[Episcopal News Service] Polly Morelli stocks her car with a dozen or so “Blessings in a Bag” and “usually by the end of the month I’ve given them all out,” she says.
At a cost of about a dollar per bag, she and other Episcopalians in the Diocese of San Diego wrapped up their Feb. 21-22 annual convention, packing the sack lunches with Vienna sausage, applesauce, granola bars, peanut butter and crackers, water and nonperishable foods, utensils, hand sanitizer, prayers and local 211 resource information.
“[The bags contain] things you can eat without having to heat up or prepare in any way. We keep them in our cars so if you’re at the corner where there’s someone with a sign (asking for help), you can give them a bag and a smile,” Morelli told the Episcopal News Service (ENS). “It’s such an easy thing to do. And it’s a solution for people who are uncomfortable wondering, do we give money, do we not give money?”
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said she witnessed the ministry in action when Morelli handed over a sack to someone asking for assistance. Jefferts Schori was attending the 40th annual San Diego diocesan convention, themed “Build the Serving Church: Christ for the World.”
“It was gratefully received,” the presiding bishop said. “The delegates to the diocesan convention were given bags as they left – to go and do likewise.”
An estimated 600,000 people are homeless on any given night across the nation, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development survey conducted by homeless shelters on a single night in January 2013. Nearly one-fourth of all homeless are under the age of 18, according to the study; 2014 results are not yet available.
But congregations across the Episcopal Church are creatively responding by embracing homeless people in their local communities, through art and music, worship, food and shelter.
Homeless Jesus; ‘A Change is Gonna Come’
The life-size bronze statue of the “homeless Jesus” curled up on a park bench in front of St. Alban’s Church in Davidson, North Carolina, is so realistic that “if you walked up on it at dusk you think there’s really a homeless person lying there,” according to the Rev. David Buck, rector.
He hopes the statue, a memorial, “conveys to our own church that we understand our faith is expressed through working with and for the marginalized of society, which the homeless Jesus represents well. For those who walk by, the statue serves to remind them that they live in an affluent community but not everyone lives that way, and people of faith have this challenge before them.” [A separate ENS story about Homeless Jesus is available here.]
In University City, Missouri, the Rev. Rebecca Ragland admits to a few misses while trying to start a morning chapel service at a local hospitality center for the homeless community.
“There were about 150 to 200 people in a big room sitting at long tables,” said Ragland, interim priest at Church of the Holy Communion. “They announced we would be available in the chapel to do Eucharist. Nobody came. “The second time we went, three people showed up.”
Eventually, she got a hit. “We ended up going back to the big room and said ‘we’re just going to do music with you’.” Soon the whole room was rocking to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Lean on Me”, “I Believe I Can Fly” and “A Change Is Gonna Come,” she said.
She developed a 30-song repertoire for the ministry, PIECE, so-named for “a puzzle piece. We’re each a part of each other,” she said. “And then when you say ‘piece’ you think of the peace of Christ, so there’s a duality of meaning.”
It has led to other involvement – hand-knitted scarves from church groups as well as volunteer crooners. Everyone takes turn leading songs, and “once in a while, I give a story,” said Ragland, 45 “Sometimes we dance. Sometimes we cry. Often, we laugh at each other and always we sing. It is pure joy.”
Similarly, “Creative Expressions” at Christ Episcopal Church in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, uses collage, crocheting, knitting and other weekly artistic projects to reach out to women who face challenges of many kinds, including homelessness, according to project founder Linda Garner.
“The projects we finish we donate to a local women’s shelter and they use them as fundraising or give them to guests at the shelter,” Garner told ENS recently. “It’s like a pay-it-forward thing.”
All participants need do is show up, she added. “There’s no pressure to create anything a certain way … you don’t even have to give your name,” Garner said. During the creative process, “emotions come out in a variety of ways,” she added. “There’s a lot of talking that takes place during the hour and a half we’re here. It’s pretty free-flowing.”
Childcare and snacks provide incentive for moms to return. “We’ve discovered that the moms come back because the kids like it,” added Garner.
“It’s a good partnership between church and community,” she said. “There are so many churches that sit idle during the week and they have this wonderful space. We’re not evangelizing or doing anything but the hospitality piece of it, and opening the church doors and welcoming women. For some of them it may be the first time they’ve even been in a church.”
‘I’d rather have Jesus’ – church community on the streets
At first Eddie Holmes attended the Church of the Common Ground’s outdoor worship strictly for “the goodie bags.
“But, after while it wasn’t about the lunch, it was about the service,” Holmes told ENS.
A former cement construction worker, he “took a wrong turn” with crack cocaine and ended up on the streets, eventually spending three years in prison where his life turned around, said Holmes, 65.
