Across the UCC
Written by Carol L. Pavlik
‘Whatsoever you do to the least of these'
Members of First Congregational UCC in Salem, Ore., are learning that ‘welcoming the stranger' means getting involved—hands on.
The Interfaith Hospitality Network involves a network of local faith communities that, on a rotating basis, host families who are homeless and need help getting back into a more stable economic situation. The Rev. Gail Mc-Dougle, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Salem, Ore., says being part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network for the past two years has been a good experience.
McDougle's congregation spent around $1,500 making safety adjustments in its church basement before opening its doors to families who needed a place to stay.
From Sunday to Sunday, a family comes to the church. Family members receive dinner, breakfast and food to pack for sack lunches. Beds are set up in rooms in the church basement and there is tutoring and activities during the evening.
Each morning, a van provided by the Network picks up family members and takes them to a designated day center or, if needed, to work or school.
At the day center, the family receives help getting out of its predicament and on the road to financial stability. This can include receiving assistance in finding stable housing and employment. Showers and laundry facilities also are provided by the day center. At the end of the week, the family rotates to another church or temple in the network.
McDougle says she has been pleased with the involvement of her church. "People with varying degrees of time, energy and health, with varying kinds of gifts, can make this happen," she says. Hosting a dinner, tutoring children, dropping off food for breakfast, being overnight hosts and preparing special activities includes 100 of the 300 members of First Congregational during each week a family stays at the church.
"There are moments when it doesn't go as you hoped it would, but in general, it's taught us about flexibility," says McDougle. "Every family's situation is unique. Instead of thinking of them as ‘the homeless,' they are families with aspirations and a hope to get some of their situations straightened out so they're not so economically vulnerable."
For more information on the National Interfaith Hospitality Network, contact Karen Olson, Director, National Interfaith Hospitality Network (NIHN), 71 Summit Ave., Summit, NJ 07901; 908-273-1100; e-mail: email@example.com; website www.nihn.org.
Mustard seed faith creates outreach
Last year, Mustard Seed Ministries in Ft. Pierce, Fla., assisted some 5,500 families and fed 12 meals of groceries to more than 12,000 people. The ministry also helps get medications for elderly people who don't fit into the current health system and doles out gasoline chips to people who are recently employed and awaiting their first paycheck.
Mustard Seed Ministries works with the Salvation Army, Red Cross and United Way. But UCC minister the Rev. Carl Junker, administrative pastor, says that more than 100 churches working with the ministry keep it going, including Faith UCC, West Port, Fla., First Congregational UCC in Port Saint Lucie, Fla., and Community UCC of Jensen Beach, Fla.
"That's one of our [the UCC's] traditions and visions—ecumenism," says Junker. "It's satisfying to know that Mustard Seed Ministries is the mission arm of so many churches and Jewish temples."
Community Vision looks at what could be...for everyone
During the Rev. James Todhunter's sabbatical in 1995, he saw a growing concern in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Silver Spring that the downtown area was not flourishing. Blaming homeless persons, as some residents did, for the deteriorating state of downtown seemed like just another excuse to Todhunter.
So Todhunter's church, Christ Congregational UCC in Silver Spring, Md., decided to do something about it, and Silver Spring Community Vision was born.
Spearheaded by the church, the organization proactively provides assistance to people who are homeless.
A $500 grant provided seed money for initial organization of the religious community. Preaching that the community had to work together—and that homeless persons were are of the community—Silver Spring Community Vision got the attention of civic leaders, who placed the group in charge of renovating an old abandoned bakery and turning it into Progress Place, a multi-service center to aid homeless and low-income residents.
Progress Place received a substantial boost from the federal government in the form of $4.5 million in block grants as well as program money from HUD. Today, it is the home of a local soup kitchen, a low-income children's health clinic, county homeless coordination offices, Silver Spring Community Vision offices and countless resources for needy individuals or families.
Silver Spring Community Vision gets almost a million dollars from Montgomery County annually to manage the center. But Todhunter says that none of these events would have happened without the grassroots efforts of the religious community.
"Our vision was to say to the community that we wanted to play our part in community revitalization along with everyone else," he says. "The least among us need to be included. Not [just] to be taken care of—their gifts need to be recognized and included."
And reaching out a helping hand has had long-term benefits for the whole city.
Redevelopment of Silver Spring is now going full force, thanks to a concerted community effort to build a new high school and, of course, Progress Place.
Serving a meal benefits servers and recipients
Members and friends of Bethany Congregational UCC of San Antonio serve a meal Under the Bridge. Art Von Gruenigen photo.
Every so often, someone asks Ellen Ott which church she attends. Ott, a no-nonsense, retired Army nurse, just laughs.
"I tell them I attend the church under the bridge," she says.
Under the Bridge is the name of the project Ott started back in 1988 when she noticed that local shelters and services didn't provide hot meals on Sundays. Ott wanted to fill the gap. But how?
Under the Bridge began when Ott lugged home a 40-pound bag of dry pinto beans to prepare the first meal. She enlisted help from friends to help soak the beans (in a bathtub), cook the beans (neighbors up and down the street offered use of their stoves), then transport the beans (in heavy- duty trash bags) under the bridge of a San Antonio, Texas, interstate.
Thus began the Under the Bridge project, with a hearty meal of cold pinto beans, sliced white bread and pears.
Since then, Ott has learned to cook. She's also found more friends to help feed the nearly 100 people who show up each Sunday for a hot meal. An ecumenical mix of faith communities take turns preparing, transporting and serving the meal to whomever is willing to wait in line.
One such group is Bethany Congregational UCC of San Antonio, where youth members of the church planned, prepared and served a meal under the bridge for 110 guests. For 16-year-old Kathryn Stribley, the experience erased some of the stereotypes she had heard about needy men and women.
"Just because they're going through hard times doesn't mean they don't appreciate a kind word and smile from us," says Stribley.
This kind of reaction warms the heart of Ott, who knows the servers benefit just as much as the guests.
And the guests don't eat beans anymore. Recent menus have included meatloaf and mashed potatoes, even chicken parmesan and spaghetti.
Being reliable to the people who need a meal is Ott's first priority, make no mistake about that. In the 13 years she has coordinated the Sunday meals, Ott has only missed one Sunday in 1998—because of a flood.
Sometimes I think, "Why am I doing this?" laughs Ott. "Then God will kind of pat me on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, you're not doing this for you.'"
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