Coffee beans are the pit of the coffee plant’s bright red or purple fruit, called a coffee cherry. When removed from the rosy exterior, the bean is green and smells of grass and earth. When it goes into the roaster and the warmth surrounds it, the bean turns yellow and cracks. Its color darkens and its aroma intensifies as roasting continues. Finally, it’s ready for grinding into the perfect cup of coffee.
Like the coffee bean transformation process, Oliver Gospel Mission transforms human lives that have been cracked and broken by tragic events. These events strip away families, homes, jobs, and dignity. Seeing homeless people walking the streets of Columbia, it’s easy to make incorrect assumptions: they are uneducated; they could get a job if they tried; they could find housing if they wanted to; they are on drugs; they should not be acknowledged; they are always dangerous; eye contact should be avoided.
“I believe no one should go invisible,” says Travis McNeal, executive director of Oliver Gospel Mission. “An important piece of who we are as individuals is the willingness to give back to others who are homeless or in poverty or enduring incredible loss.” Some losses occur because of circumstances outside the person’s control, such as the tragic loss of a loved one or because of a lost career. Others turn to drugs or alcohol when life becomes difficult, setting in motion an overwhelming downward spiral. “Most homeless are kind, sweet, smart, and harmless. They just need people like you and me to show them that we’re here for them,” Travis says. “Helping can begin with a simple hello.”
Travis began his career with Oliver Gospel Mission in January 2020. Prior to this, he was executive director of Golden Harvest Food Bank in Augusta, Georgia. A native of North Augusta, South Carolina, Travis earned a Bachelor of Arts from Augusta State University in Augusta and a master’s degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He served as associate pastor in churches around the Southeast, including North Trenholm Baptist Church. “I’ve always been a Gamecock,” says Travis. “My uncle played football for the Gamecocks, and I’ve attended games at Williams-Brice Stadium my whole life, so I feel like Columbia is home, too.”
His path to the helm of Oliver Gospel mission was a very thoughtful, prayerful experience that was months long. After this time, he had a discussion with Jim Hudson, an Oliver Gospel Mission board member and owner of multiple car dealerships in Columbia and Augusta, who is also a supporter of Golden Harvest Food Bank. Travis then met with the board of Oliver Gospel Mission and was offered the position. When he began his new job, Travis wasted no time making improvements.
“On my second day, I entered incognito,” Travis says. “I wanted to see what the experience was like from that perspective. I saw very passionate team members and also saw some opportunities. Then, COVID-19 hit, and it gave us the opportunity to retool.” Before, men entered for the evening meal, then were sent back out again until it was time for chapel, and then they were permitted to go to bed. Rest is incredibly important for those who spend all their time on their feet.
“Now, those who stay overnight in our emergency shelter, called Refresh, can come in at 4 p.m. and have the opportunity to shower or rest before they eat and rest between dinner and Renew, the time when our men experience God’s Word and worship,” he says. “The experience is called ʻRefresh and Renew.’” Travis feels Oliver Gospel Mission’s guests deserve the best. “We have a smart TV. We can pipe in the best worship leaders and the best Christian motivational speakers in the country.”
Oliver Gospel Mission also has a facility for homeless women, called Toby’s Place, that opened in June 2018. Toby’s Place is named for William Tobin “Toby” Cassels IV, son of Pat and Tobin Cassels, who died suddenly in 2014 at the age of 21. The Cassels family made a significant donation in Toby’s name, jumpstarting fundraising for a facility to address the needs of homeless women and their families, honoring Toby’s life.
Travis has plans for Toby’s Place as well. “We want to do much more than we have in the past,” he says. “We want to reach more ladies and transform more lives.”
In contemplating improvements, Travis tries to think outside of the box. “You have to surround yourself with cutting edge people,” he says. “I want to blaze new trails.” To this end, Travis hired Emily May to handle the arduous process of grant writing. “Grant writing will provide our organization additional funds to become better every day at serving those whom we love most,” Travis says. “If you want to enter into partnerships with big companies like Bank of America or AFLAC, it means doing new things, measuring what you do, and questioning what you do.”
What Travis wants to do is build relationships, both with those Oliver Gospel Mission serves and with the community. He is passionate about educating employees, volunteers, business partners, and the public about the best ways to minister to the homeless. “Some people go out of their way to make the homeless feel invisible because they don’t know what else to do,” says Travis. “The homeless can read us like a book; they can tell if we’re real or not.”
Most homeless people are starving for relationships, to be seen as a real person and not be looked down on. To encourage kindness to the downtrodden, Travis points to the teaching of Jesus Christ, specifically Matthew 25:35-40. The verses explain that when one feeds the hungry, gives the thirsty something to drink, welcomes a stranger, takes care of the sick, and visits those in prison, it is as though they are doing the same things for Jesus.
