NEW BRITAIN - As local families sat inside air-conditioned churches throughout the city Sunday morning, a small group stood in a circle downtown, breathing in the summer air and Bible passages beneath a blue sky.
Most wore street clothes and lugged several personal carry-alls, fearing they’d be stolen from whatever piece of ground shared their sleep hours before.
Tom and Donna Baran had slept comfortably in their home in Southington, but chose to spend the morning in Central Park with this group, most of whom are homeless.
Some people sat on benches, others stood around the park’s stone monument, listening to Tom share God’s word. They filtered in and out as Donna hugged regular attendees and passed out water bottles.
The Barans are the Isaiah 61 Ministry. He is lead pastor and she, ministry coordinator.
“God’s always with us, even when we’ve done things we think can’t be forgiven,” Tom told those gathered around him. “He says, ‘I’m going to keep loving you. I want to forgive you. We can’t do anything to make Jesus love us less.”
Self-described born-again Christian Dan Imbimbo stepped up to his side, reading aloud from the Bible first, sharing his own message second.
“God has a plan for every single one of us,” Imbimbo said, closing the book in his hands. “If we reach out and ask for his plan he’ll show us. I’m homeless myself, but God is so awesome that things are getting better.”
Imbimbo sleeps and eats at the St. Vincent de Paul Mission shelter in Bristol. Every Sunday morning, the Barans pick him up before heading to New Britain. After the preaching, he helps them hand out sandwiches, fruit, water and granola bars.
“I’ve been saved for 35 years and I’ve been coming to this church a little over a year now,” Imbimbo explained. “A lot of these people here are facing life like there’s no hope. Faith in Jesus Christ can turn their life around and teach them to do the right thing instead of the wrong thing.”
They also gave out tents, sleeping bags, and foam mats to people who expressed needing them.
“I feel so blessed,” one woman said, hugging her new sleeping arrangements, wiping a tear from her eye.
Another woman, Kathleen Depp, said she has known the Barans for quite awhile. They visited her when she entered rehab and sent their generosity when she was in prison.
“This couple are the kindest people,” Depp said. “I’m here today because I believe in their message.”
Tom and Donna began their ministry in Bristol 6 1/2 years ago, handing out food and toiletries in the parking lot at the intersection of School and West streets. This distribution continues every Saturday from 3 to 4 p.m. Over 100 people usually stop by.
It spread to New Britain in July 2016, where it continues Sunday mornings in rain, snow or sunshine. Sometimes up to 50 people come to hear the Christian message and get something to eat.
“Each one of us,” Tom said, “no matter where we are, no matter what’s happening in our lives, we are never alone. God’s promise is always with us.”
Reminding the lonesome and lost they encounter in daily life that that there is someone who cares about them drives the Barans’ mission.
“If you’re homeless, you’re not going to feel comfortable being inside the four walls of a church,” Donna pointed out. “And the people in the pews probably aren’t going to accept you. We’re here to bring church right to where they are. They don’t have to dress up or clean up.”
It’s not about straightening out lives, forcing change or imposing religion. Those who take part know this, and that’s what keeps them coming back.
Many suffer from mental illness, addiction or other problems. Some don’t have relationships with their own families. The transient lifestyle has also made it difficult to count on friendships. The church service filters a little light into the darkness shrouding these worlds.
No matter what they’ve done, people are always welcomed.
“There are a lot of different reasons people live outside,” Donna said. “For some, that’s where they feel comfortable. We don’t put judgment on it. We just ask them what they need.”
Money is never exchanged. The Barans will however, buy you a bus ticket, a breakfast sandwich, sneakers, a tent.
Both work full-time jobs during the week to support their ministry, which never ends. Any given day could hold a visit to a hospital, where someone is recovering from an overdose or a street fight. Sometimes they meet people for coffee, picking up the bill.
“These guys and ladies are our friends,” Tom said. “We’ve cried together, we’ve laughed together. They know what’s going on in our lives just like we know what’s going on in theirs.”
The vast majority of the ministry comes out of the Barans’ own pockets, though a Southington-based knitting group donates socks, hats and gloves for when the snow starts to fall.
“We go wherever we need to be to let them know we’re still with them,” Donna said. “Sometimes all they want to hear is a simple ‘Hi, how are you? Somebody cares about you.’ When you’re struggling with addiction or homelessness, sometimes it can feel like God doesn’t see you. We’re here to share the love of Christ.”
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.