A small Pennsylvania church, which lets space to an organization that opens its doors daily to people in the community without any place to call home, always shows a little extra love this time of year to make sure those neighbors stay warm.
St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Erie, Penn., in a ministry that supports the Upper Room of Erie, a day shelter for homeless people housed on the church's second floor, helped collect blankets and coats for the Upper Room's Blizzard of Blankets drive, and will be gathering socks and other warm items in worship in just a few weeks.
On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, a few St. Paul's members joined volunteers from the Upper Room who were collecting, rolling up and bagging blankets donated by people across the Erie community, and stacking items up in the trailer of a big truck parked outside the church during the day-long drive. The Upper Room, which has been organizing this event for 22 years, also collected warm clothing, which, like the blankets, will be distributed to less fortunate people who need them.
"We have received about 1,100 blankets, 400 coats and other winter items through collaborative relationships with churches, the banks, and the local hospitals," said Cris Taylor, director of the Upper Room. "A nurses association has been collecting, with bins on the floors of the hospital, so we will be getting more. They (St. Paul's) do a sock drive."
On the Sunday before Christmas, the people of St. Paul's plan to hold Sock Sunday, to collect socks (and hats and gloves and scarves) to be shared with the Upper Room's guests on Christmas morning.
"Sock Sunday was started as a way to involve ALL of our members - the very elderly and the very young - those who really couldn't physically volunteer," said Cheryl Pierce, church secretary and Upper Room board member. "Socks are ALWAYS needed and easy to find. We ask that the members buy packages at discount stores – and also buy small packs of tissues, mints, gum, or whatever else they think someone would like. We put a bow around each pair and a note – from your friends at St. Paul's UCC."
Last year the three dozen average attendees of St. Paul's donated 150 pairs of socks.
The Erie church has been visibly sharing love with its less fortunate neighbors in partnership with the Upper Room since 1995, when founder Tom Schlaudecker approached St. Paul's board, looking for space in which to open a day shelter for homeless people.
"Tom witnessed an apparently homeless man being urged to leave the public library because he had fallen asleep in a comfortable chair," Pierce said. "The church council had been praying about what to do with much of the 'unused space' on the second floor of the building, and it seemed that this would be a good 'temporary' use."
Since March 6 of that year, the Upper Room has functioned as a place where the less fortunate in the neighborhood can come get a cup of coffee and stay inside. Pierce said the need for the facility became evident when the Upper Room welcomed upwards of 100 visitors a day. St. Paul's UCC has also become a temporary address for many people who need a place to get mail.
"It's a wonderful relationship," said Taylor. "The Upper Room is not part of the church. But the church does support the Upper Room and the Upper Room supports the church."
The support of the people of St. Paul's includes service. In addition to Pierce, former pastor the Rev. Carl Hull is the current Upper Room Board President, and Alice Niebauer, St. Paul's Church Council President, serves as the Board Secretary.
Staffed primarily by volunteers from all walks of life, the Upper Room continues to fill an important niche in Erie, in space that was donated until it became a 501(c)3 organization on October 29, 2009. The facility welcomes the homeless community from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm Monday through Saturday and 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm on Sunday. With the help of community partners, the Mental Health Association of Northwest Pennsylvania and the Erie County Emergency Management Office, it also offers warming hours when the temperature drops below 25 degrees.
And after 22 years on the second floor of St. Paul's United Church of Christ, the Upper Room is looking for a first floor handicapped accessible location. But until then, Pierce said, "We look at housing them as our mission."
"This ongoing ministry of St. Paul's church is 3 Great Loves in action," said the Rev. Dave Sigmund, UCC minister and congregational coordinator of the UCC's 3 Great Loves denominational initiative. "As the United Church of Christ, 3 Great Loves is a way to live out the purpose, vision, and mission of the church collectively, a witness to a united effort in making a more just world for all as God's hands and feet. This congregation, through its love for neighbor, is immersed in that mission."
Beginning at General Synod 2017 and ending with General Synod 2019, the 3 Great Loves initiative calls the United Church of Christ in its many settings of ministry to lift up Love of Neighbor, Love of Children, and Love of Creation.
As Sigmund said, "So many of our churches are involved in ministries like St. Paul's, already doing the work of 3 Great Loves in a variety of ways."
"The idea of hosting the Upper Room at our church allows us to do our part in helping those who have nowhere to go for help as well as helping the downtown community with addressing the problem of homelessness," said Niebauer. "Our congregation is an aging population and hosting this program allows them to help in a way that is meaningful to them in their Christian lives. It took a leap of faith to open ourselves to a population that we had not previously thought much about but it has been a rewarding experience for us and hopefully we have been able to help these people feel loved and cared for."