‘For I was hungry and you fed me’

by Kari Apted

Pastor Clara Lett lives out Matthew 25:35-36 through Rainbow Covenant Ministries and the work she performs with The Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter in Covington.

Glance around the neatly manicured Covington Square, and you probably will not see them. They are there, however, and their faces might be familiar. It could be the cute guy you sat next to during math class, or your co-worker’s sister. They may be strangers, people you never met who came here chasing the dream of an easier life in Georgia. They are day laborers patching together enough money for a week at a cheap motel, families sofa-surfing between friends and sleeping in their car when the welcome wears out. 

There are no tent cities in Newton County, no cardboard dwellings beneath the I-20 bridges. It is easy to assume that homelessness is not something that affects the rural and suburban counties this far east from Atlanta. However, this area’s invisible homeless population is real—and growing. According to data published by the United States Census Bureau, approximately 14 percent of the population in Newton and neighboring counties lived at or below the federal poverty line in 2017. If even just one percent of these individuals are homeless today, that translates to nearly 500 local people without a place to sleep tonight.

“My mama used to say, ‘You’d take your head off and give it to someone,’ because I just always liked to help people. I like hands-on work. Honestly, I don’t know what else I would do with my life.”

Rainbow Covenant Ministries Founder Pastor Clara Lett

Since 2001, Pastor Clara Lett, of Rainbow Covenant Ministries Inc., has been tackling the local homelessness problem head-on. Born and raised in Newton County, Lett has led Rainbow Covenant Ministries for over 25 years. The Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter began as an extension of the church’s Rainbow Community Center. As the center provided meals and tutoring to underprivileged youth, the extent of the homelessness problem became evident to Lett. Eventually, classrooms in the basement of Rainbow Covenant Church were converted into dormitories for homeless women and children, and homes were leased to provide men’s housing. Now located in a complex of buildings at 7133 Turner Lake Circle, the shelter has room for up to 82 men, women and children. With 74 current residents, the shelter is operating at near capacity. Lett is most comfortable when she serves others. 

“My mama used to say, ‘You’d take your head off and give it to someone,’ because I just always liked to help people,” she said with a laugh. “I like hands-on work. Honestly, I don’t know what else I would do with my life.” 

Her legacy becomes evident for anyone who chooses to look, as several of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren regularly volunteer at the shelter. Lett also serves as a chaplain at Piedmont Newton Hospital. Although certain stereotypes persist about homelessness, there is no one “type” of person that comes through the shelter. It is currently a temporary home to small children, young parents, the middle-aged and retired adults of many races and backgrounds. The oldest resident is an 87-year-old widow. 

“There is a real elderly housing problem in our community,” Lett said. “People shouldn’t have to live their last years in a shelter, but it happens. If I could just get the image out of people’s minds that everybody in a shelter is there because of alcohol or drug abuse. We get the most wonderful people here, educated people, church people, good people who are just having a hard time.” 

The shelter serves applicants referred from agencies in Newton, Rockdale, Jasper, Butts, Walton and Morgan counties and provides three types of sheltering services: (1) Emergency sheltering for families and individuals for 30 days, (2) transitional sheltering for six months to one year, depending on the situation and (3) 90-day sheltering for non-violent offenders released from a criminal corrections institution, facilitating their re-entry to society.

The Garden of Gethsemane complex includes laundry facilities, an exercise room, a library and a computer room. The shelter hosts weekly life skills classes, job readiness training and Celebrate Recovery classes to help residents heal from the past and prepare for their next step in life. 

“I don’t want this to be just a place to lay your head,” Lett said. “I want it to be a place of equipping.” 

Although residents must be referred by specific agencies, such as the Division of Family and Children Services, the Salvation Army and police departments, The Garden of Gethsemane serves hot meals to anyone who is homeless. The Community Kitchen prepares three meals a day and welcomes local churches and groups to volunteer.

“We have a calendar and groups that sign up for a specific date each month to come prepare and serve a meal,” Lett said. “We have some groups that have done this for years, but we always need more help in the kitchen.”

Volunteers can help fulfill many of the other daily operation needs at the shelter, including administrative work, security duty, custodial tasks and running the clothes closet. People who need to complete community service hours can work at the shelter to fulfill their probation requirements. 

When it is time to transfer out of the shelter, the goodbyes can be difficult for everyone. 

“When people find love, they don’t want to separate from it,” Lett said. “They feel safe here; they know they’re OK here.” 

Lett draws her biggest blessings when people return to visit her and share how their lives have improved. 

“Everybody calls them ‘Pastor Lett’s Babies,’” she said. “I love it when my babies call and let me know they’re OK.” 

The shelter welcomes donations of clothing, toiletries, laundry detergent and twin-sized bedding. Currently, the most urgent need is for new or gently used bath towels and washcloths. Financial donations of any amount can be mailed to:
The Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter
7133 Turner Lake Circle, Covington, GA, 30014 

To volunteer at the shelter, call 770-787-8519 or email rcmi@bellsouth.net.

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