By George Bowers Sr.
Hebrews 13:2 tells us to offer hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some have entertained angels without even knowing it. I wonder how many angels I have turned away over the years. Let me share a program that provides a good structure to welcome angels as well as fellow humans.
Over the last several months, there has been much discussion about homelessness in our area. Thankfully, some folks provided lodging for the men of tent city and thankfully those offers were finally accepted. Even though this problem has been resolved temporarily, it still does not solve the ongoing issue of homelessness in our community.
We are so blessed by the work of the Shenandoah Alliance for Shelter, which has been operating in our county for many years. They have provided housing to many families. The tireless efforts of the staff and volunteers do much to provide immediate and long-term assistance to many. Their work is often unseen and unnoticed, but is vital to our community and their recent award by the Shenandoah County Chamber is well deserved.
Unfortunately, at this time the Alliance cannot house additional families due to limited space. To help address increasing needs, several churches have begun to organize a Family Promise Affiliate for Shenandoah County. This interdenominational network of churches and individuals seeks to provide temporary housing for families in crisis. In addition, the long-term goal of SAS is to provide permanent supportive housing while Family Promise will provide temporary transitional housing. The two programs will not compete, but complement each other.
Family Promise needs 13 congregations to agree to host up to five families in their church buildings one week each quarter. Families arrive each evening, eat supper, pack lunches for the next day and spend the night. After breakfast, they are transported to a day center from which children are picked up for school and parents are taken to work. At the end of each week, the cots are moved to another congregation and the hosting repeats.
For the unemployed, job and career counseling is provided to move them toward self-support. The goal is to get each family into permanent housing that they can afford as quickly as possible. Nationally, Family Promise affiliates see more than 70 percent of families served move into long-term sustainable housing in an average of 64 days.
Such a program not only benefits the families but also the churches that host them. This provides many hands-on ministry opportunities for all ages. Some can prepare meals while others babysit, clean or play games. Since most of the food and materials are donated, the cost to each congregation is negligible. Showers and laundry are all handled at the day center so most churches would incur minimal preparatory expense.
Family Promise potentially saves the county government millions of dollars in that no new facilities are needed since existing church buildings are utilized. This is not an effort to compete with nor replace any existing group or agency but to complement what is already offered and to provide for anticipated needs. An additional benefit of Family Promise is their proven track record of helping families in 182 existing affiliates across the United States. They provide an organizational framework for us to help folks at minimal expense. Only 1.5 percent of the local operating budget is requested by the national organization and only after we are up and running for a year. This is less than $1,500 annually.
Family Promise has worked in all kinds of communities, from large cities to rural counties much like our own. The two common elements include families in need and congregations with a heart for hands-on ministry. Implementation is also locally directed because we here in Shenandoah County can best determine how to help our neighbors.
At present, more host congregations are needed in Shenandoah County as is a day center. In addition, a 15 passenger van is needed to transport families to and from churches, jobs, appointments, etc. If readers know of possibilities for any of these, please call 540-459-3661.
The next informational and organizational meeting for Family Promise will be held at the Strasburg Presbyterian Church on Holliday Street at 6:30 p.m. March 4. All are welcome to attend, ask questions, and volunteer for committees.
Thanks to all who are working to serve the homeless and less fortunate and may God continue to bless and guide us as we seek to provide hospitality to both incognito angels as well as fellow humans. Blessings, George
George Bowers Sr. is the pastor of Antioch Church of the Brethren in Woodstock and the author of four books, including his latest book of poetry, "Wit and Wisdom of the Woods." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.