Now he leads prayer in downtown Atlanta “because Rev. Mary [Wetzel] delegates some of her responsibilities to keep us sharp,” he said laughingly. He sings old-time gospel, songs like “I’d rather have Jesus than silver and gold,” and writes poetry and daily devotionals to try to keep the people inspired and encouraged “because I know what the church did for me,” he said.
Common Ground is “a church community on the streets of Atlanta” which offers weekday and Sunday worship, prayer, spiritual support, bible study, community, snacks and even a nonmedical foot clinic, according to Wetzel.
“That ministry is called Common Soles. We wash and massage feet,” Wetzel said. “We give away socks; a reflexologist comes, and so do volunteers from other churches.”
Volunteers bring sack lunches for after-Sunday worship; some of them, along with some parishioners, join Wetzel some weekdays on the streets: “I just keep walking and asking God to direct me to those who might need a conversation or a blessing,” she said.
A church van houses a portable altar, about 20 chairs, canopies (“for when it’s raining”), worship supplies, socks, toiletry kits, eyeglasses, and other items. “Sometimes, if we’re going on a retreat or to the Martin Luther King Jr. Museum or something, the van becomes a storage place where they can store their bags.”
Average Sunday attendance is about 75 and “we’re just trying to get across the message that we are all God’s beloved right now and that we have gifts and we need to use them, no matter where we are in our life,” Wetzel said. “We want them to know that someone’s praying for them as person to person and not so that they’ll be fixed or changed, and that God is shining a light on their path for them.”
“I want to be a living example for Christ,” agreed Holmes, who now has an apartment, furnished with church donations. “I let them know that they are needed; that just because they don’t have money or the material stuff or a place to stay God has not turned his back on them. I let them know that everyone is needed in the church.”
Similarly, the Rev. Beth Tjoflat also walked Jacksonville streets, before founding the Church Without Walls in the Diocese of Florida. The church will celebrate its first anniversary for outdoor worship on Easter, she said.
Average attendance is about 70 and Tjoflat, 53, estimated the ministry serves about 500 cups of coffee along with worship; local volunteers prepare give-away sack lunches. Both women say they were inspired by the work of the Rev. Deborah Little Wyman, who founded Ecclesia Ministries and common cathedral, an outdoor ministry on Boston Commons in 1996.
The key to beginning the ministry, she said, is to be “willing to be vulnerable and take risks and make a mistake and be a fool for Christ.” It may seem a huge undertaking, but “something always enables us to take that step and begin to do.”
‘God’s love, shown in the kitchen’
From a sit-down four-course meal including cheese course at the American Cathedral in Paris to St. David’s Church’s buffet-style service under a bridge in San Antonio, Texas, Episcopalians around the church are feeding the hungry.
In Paris, four churches and a synagogue take turns cooking and serving restaurant-style lunches to about 64 people each Friday, according to cathedral lay leader Judy Nicault.
While each church shops for food and provides chefs to cook, “we all share the volunteers who come and cook and chop and set and clean up” and serve the meal restaurant-style, she added.
The meals cost about 150 Euros or roughly $193; guests range from retired French citizens struggling to make ends meet to those living on the streets. “These are people who have had jobs, good jobs in the past and have gotten to a place where they run out of money,” Nicault said.
No one is required to show documentation, only to sign up for the Friday lunch at the beginning of the week. “We want to make sure everybody gets fed,” Nicault explained. “They get a main course always with a vegetable and a starch and a salad and cheese course –because we’re in France –and dessert. Most is all freshly made.”
The program is 20 years old; still, “every week for me is like a miracle sometimes,” Nicault said. “We want the experience to be dignified and to give them a place to relax and be waited on for the hour or so they eat their lunch,” she said. “We’re doing this out of our faith, but not like an imposition of what we believe, this is God’s love, shown in the kitchen.”
In San Antonio, volunteers from ages 8 to 80 get in on the action every third Sunday when St. David’s Church cooks and serves up buffet-style baked ziti and meat sauce, salad, veggies, breads and pastries under a downtown freeway bridge.
“It’s just an amazing opportunity for young and old; it’s an intergenerational event,” according to youth and family minister Sarah Kates. “So many lives have been touched.”
Volunteers bake the pasta Saturday, add finishing touches on Sunday, and the church sends them off with a blessing, she said. Along with the meal, they bring donated jackets, blankets, hygiene kits and other items.
Jackie Bucci, 61, a 10-year volunteer, spends as much time as possible walking the line, visiting with more than 150 guests who typically show up. “They smile, they laugh with us, tell us jokes,” she said.
‘Meeting people where they’re at’ with hope
“Organic” is how the Rev. Kevin Stewart describes the Hospitality Center’s evolution; it started four years ago after none of the local agencies had a response to the question “what are we doing for homeless people?” he said.
