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Finding ways to pour faith into new vessels of need

195-03-cover.jpgSome people of faith try to help the homeless through practical, direct means — by ladling out chili in soup kitchens, for example, or collecting tube socks and toiletries, or knitting hats to distribute at shelters.


In Portland, Ore., some Presbyterians are getting involved at a deeper and more complicated level — making commitments that in some cases have transformed the congregations themselves.

New City. Over the past year, some have become involved in the New City Initiative, which helps to organize faith communities to support homeless individuals and families as they make the transition from the streets into permanent housing.


When congregations think about issues like homelessness, very often our minds go to emergency services” — to the immediate need of providing food, shelter and clothing, said Paul Schroeder, a former Greek Orthodox pastor and faith-based resource coordinator for JOIN, the nonprofit agency which created the New City Initiative.


New City encourages faith communities to build relationships with homeless people, to get involved in a deeper way. “As a general rule, people do not become homeless when they run out of money,” Schroeder said. “People become homeless when they run out of relationships. When people generally hit bottom and become homeless is when their entire network of relationships — every thread in that network — has snapped.”


The New City Initiative pairs congregations with homeless individuals and families who are trying to make the transition back into permanent shelter — asking for a six-month commitment of support through a new program started in 2012 called Covenant of Hope.


We can put people into housing, we can get them an apartment” or provide rent subsidies, Schroeder said. But without a support system to assist with problem-solving — to offer encouragement, help them find employment, cheer them on — “they will become isolated, they will become depressed, they will go back to bad coping behaviors.”


Last year, 22 communities of faith sponsored 12 families through the Covenant of Hope program, raising $32,000 in rent support. That included the Presbyterian Urban Network, an alliance of eight small city congregations which sponsored a family, making a financial commitment as well as an emotional one. To encourage families making the transition, participating congregations help set up and furnish apartments; write supportive notes; visit the families; and provide practical assistance — in one case organizing a carpool of volunteer church members so a child could attend an after-school art program.


It’s a good thing to feed, clothe and shelter people who are sleeping outdoors,” Schroeder said. But as a pastor, he had little idea of what was involved in trying to get people to actually move off the streets. What happened after people left the shelter “was a total mystery to me,” Schroeder said. “We have been trying to put people of faith into that mystery … Honestly, it’s hard work. Sometimes it’s messy work. But it’s the right work.”


Eastminster. Other congregations build relationships by opening their church doors to the shelters themselves. One Presbyterian congregation which took a deeper plunge was Eastminster Church — a small congregation in the Parkrose neighborhood. Brian Heron was the congregation’s pastor for six years, ending in June 2012.


When he arrived, Eastminster was a congregation in decline — with an average age of 79, having lost about 90 percent of its membership over the previous 30 years, down to about 35 people in worship on a typical Sunday. The congregation was nearly all white; the neighborhood around it had filled with immigrants, including Russians, Somalians, Asians, Hispanics and Bosnians.


Heron arrived with a background both in hospice work and in new church development, and a commitment to helping the congregation discern what would come next. “The congregation definitely was not ready to close,” he said.


In search of a way forward, Heron spent the first three years trying to bring growth through new programs and new classes — none of which was more than minimally effective — and getting involved in the community, building relationships and trust in the neighborhood and becoming the co-chair of a local planning effort.


After a few years, the session recognized that the programmatic approach wasn’t working, and “let the congregation know they were tired,” Heron said. Next came conversations about possible mergers, about selling the church building and becoming a mission church.


What emerged was what Heron describes as “one of those transforming, conversion moments. They finally realized they weren’t going to save the church.”


The emphasis switched from survival to the idea of leaving a faithful legacy. The members concluded: “We know we’re not going to make it,” Heron said. “But with whatever time we do have, we’re going to work on our legacy to the community.”


That decision freed the congregation, Heron said. They began to ask, “What does the community want? Let them shape the vision. Things moved very quickly once we turned it over to the community” — in part because of the connections Heron had already built.


The church had resources the neighborhood needed: empty classrooms, an acre and a half of property.


In 2011, Eastminster opened a community garden — 100 plots, nearly all of them planted by immigrants. The church partnered with a local nonprofit group which leased the land for a dollar a year and oversaw the project.


Inside the building, Eastminster opened a shelter for homeless families — people with children, including single parents, grandparents and couples having hard times. Some stayed just a night or two, some lived at the church for weeks — anywhere from 60 to 100 people a night.


People from the neighborhood got involved too — dozens of volunteers, seeing the need all around them, came to the church to help with the children, to bring blankets, to cook dinner. “It’s a church of 35 people,” Heron said. “We’re hosting 80 people a night who are homeless.”


Along the way, Eastminster began conversations with a local United Church of Christ congregation. That congregation, Parkrose Community United Church of Christ, wanted to support the homeless shelter, was working with a farm-to-table ministry to teach cooking (a good match for Eastminster’s community garden program), and had sold its own building and was renting space in a Methodist church, but preferred a spot with more visibility. Eastminster’s site sits along a main road, where 25,000 cars pass by every day.


The two congregations set up a team to explore the possibilities of working together. “Our congregation was getting more and more tired,” Heron said. “They were getting more antsy to move on and get a building again.” The two congregations tried worshipping together, at first once a month, then twice.


By the time Eastminster closed, “it was more a handing off of the baton” than a death, Heron said. Many of the Eastminster worshippers stayed with the new congregation, and the Presbytery of the Cascades sold the property at significantly below market value, “because we were leaving a Christian ministry on the site with an ongoing witness,” Heron said.


While the Eastminster congregation no longer exists, Heron thinks its journey has lessons to offer other small congregations.


With attendance continuing to decline, “they got pushed,” he said. “They knew — we have to jump over. Something new may happen, or we may close. They just couldn’t stand on the side any more.”


His advice: “Don’t wait until you get pushed. Start thinking about it now. I really believe something new will take place. God is already active — God is active in the community.”