So, I did. Guess who it was? Stewart King. He heard about Sherry earlier in the day and was devastated. He loved the idea of a memorial service.”
King was among those speaking at the service. Churches and ministries from across the conference sent bedding material and other items for Spring Woods to hand out to the homeless, Arnold said.
Bishop Janice Riggle Huie of the Texas Conference, a member of a task force on homelessness in Houston, spoke at a press conference before the service.
“Many of us think of homelessness as an urban, downtown issue, but this tragedy happened in the suburbs,” Huie said, going on to appeal for more volunteers for homeless service providers.
Jon Sims said that while Spring Woods is a suburban church, the community is in transition, and its location on a major north Houston thoroughfare has brought many homeless to the church for assistance.
The church is diverse, with 15 nationalities represented, and the area is seeing more low-income residents. But though some church members have been deeply involved in helping the poor, the episode with Ivy may be a turning point toward much broader engagement.
“I do believe this will help us see differently our role in the community,” Jon Sims said.
Ivy and King had been living mainly in a nearby homeless encampment. She apparently had received assistance from the church before, and Babineaux knew her from past visits. But Sims said she was independent, not quick to ask for help.
It’s unclear why Ivy chose to bed down near the church, or whether she died on the night of Dec. 9 or morning of Dec. 10. The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences did not respond immediately to inquiries about whether it has ruled on a cause of death.
Heather Sims said in her essay: “I am thankful for a God who has gone to prepare a place for us, a place where the trials of this life are nonexistent and where the warm fires of the Spirit welcome us home. May God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Houston television station covered the church’s decision to hold the memorial service.