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Presbyterian churches promise to help families experiencing homelessness

When Beth Undercuffler’s phone rang on a wintry morning in 2018, she knew the call likely had to do with the blizzard raging outside. A member of Hanover Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware, she’s also a volunteer coordinator for Family Promise of Northern New Castle County. They were just wrapping up their host week.

The severe weather had led to a state of emergency, keeping the Family Promise van off the roads and preventing families from returning to the Day Center where they typically go to receive case management and other support services during the day. But the dangerous road conditions didn’t stop Undercuffler, who jumped in her car and was at the grocery store by 6 a.m.

In addition to needing to quickly plan meals for the next 48 hours, Undercuffler, a grandmother, knew that snow days require special supplies.

“What kid wants to be snowed in and not have special snacks?” she said. “Someone has to do it for the kids!”

Undercuffler put a call out to other members of Hanover Presbyterian Church and within a few hours, families willing to volunteer trekked through the snow to Peninsula-McCabe United Methodist Church, where Hanover Presbyterian Church was helping to host families, with board games, movies and toys.

“The kids watched movies and built a blanket fort in the middle of the lounge,” Undercuffler said. “It was a fun day.”

Changing the future for one million children by 2030

Family Promise of Northern New Castle County is a part of the national Family Promise network. Family Promise is a nonprofit organization that works in over 200 communities across the United States to help low-income families and families experiencing homelessness find sustainable independence through a community-based response.

The organization was created as Interfaith Hospitality Network in 1986, when Karen Olson, Family Promise’s founder, realized that families in her community of Union County, New Jersey, were experiencing homelessness.

She created a network of local congregations who used their buildings to provide shelter. Each congregation hosted for a week at a time and provided space, meals and community for families. As word spread, more New Jersey congregations formed a second network. Other congregations were inspired to develop similar programs, and in 1988 the organization expanded to a national scope. As affiliates opened across the U.S., new programs were created to provide mentoring, training on financial literacy, transitional housing and childcare.

Since then, the Family Promise model has grown to provide not only shelter, but also prevention and stabilization services. Across the U.S., more than 200,000 volunteers work with Family Promise.

Congregations are key

Congregations and their volunteers are the fuel that allow the Family Promise shelter program to operate. Congregations from all faiths support affiliates by providing shelter space, volunteers, meals and support to partner congregations.

In 43 states, over 600 Presbyterian churches currently work with Family Promise. Many provide shelter in unused classroom space, donate space to be used as Day Centers or mobilize volunteers to travel to other congregations and pitch in. Congregants across the country put their faith in action and live out the call to care for their neighbors through Family Promise.

Family Promise of Northern New Castle County Hanover Presbyterian Church

Located just outside of Wilmington, Delaware, Family Promise of Northern New Castle County provides support to families in a county that is an urban/suburban split. Cheryl Christianson, director of community engagement at Family Promise of Northern New Castle County, says lack of employment is a large issue for the families they serve. Loss of a job or a change in childcare costs can often be the variable that lead to loss of housing for a family. Family Promise of Northern New Castle County works with families in their shelter program to help them find employment opportunities.

All the families the organization serves have school-aged children, so getting them back into permanent housing as quickly as possible is important. “We try to get them stabilized as quickly as possible,” Christianson said. Most families stay in the shelter program for 45 to 60 days. “I would say it’s an extreme need,” she said.

Hanover Presbyterian Church is located in a neighborhood of Wilmington called the 9th Ward. Hanover came to participate in Family Promise through a group of pastors that serves the 9th Ward and meets regularly.

Eleven years ago, Andy Jacob, the pastor at Hanover, began attending 9th Ward Interfaith Coalition meetings. In 2012, the group began discussing ways they could collaborate to serve the community and decided to contact Family Promise. Most of the congregations involved did not have the space to host for a week, but together they had the resources to come together at Peninsula-McCabe Methodist Church and welcome families to stay.

In January 2013 the group welcomed their first families; they have hosted for one week at a time, three to four times per year ever since. The host week is run by volunteers from Peninsula-McCabe, Hanover Presbyterian, a Baptist church, a nondenominational church, two synagogues and a few volunteers from a Catholic church that was part of the group until it closed its doors.

“Our goal was to build community in our own community and at the same time serve the families there,” Jacob said.

While interfaith collaboration is not unique in the Family Promise network, many hosting congregations enlist a support congregation to help with volunteering and other needs; having this many congregations serve together is unusual, Christianson explained.

But what truly sets them apart, she believes, is their capacity to be flexible and think on their feet. This became abundantly clear when Undercuffler was forced to host her first Family Promise snow day in 2018. Since then the group has enacted a plan for any future emergencies. They stock extra food in the freezers, have a special group of emergency volunteers and know who is nearby to trek through the snow with board games and movies if the need arises.

