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Recognizing their strengths

Oregon church uses extra space to house homeless families

February 4, 2011

LOUISVILLE

Eastminster Presbyterian Church, in Portland, Ore., has 38 members. The average age of congregants is 80. And until recently, the church had several unused Sunday school classrooms.

But while these traits were once seen as weaknesses, members at Eastminster have begun to see them as strengths. In fact, it was these qualities that made the church a good fit for its new ministry: a warming center for homeless families in Portland.

Started in November, the ministry is part of a partnership between Eastminster and Human Solutions, a local group that helps homeless and low-income families become self-sufficient.

Human Solutions had approached Portland’s faith community to see if any houses of worship would host a warming center in their buildings. No one stepped up, and three months later, Human Solutions came back to Eastminster to see if the church would instead consider being part of a multi-church partnership.

In the time between the two requests, Eastminster went through a discernment period and was considering closing, said the Rev. Brian Heron, pastor.

But eventually, members began to view their “deficits” as assets, Heron said.

“The church went from a sense of failure of not having enough people to realizing that not having people meant they had space,” he said.

Eastminster had five unused rooms, and members worked for more than two months to clear them out and clean them up to make room for cots and a kitchen area.

“The preparation was a huge task,” said Walter Lersch, the church’s treasurer and a key organizer of the clean-up.

Eastminster hosts the warming center — a first-come, first-served drop-in center — for six months of the year. Open from 7 p.m.-7 a.m. daily, the center can hold up to 60 people, most of whom are families. About half the residents on any night are children. Using money from the county, Human Solutions rents the space, and together with Eastminster, provides food, volunteers and fellowship. Community groups come in a few times a month to provide a hot meal, and microwaveable snacks are available the rest of the time.

Lersch is also working to organize a lending library for youth who come to the center, and the church has begun hosting monthly birthday parties for clients.

The church hadn’t done much homeless ministry before, Heron said, and some members were initially hesitant and fearful about opening their doors.

When Human Solutions first approached the church, the idea of the warming center seemed like a lot of work for a worn-out congregation, said member Linda Loeffler. She was also worried about security.

But after thinking about the idea for a week and listening to Heron’s sermons on serving others, Loeffler thought it was selfish to have needed space sit empty, and said God changed her mind.

“I have not regretted it for one minute,” she said, adding that this is the work the church is called to do. “I know it’s great, but it’s actually just what we needed to do.”

Loeffler encouraged other churches to “just step up to the plate” when considering taking on new programs or ministries.

“We were scared too,” she said about taking the first step. “Once it’s done, it’s done, and it was so worth it. You get more of a blessing from it than you think you’re going to.”

One blessing Eastminster has experienced is a softening toward people in the community. Instead of being afraid of problems from outsiders, the church is building relationships with others and considering the kind of legacy it wants to leave in Portland.

“I’m really proud of Eastminster because they’ve just decided that no matter what the future holds, they’ve decided to be faithful,” Heron said. “They really have changed their language now from growth to legacy.”

The church had been feeling a sense of loss, Heron said. It is no longer the church it was when it was chartered in 1954, and that change was bringing up some end-of-life issues and organizational grief.

But the congregation is “trusting this stage of their lives,” Heron said. “There’s a lot of faith and trust going on here.”

Eastminster has shrunk substantially since its heyday, said Lersch, but the warming center gives it a new purpose.

“I get a tremendous amount of personal pride out of seeing our property … put to a positive, constructive use,” he said. “It’s extremely rewarding.”

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