Opening doors, minds, hearts

California church hosts homeless shelter, challenges assumptions

July 23, 2010

STATESVILLE, N.C.

Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations responding to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s call to "Grow Christ's Church Deep and Wide." The call to grow in evangelism, discipleship, servanthood and diversity was adopted by the 2008 General Assembly and renewed by the 2010 General Assembly. — Jerry L. Van Marter

When First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo, Calif., heard there was a need for a temporary homeless shelter in its area, it stepped up — even though its members had almost no experience working with the homeless.

Only one member had any prior experience working at a homeless shelter, said the Rev. Joanne Whitt, pastor of First. The rest of the volunteers felt some nervousness about the unknown.

"There was some trepidation in advance," Whitt said. "Mainly because of the portrayal and the ideas that have been generated about homeless people — 'What will these people be like?'"

Because the church is in a residential neighborhood, it needed to obtain permits from the city in order to house a homeless shelter on its grounds. The church also had to inform its neighbors of its plan.

Most shared the reaction of the church members, and while there were some small concerns, they were overshadowed by support. Some community members who don't belong to First also came forward to help.

There was, however, one notable exception. 

"One concerned resident who opposed the idea called the local school to try to build more opposition," Whitt said. "He told them about how all these scary homeless people would be brought here and would be wandering around on our streets."

Whitt received a call from the school principal asking for more detailed information. She explained to him that all the visitors staying at the church would be carefully screened by hired professional staff. Anyone who might be dangerous or who could not follow the rules would not be accommodated. 

Whitt explained that First Presbyterian would host the shelter one night per week and would lend its space to two other churches that wanted to participate but didn’t have proper facilities. Guests would not be wandering around the neighborhood but would arrive by bus at 6 p.m. and would leave at 6:00 a.m. the next day. Professional staff would remain on site all night.

The principal relayed these plans to the school's parents, and some of the volunteers actually came from the school.

"It turned out that the attempt to create opposition was actually a benefit for us," Whitt said. "These are people who aren't involved in our church otherwise."

In total, more than 100 People volunteered for the program, which ran from December through March. 

"It was a fabulous, transforming, invigorating experience from the get-go," Whitt said. "The most common experience was learning the extent to which homeless people are people too.  They could be anyone you know, the people you grew up with."

Whitt said she's always been aware that at any given time, there are members of any congregation who are only one friend or relative away from being homeless — but her congregation did not realize that until now.

"I heard many of them say, 'I was afraid to do this and I'm so glad I did,'" Whitt said. 

The volunteers did not simply prepare food and provide space.

The more experienced volunteer has a motto: "We do not serve the poor poorly." Accordingly, dinner was prepared and served on tables that had been dressed with table cloths, fresh flowers, cloth napkins and real dishes. The volunteers then sat down and ate dinner with their guests. 

It was through this shared time of food and fellowship that the volunteers actually developed relationships with the men they housed.

"They went from being scary people that are considered a nuisance by most to being real people,” Whitt said. 

“We are proud and grateful for this ministry of compassion by the San Anselmo congregation," said the Rev. Robert E. Conover, mission presbyter/stated clerk for the Presbytery of the Redwoods.

Marin County, where First is located, had a permanent shelter on an old Air Force base, but it closed a few years ago. There are no concrete plans to open a new permanent shelter. In the meantime, the temporary shelter program will likely continue over the winter months. As long as it does, First Presbyterian will continue to participate.

Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary at First Presbyterian Church.

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