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Cold nights, warm hearts: Churches become homeless shelters

From Idaho to Maryland, congregations open their doors to strangers in need of food and rest.

Each Friday night, a van picks up 15 homeless men in downtown Nashville, Tenn., and takes them to the Woodson Chapel Church of Christ for food, Bible study and rest.

Four to six weeks per year, the Dalton Gardens Church of Christ in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, rolls out mattresses and welcomes homeless parents and children to sleep in Sunday school classrooms.

On cold nights when regular homeless shelters fill up quickly, the Levy Church of Christ in North Little Rock, Ark., sets up bunk beds and cots and opens its doors.

Volunteers tape boxes as they prepare for a “Cardboard City” fundraiser by Family Promise of North Idaho, which houses and feeds homeless families. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY MICHAEL LEWIS)Any given night, roughly 550,000 men, women and children in the United States lack a home to call their own, according to an annual federal report released this week.

“I was a stranger and you invited me in,” Jesus says in Matthew 25, talking about loving “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine.”

Taking the Lord’s words to heart, a number of Churches of Christ across the nation regularly transform their buildings into temporary homeless shelters — often cooperating with nonprofits such as Room In The Inn and Family Promise, leaders told The Christian Chronicle.

“The key in my experience is for churches to partner with others to effectively help the homeless,” said Dorn Muscar Jr., minister for the University Park Church of Christ in Hyattsville, Md.

“Handouts are not the best use of resources,” added Muscar, whose congregation provides housing one week per year through a community program called Warm Nights.

A volunteer serves hot meals at the no-questions-asked “Lord’s Diner,” a homeless ministry supported by the RiverWalk Church of Christ in Wichita, Kan. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY JAY PLANK)


The Metro Church of Christ in Sterling Heights, Mich., works with an organization known as MCREST — short for Macomb County Rotating Emergency Shelter Team — to house women and children.

For a week at a time, church volunteers serve hot breakfasts and dinners and make sack lunches for the guests, said Loretta Wright, a Metro member who coordinates the food preparation while others oversee security, housekeeping, laundry and transportation.

“All of our classrooms become bedrooms,” Wright said. “MCREST supplies foam pads used as mattresses, as well as sheets, blankets, pillows and towels.”

Roughly 550,000 Americans are homeless, according to a new federal study. (PHOTO VIA PIXABAY.COM)The homeless ministry reminds Wright just how blessed she is.

“One conversation with a 70-year-old homeless woman or a pregnant young mother caring for two other children while trying to escape an abusive situation,” she said, “makes you realize that God’s love for us makes it all the more imperative that we share that love.”

Like the Metro church, the Three Chopt Road Church of Christ in Richmond, Va., joins with other area churches to help the homeless.

Demolitions of low-rent motels contributed to an increase in the Virginia capital’s homeless population in the 1980s. That led to the creation of CARITAS — Churches Around Richmond Involved To Assure Shelter.

“It’s a great opportunity to teach your children about caring for others, having them step up and help out at dinner, or reading a nighttime story to these children who don’t have a home to go to,” said Melissa McGuiggan, a Three Chopt Road member who co-directs the ministry with Mike West.

In Nashville, 22 Churches of Christ participate in Room In The Inn — which was started by a Roman Catholic priest in 1985.

Since its launch in Music City, that winter shelter program has expanded to 33 additional cities in the United States and Canada.

“Sheltering people in congregations is not as difficult as many people assume,” said Jeff Moles, Room In The Inn’s community development coordinator for congregational support. “People often think about their insurance needs, but Room In The Inn guests are covered just like any other visitors to the building.”

Beds in a Church of Christ fellowship hall await the 12 homeless men who sleep there on Saturday nights as part of Room In The Inn. (PHOTO BY TED PARKS) Most concerns about safety, security and liability disappear after a church hosts the program a few times, Moles said.

“Stereotypes are broken down,” he said, “and there is a ‘holy ground’ experience of people coming together in new ways.”

Nonprofits such as Room In The Inn and Family Promise conduct background checks on potential guests.

