On most Wednesdays, you could count on Thelma Rucker walking into Room In The Inn’s campus with a bag full of stuff. But it wasn’t a bunch of odds and ends. These things were all destined for the Campus Store, where participants can use their Points from attending classes to pick out things they need—and want.
Thelma spent several hours every week scouring local stores for those items participants craved, but were less commonly donated—headphones for music, combination locks for storage lockers, hair grease, and word search puzzles (not crossword puzzles). She shopped like a mother for her children. She strived to get exactly what participants wanted, but she knew how to stretch a dollar to get the most bang for her buck.
With every delivery of Store items, Thelma insisted that even people experiencing homelessness deserve nice things.
Sadly, Thelma passed away last October after a fight with lung cancer. But, Thelma’s church family at Community Baptist Church is carrying the torch of Thelma’s personal mission to help people in need.
Thelma’s legacy at Community Baptist Church
Community Baptist celebrated its fifth season of hosting winter shelter with Room In The Inn in 2018-19, and they live up to their name. There’s rarely a moment without laughter. When participants arrive, they stand in a circle among volunteers and share each other’s names. Participants are asked to sit at tables, where they are personally served by volunteers.
And, there’s even a store Thelma would be proud of. Two long tables are stocked with bins of toiletry items, underwear, and T-shirts. Participants can walk through and help themselves to whatever they need.
Pastor Vincent Johnson said Thelma was part of a group instrumental in getting Community Baptist’s winter shelter program off the ground. When the pastor led a sermon on reaching out to their homeless neighbors, Thelma told him, “Okay, you said it. Let’s do it.”
She volunteered to act as the winter shelter coordinator along with Mother Lucille Anderson, who said Thelma was the force of energy on shelter nights and always made sure everything got done.
She would say, “‘Guys, get ready! They’ll be here any minute!’” Lucille said. “She got everybody pumped up.”
Before she became the second winter shelter coordinator, Pretima Scruggs said Thelma inspired her to change her perspective on the homeless population.
“When I got here, I saw what she was doing,” Pretima said. “Just her being here talking to the gentlemen. She said, ‘You know, you have to put yourself in their place. What would you want somebody to do if one of your family members or you were in that same situation? How would you want to be treated?’”
Pastor Johnson remembers one night when Thelma wanted to make sure the air mattresses were firm enough for participants, so she tested each one by jumping on it.
“Thelma was determined that the residents had an appreciation for what we were presenting them as if we were partaking it ourselves,” he said.
Thelma’s joy of serving
Lucille said Thelma got joy from serving anyone in need.
“Just helping somebody else,” she said. “Helping anybody that she thought was in need. And she got a lot of joy just doing for her church.”
As it turns out, Thelma did a lot for her church. She served as a trustee, Sunday School superintendent, sang in the choir, and helped put on church plays. Her church was her second home, and she spent all her time investing in people.
Lucille said she was even the beneficiary of Thelma’s love via shopping. She discussed a time when she became the caretaker of two children who had been brought into child protection services.
“[Thelma] was one of the first people to jump in and buy them presents,” she said.
Pastor Johnson, who experienced homelessness himself for a time after moving to Nashville from the Bahamas, said Thelma was a source of encouragement even when he wasn’t sure the church could keep their winter shelter program going.
“She motivated me,” he said. “I got a little frustrated because I’m like, Why can’t people see the genuine need for what we’re doing? And so, she was one of those individuals that encouraged me, ‘Pastor, let’s keep going.’”
Community Baptist challenges itself to do more
Community Baptist has kept going, and then some. This year, they doubled the number of nights they were willing to host participants for shelter and scheduled a mobile shower service to come. They also agreed to shelter participants three nights during the week of Christmas and even offered to shelter women on Christmas Eve.
“We can do more, and it doesn’t take a lot,” Pastor Johnson said. “The way you stand at your stove for your family, we’re going to stand at the stove for them. That’s how we approached it.”
Thelma was and is a member of Room In The Inn’s family. But, through the way she shopped, spoke, and supported, Thelma welcomed people experiencing homelessness into her family.
If you’d like to donate items to our Campus Store, click here for a list of our most currently needed items.
If your congregation would like information on hosting participants for shelter, please click here.