Located at St. Luke’s Church in Racine, Wisconsin, it has morphed into an emergency shelter, community service agency feeding about 165 people daily and offering transitional and permanent housing, mental health services, clothing, and access to showers, and computers.
Brad Meinholz, 48, a former machinist and mechanic, said that he would have frozen to death on the streets, had it not been for a two-month stay at the center’s emergency shelter. “This winter has been brutal. It was like sitting in a freezer with a cold wind blowing on you; nobody would have lived if they were outside,” he said.
“We gather together,” he told ENS of the hundred or so people at the center on March 10. “There’s a free lunch, coffee – they’ve helped me so much, with clothes and bus fare to try to get to jobs.”
Stewart said: “Who we are is what we do. We share good news in, by and through relationship, believing that God meets us where we’re at when we meet people where they’re at.”
Similarly, the Rev. Susan Allison Hatch, said her congregation of about 40 people meets Sundays at Albuquerque’s St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, a day shelter founded in the 1980s by the Episcopal Church.
“One of the people who attends builds $2 million-plus homes but he’s there because he believes it’s real,” Hatch said. “That’s where he chooses to worship. There are also people who sleep on the streets no matter how cold it is because that’s where they’re most comfortable.”
As missioner to the homeless for the Diocese of the Rio Grande, she provides pastoral care to the homeless population in Albuquerque and supports similar ministries throughout the diocese.
Congregations don’t have to be large to reach out, she said, citing a small mission congregation 45 minutes south of Albuquerque that nonetheless provides weekly meals and has developed a ministry of providing work boots to people “because those are way too expensive to buy and really necessary for many of the kinds of jobs people in New Mexico have,” she said. “They are such a small congregation but they give generously and do heroic work with people who are homeless.”
The Harford Family House in Aberdeen, Maryland, was started 25 years ago after a homeless mother and her children asked for help at a local Episcopal church. Last year the center, which has about a $1 million annual operating budget and 30 properties for emergency, transitional, and low-income housing and housing for those with disabilities, served 144 people, 90 of them children. They also had to turn away 700 requests for service because of lack of housing options, according to director Joyce Duffy.
“From that seed, this organization has grown to the largest transitional housing program in Harford County and the only one that I know of that serves intact families [that include both parents],” she said.
About 30 Episcopal and other congregations “adopt” one- and two-bedroom apartments, and volunteers like Linda Eilman, a parishioner at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Churchville, “walk alongside our clients, helping them feel loved and connected to the community and, when appropriate, sharing their faith. Our program can be technical and we love people the best we can, but that mentoring piece is very critical to what we do,” Duffy said.
“I usually try to get to the apartment before the family moves in to leave a fruit basket to welcome them,” said Eilman, 69, a retired nurse. Apartments are furnished through donations, and families receive life skills and job search education and support.
“I’ve taken the mother in my current family out several times, to look for jobs and help her put applications in. It’s a wonderful program to give somebody a chance at life again.”
Duffy said many program residents never expected to be homeless. “We had a person in the shelter with a Ph.D., a single mom in the medical field, who couldn’t work for a while and became homeless. We have had people who used to have 401Ks and who had an injury in their family that bankrupted them,” she said.
Participants in the Interfaith Hospitality Network Mainline (IHNM) also receive tangible and spiritual support from about a dozen churches and synagogues in Southeastern Pennsylvania, who take turns hosting families who are homeless.
It was the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer’s turn to host March 2-8 and parish coordinator Mary Hopkins was sleepy from checking nightly on the Bryn Mawr church’s guests but bubbling with enthusiasm.
“It’s more than a housing program,” Hopkins told ENS. “It’s really trying to get people up on their feet in a sustainable, self-supporting way.”
IHNM director Sue White-Herchek said program participants are low-income or no-income, mostly families with children or single women with low skill levels; the average length of stay is about four months and the program is typically able to successfully assist about 70 percent, she said. Churches can usually accommodate up to three families at a time in church classrooms converted nightly into bedrooms.
During the day, families receive case management, life skills classes and job coaching, medical attention and help with job searches. The IHNM van takes them to the host church at night where they receive a meal and company. Each congregation has a coordinator like Hopkins who organizes activities during the families’ stay.
Through the program, Susan Ayres, INHM board chair and former Redeemer parish coordinator, said she has gained tremendous respect and appreciation for the mostly single mothers and “the effort that they are willing to make and have made to change their lives for the benefit of their families … because I’m not sure I could do that myself.”
At the same time, the program “has given this community … an understanding of what homelessness looks like,” Ayres said. “It’s not just the mentally ill or addiction-related. They are families who just through some bad luck or something have found themselves in a very challenging situation.
“It has helped people to realize that they can make a difference by doing some very simple things, like just providing dinner for somebody for one night,” she said. “It is a hands-on mission outreach effort that can involve their entire family.”
–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.