Written by Anthony Moujaes
To welcome the stranger, a Pennsylvania United Church of Christ congregation, Colonial Park UCC in Harrisburg, is nearing the finish line of the renovation of its former parsonage, transforming the space into sanctuary, making it a temporary home for refugee families fleeing violence in their homeland.
Colonial Park UCC pastor the Rev. Bonita Zobeck says that refugees, no matter where they are from, are caught in the middle of a crisis. "The Bible says to welcome strangers, and so that's what we're planning on doing," she said. "I expect that the families that are coming from these awful situations are going to be traumatized, but I hope that we will help provide them with a safe place to become whole again."
The project started with a simple image that brought the situation home to them.
"People were really disturbed by the Syrian refugee crisis, when that child washed up on the shore, and that was when we contacted Catholic Social Services to see what we could do," Zobeck said.
Kathy Neely, Colonial Park office manager, is helping coordinate the project and said that the parsonage will provide "a clean, safe, comfortable temporary home" to refugee families, hopefully before the end of the year.
"The house has three bedrooms. It could easily house a family of six to 10, depending upon the relationships of those being housed and the number of adults [and] children," Neely said. "The house hasn't been lived in regularly by a family for more than 10 years, when our former pastor lived there."
The congregation is partnering with Catholic Social Services, which will help place families in Central Pennsylvania. Colonial Park will assist CSS with providing ‘their’ families with job placement, education, language assistance and permanent housing. Refugees will have the opportunity to stay at the parsonage for up to two months as they adapt to their new surroundings. Colonial Park staff and members will also assist the refugee families manage day-to-day living, such as providing food for meals, personal care items and household goods as they help each family acclimate to the area and local culture.
The final aspects of the renovation, which began back in April, are coming together right now. Church members volunteered to paint the second-floor hallway and bedrooms, and sanded down and sealed the original hardwood flooring after pulling up old carpets. Other updates include cleaning and updating the bathrooms, repairing the heat in the kitchen, and updating the kitchen with new appliances, countertops and flooring. In addition to the renovations, the church has collected furniture and decor for each of the rooms, toiletries and cleaning supplies.
"We wanted to have a family in by September. The parsonage had been used for storage for 30 years, and we found the plumbing wasn’t up to date and the heat in the kitchen wasn’t working — one complication after the other. We finally have heat taken care of, plumbing taken care of, and new appliances donated," Zobeck said. "We are hoping that by January we can accept a family — we are setting our eyes on that."
About 15 to 20 people have helped on a regular basis to make the renovations, and others have assisted by donating money and updated appliances to use in the home. To help with the cost of upgrades, the congregation set up a crowdfunding website for financial contributions, and is approaching its goal of $8,000, having raised more than $7,330.
"It’s amazing how when we needed the money, it was there. It is a story of grace, because every time we needed to move forward, something helped us make it," Zobeck said.
"This has helped us realize who we are. We have a vision statement that says we, Colonial Park UCC, exist to listen, to love and restore hope and community to all God’s children. This is helping us live out that vision," she continued. "This project will not only restore hope to whomever lives in the parsonage, it restored our congregation — it renewed us and energized us, and helped us remember what church is."
Colonial Park’s actions are among the many that the UCC national setting is encouraging its congregations to initiate, and hope to highlight in the month of December. Part of the denomination’s monthly “Our Still Speaking Voice" initiative, the church will share ministries, ways our churches are involved in welcoming Syrian Refugees. As part of that, the national setting has been encouraging youth in grades 9-12 to submit videos for a contest that documents how they or their congregation are helping Syrian refugees who have fled their war-torn country. The contest deadline is Tuesday, Nov. 29.
Top videos will be shared on the UCC website and social media channels in December, and the top three young filmmakers will be awarded scholarships.
"The video contest is only one aspect of the December initiative. We will be rolling out the videos as part of a focus on both Syrian refugees still in the Middle East and on those being resettled in the U.S.," said the Rev. Mary Schaller Blaufuss, who leads the UCC Global Sharing of Resources team. "We’re calling on youth to participate and to share their stories with the wider church."