“They are very hands-on. They are willing to go a little above and beyond,” Christianson said.

For Jacob, who makes sure to spend Friday night of the host weeks volunteering with his wife and two sons, Family Promise offers the congregation a way to learn more about their neighbors and to have a hands-on impact on the community.

“You build relationships and people go away with a better sense about the dynamics of what it means to be homeless,” he said. “They’ve done something at least that night. I’ve helped feed someone that didn’t have anywhere else to be tonight.”

And for Undercuffler, spending time with the kids in the program is the highlight of her time spent volunteering. “They’re excited about whatever is being served or whatever game is going to be played. Any work that it took when you get to that point just melts away,” she said.

Family Promise of Knoxville Powell Presbyterian Church

Within the congregational network of Family Promise of Knoxville, Tennessee, is Powell Presbyterian Church, a small church that despite its size has had a big impact on the community.

Family Promise of Knoxville has served the community for 15 years. Powell has “been involved since the very beginning,” said Mary Thomson LeMense, executive director of Family Promise of Knoxville.

While Knoxville is the fourth largest city in Tennessee, LeMense says the community they serve is primarily rural. Knox County sits between Anderson and Blount Counties and many of the area’s employment opportunities are in neighboring Blount County.

She says that for families in the area her affiliate serves, transportation to and from work is a key issue. “Commuting costs so much that it often doesn’t work,” she said. “Having to depend on a vehicle for work is a major factor for homelessness in our community.”

The need for help is constantly growing, LeMense says: “At a minimum, we have about 80 families on our waiting list.”

“We are the only family shelter in the county and, with the exception of Family Promise of Blount County, in the surrounding counties.” So, support from congregations like Powell is crucial.

Powell Presbyterian Church only has about 90 members, but the group has not let its size stop them from getting involved. Pastor Katina Sharp says one of the defining aspects of the church is their involvement in the community. LeMense says that what makes them stand out to her is their willingness to use their resources to pitch in however they can.

“They literally give us every room they have to serve our families,” she said. “Overnight hosts spend the night in the pastor’s office.”

LeMense says that larger churches often will not participate because of busy schedules. Powell is an extremely active church, but devotes four weeks per year to Family Promise. “That just shows how strong their commitment is to help families experiencing homelessness,” she said. Sharp says that hosting for Family Promise can be work, but even small congregations have what it takes. “I hear churches say, ‘That’s a great organization and if we had more volunteers, if we had more space, if we had showers’ – and they insert many roadblocks – ‘we would do that.’ I think the biggest thing is even little churches can do it if it is a priority,” she said. “Yes, little churches can and are doing this just as effectively as the big churches are.”

Family Promise of Cowlitz County Kelso United Methodist Presbyterian Church

In Kelso, Washington, a new Family Promise affiliate recently opened its doors in August. Much of Family Promise of Cowlitz County’s successful opening was due to the involvement of Kelso United Methodist Presbyterian Church.

Kelso United Methodist Presbyterian Church houses both a Methodist congregation and a Presbyterian congregation that worship together. Originally two separate churches that were located across the street from one another, the churches merged in 2015 and now worship in the building that initially belonged to the Methodist church.

“We are a Methodist church and a Presbyterian church worshipping together. We have a covenant together that tells how we will do business,” said Vonda McFadden, the church’s pastor who also sits on the board of Family Promise of Cowlitz County.

The merger left the former Presbyterian church building in the congregation’s care. When the community began talking of opening a Family Promise affiliate, it soon became clear that the unused space would make the perfect home for the new Day Center.

“The Day Center is on the second floor of what was once the Presbyterian church. It was a space that was used for classrooms and has been empty for the past four years,” McFadden said. “We looked at many options for that space and someone that was involved with Family Promise of Cowlitz County came and asked me if we had considered using the space for the Day Center. I really didn’t think we would be able to do it because the congregation was grieving over the loss of the building and not being able to worship there, but they were very willing to help families.”

Now the congregation rents the space to the organization for just $1 per year. In addition to providing space, the organization plans to provide volunteers to help at the Day Center. McFadden says the Family Promise Affiliate is something the community needed.

“It’s more than 40 families with children in the county who were homeless last year,” she said. “I know of a kid who was living in a tent on his own. It is challenging but it is meaningful work and that I would recommend churches become involved in helping families.”

How to get involved

Family Promise relies on the support of the faith community in order to provide shelter and support to families. Its strength is its diversity. Although a secular organization, Family Promise engages the faith community, through 6,000 congregations of all denominations, to provide shelter, volunteers and compassion to families in need.

To learn how to get involved, visit familypromise.org.

Katie Coughlin is the digital operations manager at Family Promise, a national nonprofit addressing the issue of family homelessness. Katie has a passion for using digital media to communicate the impact and results of nonprofits. She lives in Boonton, New Jersey.

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