Everyone can take simple steps to show kindness to Columbia’s homeless population. “Just acknowledge them. Look them in the eye,” encourages Travis. “Wave. Just do that.” Even when wearing a mask, smiles can be seen in the eyes, and the addition of a wave is even better. If the person does not respond in kind, do not be discouraged.
“If you were in their shoes, if you had suffered what they have, you would understand why they are reluctant to engage,” Travis says. While you have no reason to fear most of the homeless population, Travis acknowledges that some warrant caution. Those who flail their arms about or speak incoherently probably have mental or serious addiction issues.
A next step Travis recommends is Blessing Bags. Containing simple items such as bottled water, snacks, wipes, and food in pop-top cans, Blessing Bags are easy to keep in one’s car and offer to a homeless person on the street. It may open an opportunity for conversation and, if the same person is encountered again, a relationship can ensue. When speaking with a homeless person, start with hello. Say, “Hello, my name is … Start with your name first, then ask theirs. They don’t have too many people ask them what their name is, and they may or may not tell you theirs,” says Travis. “You may need to build trust first.”
Another tip is to show genuine interest in who they are and where they are in life. Smile and use simple courtesies like addressing them as “Sir” or “Ma’am,” and using “please” and “thank you.” Accept that they may try to manipulate you. “They’re manipulative because they are survivors,” says Travis. “Don’t judge it or let it discourage you from trying to help. It can’t be about what you’re getting out of it.”
“Why don’t you get a job?” is the comment people say to and about the homeless that annoys Travis most. “It is incredibly difficult for a homeless person to get and keep a job,” he says. If they have a job, it is probably low-paying. It is hard to get to work because they have to walk, ride their bicycles, or take a bus. While all of these are possible, they make life a lot harder for someone who has nowhere to rest after work hours. The homeless often do not make enough money to rent an apartment. Even if they do, they often do not have a high enough credit score to be approved. Assuming they pass the credit score hurdle, even the least expensive apartment complex requires two to three months’ rent paid in advance. It is an exhausting circle of discouragement.
Oliver Gospel Mission seeks to help the homeless clear these hurdles and offers classes on various life skills. When someone is really ready to seek employment, they can start the Hand Up program. This program helps them get a GED if they need it, helps them find a job, and helps them save money. They can stay at Oliver Gospel Mission up to 12 months. “They are great people with great hearts,” says Travis.
In addition to regular programs, Oliver Gospel Mission seeks unique ways to minister. In Columbia’s famously hot August, the organization hosted an event called Beat the Heat. They set up tables, chairs, and misting fans in their courtyard and invited the homeless to come in from 1 to 4 p.m. “It took some creativity, commitment and grit, but our staff rose to the occasion,” says Travis. One refreshing and symbolic step he had his staff take during the event was to hand cups of cold water to their guests. It was a gesture rooted in Scripture. “And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:42, Revised Standard Version).
The verse brings out another truth that Travis likes to stress: while one does not and should not help others for the purpose of being blessed themselves, they will be blessed all the same. Many ways are available to help the Oliver Gospel Mission and experience this blessing. Individuals or groups can sign up for available shifts to prepare meals at Oliver Gospel Mission or Toby’s Place daily or work at the Oliver Gospel Mission’s Thrift Store. “It’s about making strategic relationships,” says Travis, “not just with families and individuals, but with churches, schools, and businesses. Businesses love to volunteer; some even require it.”
The Thrift Store will pick up donations of clothing, furniture, sporting goods, and household items; simply call (803) 865-8292. The Oliver Gospel Charity Classic golf tournament is held each October and offers various levels of sponsorship. Monetary gifts are, of course, welcome through various means, including by text as well as through estate gifts and other methods outlined on the website.
When it comes to transformation, Oliver Gospel Mission is putting its coffee beans to work, figuratively and literally. Opening on 1120 Taylor St., just down from the men’s facility is the Roastery. “It will be a spacious, beautiful coffee shop in Columbia,” Travis says. The shop will roast its own beans and will also partner with Carolina Cafe to offer bakery treats and other food items. The shop will boast a private meeting space large enough for 12 to 14 people to rent by the hour. As a true coffee business, the Roastery will ship coffee and offer bulk purchase for fundraisers. The Roastery has two blends ready for coffee drinking customers’ enjoyment. They include 1888, named for the year the Oliver Gospel Mission began, featuring a smooth, medium blend with notes of chocolate, taffy, and fruit; and Toby’s Roast, produced entirely by women and tasting of milk chocolate, lemon, and citrus.
Travis asked Lance Cooper, Oliver Gospel Mission’s director of public relations, to design T-shirts for the Roastery with just three coffee beans on the front: green, yellow, and brown. The design encourages those who see it to ask what the logo means, at which point conversation about transformation begins.