Some volunteers arrive long before the doors open at 9 a.m. on Fridays for free showers at First United Methodist Church in downtown Newark.

They make sure five shower stalls are scrubbed, and they set out clean clothing and package bags of toiletries for the unhoused people who soon will arrive seeking a fresh start to the day. That includes a warm meal and conversation with volunteers seeking to make life a little easier for those whose lives are anything but easy during most of each day.

The Rev. Barbara Salyers, lead pastor at the church at 88 N. 5th St., recounted overhearing a guest of First Church’s Shower Ministry talking with one of the volunteers, saying, “I like to come here because nobody looks down on me, and you treat me just like everyone else.”

Among those who find comfort and relief in the church’s outreach to unhoused people is Jason, who is in his 40s and has been unhoused in Newark since 2010. He said he lives in a cramped tent with his red-nosed pitbull pup, Manny.

“Here, they don’t rush you at all,” Jason said as Manny nestled in a crate next to his legs during a recent visit to the church. “It’s nice to be able to take a shower and enjoy the shower.”

Jason, a guest at the shower ministry at First United Methodist Church in Newark, holds his faithful friend, Manny. Credit: Ava Warcaba

Every now and then, Jason extended a hand to stroke Manny’s head. Their connection is evident, even from across the room.

“I’ll be the first one to tell you, with my situation, the last thing I needed was a dog. But he’s absolutely amazing,” he said. “This dog pretty much saved my life. Everything I do now affects him as much as it affects me. It can be a lot of work, but he’s my boy.” 

Church volunteers saw how important Manny is to Jason, so they raised funds to acquire service-dog tags for Manny, enabling Jason to bring him indoors. They also assisted Jason in obtaining a crate where Manny can stay when they are in public spaces. While Jason showers, Manny rests in his crate, and the two of them spend hours together in the church basement every Friday.

Taking in the scene, Salyers took stock in the blessings she and other church members have in their lives.

“We do not even understand how lucky we are,” she said. “We have families that love us, homes that we are comfortable in, and never worry about food on the table. It is our job to give back to the people who need it most. They’re human, too.”

Some of those who use the church showers have jobs but don’t make enough to afford housing. For them, the opportunity to freshen up on Fridays not only allows them to feel better, but it also could be a factor in keeping their jobs.

Others have significant needs and are grateful for the smallest acts of kindness, such as the prepackaged bags of personal hygiene items, including a razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, body wash and deodorant. The bags are stacked atop a wooden table in the church’s basement social room: one pile for men, one for women.

Cinda Borden, a church member and one of the volunteers who helps prepare meals, said that some of the regulars have taken to calling her “mom,” because she takes a genuine interest in them and makes them feel welcome and at home.

Trish Perry, co-leader of the Newark Homeless Outreach, said there are more than 230 unsheltered individuals in Licking County. And she said that following the closure of Vertical 196, the “daytime drop-in center for homeless” individuals in Newark, those in need found themselves in need of a new place to shower.

Vertical was one of the only places in town offering a combination of shelter, showers, laundry facilities and food services under one roof. 

“Vertical was open five days a week for four hours a day,” Perry said. “It’s been a long time since there has been anything. I would like to see more people step up.”

Perry is dedicated to addressing addiction and homelessness in Newark, striving to inspire individuals and organizations to bring positive change to the community, so she is pleased that First United Methodist has taken action to support unhoused individuals.

The church has worked to create a judgment-free environment that nurtures and empowers unhoused individuals, providing them with the opportunity to reclaim their humanity.

Operating each Friday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., the ministry offers more than just showers: It provides a place to relax and have conversations with volunteers in a safe space. It also includes hot lunches, snacks, clothes, fresh towels and toiletries, all of which are provided free by church members and volunteers. The designated shower time for men is 9-11 a.m., and for women, it is 12-2 p.m. From 11 a.m. to noon, volunteers prepare and serve a hot meal to the unhoused individuals.

At 8 a.m. on Fridays, the First Church volunteers head to the basement of the stone building across from the United Dairy Farmers store at 4th and Locust Streets and begin to set up for the day. An array of clean clothing of various colors and sizes, including underwear and socks, is displayed on a rack near the showers and available free to guests.

The ministry is equipped with five generously-sized showers, each cleaned after every use. Adjacent to the showers are sinks, a large mirror and hair dryers.

While men shower in the morning, the kitchen volunteers are cooking up something special for lunch.

“Have some chili everyone! It’s delicious!” shouts Cliff Wartenbee, 74, a First Church member from the Zanesville area, and organizer of the shower ministry. 

Wartenbee greets every person who walks in. “Hello! Welcome!” he says with a smile. Wartenbee recognizes regulars and warmly welcomes them and engages in casual conversation. For newcomers, he takes extra time to give them a tour of the facilities and make them feel at home.

He directs their attention to the brown paper bags filled with free toiletries they can use before and after their showers. He shows them the showers and guides them to where they can find a fresh change of clothes, as well as bins where they can store their belongings while showering.

Wartenbee is driven by his commitment to community service, fueling his enthusiasm to use the showers installed by First Church years ago for weekend spiritual retreats but rarely used in recent years. Wartenbee began working on the ministry in January 2023, and the church launched it in November.

On the opening day in November, two people came to use the showers. Every Friday since then, the number has grown, underscoring the need for the ministry and the importance of spreading the word about it, Wartenbee said.

“It’s a very huge need,” Wartenbee said. “A lot of people don’t realize that just because these people are homeless, doesn’t mean they’re bums. A lot of these people work everyday, and if they can’t get a shower, that will affect them significantly.”

Wartenbee sat at a church lunch table talking about the trust that unhoused individuals place in the shower ministry volunteers. He recounted a regular guest telling him, “You guys don’t look down on us. I love you people.”

The ministry also improves the lives of those who volunteer.

“Volunteering makes me feel good, and that’s the whole thing: Treat people like Christ treats us. He died for us,” said Wartenbee as tears welled in his eyes.

Salyers said that being a pastor of a downtown Newark church near some low-income neighborhoods has made her acutely aware of the plight of unhoused people in the area – and the need for the church to reach out to its neighbors.

Those local missions include providing free meals for those who rely on the Salvation Army in Newark for food, pop-up events to pay for groceries or laundry services for those in need, and establishing CASEY’s Cupboard, a free store at the church that provides household goods to people in need – including some of the former residents of the nearby Avalon building after that building caught fire in March.

“There’s another church in Newark (Holy Trinity Lutheran) providing a warming shelter for the homeless, but they don’t have showers,” Salyers said. “We are equipped with five showers here, ready to go, that (otherwise) aren’t being used.” 

Salyers said she saw the passion in Wartenbee and others who raised funds and inspired volunteers to support the ministry. They moved forward in faith, she said, even as they were working out the details. And it has been a blessing for all involved, she said.

“We’re never going to get past working out all of the bugs,” she said she told the group. “Let’s just go ahead and start it and see where it goes from here.” 

For more information on the shower ministry, go to

Ava Warcaba writes for, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is supported by generous donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.