But in an emergency shelter situation — such as that of the Levy church effort — advance screening is not possible, said Paul Wilkerson, one of the Arkansas congregation’s elders.

“It’s difficult work,” said Wilkerson, who also serves as executive director of the River City Ministry, which operates a day shelter, a food pantry, a clothing closet and medical and dental clinics. “Some of the homeless are very dysfunctional. You need a driven core-group of people to make it work.” (Deacon Mark Deal oversees Levy’s homeless ministry.)

Upon arriving at Nashville’s Woodson Chapel church, the homeless men eat meals prepared by church volunteers and shower in facilities built specifically for Room In The Inn, minister Wesley Walker said.

Jerry gives thanks for another hot meal at the River City Ministry. The North Little Rock, Ark., ministry is associated with Churches of Christ. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
“We are in an affluent section of Nashville,” Walker said. “I think it’s been helpful to break down some walls that normally wouldn’t be broken down. It’s been helpful to humanize people that, if not for this program, we might just drive past and not even give a second thought.”

While growing up in the Brentwood Hills Church of Christ in Nashville, Macy Cottrell, 22, witnessed her home congregation’s longtime partnership with Room In The Inn.

Cottrell, now a senior at Lipscomb University in Nashville, recalls her mother, Amy, making poppy seed chicken casserole for the guests.

“I remember helping her carry dinner to the place and seeing guys in community around tables,” said Cottrell, who plans to graduate next spring with degrees in molecular biology and vocational ministry. “I thought it was so cool we had that opportunity.”

That experience inspired Cottrell to organize a Room In The Inn program on the Lipscomb campus — with the Student Government Association offering funding and social service clubs helping with meals.

The 15 homeless men welcomed to the Christian university each Saturday night eat dinner, watch movies and sleep in Lipscomb’s racquetball room — “the quietest and darkest place we could find,” as Cottrell points out.

“It’s a really humbling experience,” she said of listening to their stories.

Students Warren Lipscomb, Jackson Smith, Sarah Williams and Macy Cottrell help with the Room In The Inn program at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. (PHOTO BY KRISTI JONES)


From the Pitman Church of Christ in Sewell, N.J., to the Golf Course Road Church of Christ in Midland, Texas, thousands of houses of worship partner with Family Promise.

That national organization has 202 affiliates in 42 states. It focuses on providing shelter, meals and support services to homeless families.

“We share our faith with our hands and feet, not with teaching from our mouths, unless our guests ask us questions,” said Cindy Wood, Family Promise of North Idaho’s executive director. “We do pray.”

In North Idaho, each congregation hosts the families a minimum of four weeks and a maximum of six weeks per year, said Wood, a member of the Dalton Gardens church.

“This is intentional so that our guest families are greeted by congregations that are not tired but rejuvenated and excited about the ministry week ahead,” she said.

“Cardboard City” is an annual fundraiser by Family Promise of North Idaho. The Dalton Gardens Church of Christ partners with Family Promise to serve the homeless. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY MICHAEL LEWIS)

When it’s the Dalton Gardens church’s turn, at least two members sleep on cots at the church building for seven nights. Those volunteers include Freda Campbell, 65, and her 18-year-old granddaughter, Alyssa Campbell.

“Some people are still a little afraid because of their idea of what the homeless are — bums or ones choosing to stand on street corners,” Freda Campbell said. “But circumstances come up beyond their control that cause these people to lose their homes.”

A lost job. An abusive spouse. A divorce.

These factors and others can result in sudden homelessness.

“Most families have no savings and can expect no help from their extended families,” said Michael Lewis, the Dalton Gardens church’s minister. “When they can suddenly no longer pay rent and are evicted, they have to choose between trying to get into a shelter or sleeping in a car or in a box under a bridge somewhere.

“And the shocking thing is to see how many young children are involved … all these newborns and preschoolers who just got a raw deal handed to them,” the Idaho preacher added. “But it’s not really about placing blame — it’s just time to help.

“We are glad to help.”

Filed under: National urban ministry

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