Fledgling program to take flight

George Bowers, pastor at Antioch Church of the Brethren in Woodstock, stands beside a 15-passenger van donated by First Baptist in Woodstock. The two churches are among 13 area congregations teaming on Family Promise of Shenandoah County, an interdenominational hospitality program that will help area homeless. Josette Keelor/Daily

WOODSTOCK — Friday morning, Pastor George Bowers of Antioch Church of the Brethren in Woodstock popped the hood of a 15-passenger van donated last year by First Baptist Church of Woodstock. Inside was a nest of newborn birds.

Sightless, featherless and entirely dependent on food and protection from their parents, the hatchlings crowded into the temporary home where, by the hospitality of the church, they’ll stay until they’re ready to fly on their own. By autumn, Antioch and 12 other area churches hope to re-purpose the van when they team on a community project that offers homeless families short-term aid that will have high-flying, long-lasting effects.

“We’d like to see that happen this fall,” Bowers said. “It’s going to be some work between now and then, but all things are possible.”

Family Promise of Shenandoah County, a local affiliate of a national interdenominational hospitality program, held its first meeting in Nov. 2013, Bowers said.

During the last year, the fledgling program gained more local interest and on Thursday announced the addition of its 13th partner, Strasburg Assembly of God. The milestone has enabled each congregation to host homeless families with children for a week each quarter, while empowering them to achieve independence and move into affordable, permanent housing. The goal will be to find permanent housing for each family, on average, within 60 days.

Newborn birds nest in the engine of a 15-passenger van at Antioch Church of the Brethren in Woodstock. The van will be used in a new interdenominational hospitality program that will help area homeless. Josette Keelor/Daily

“To be able to achieve the 13th church is a pretty significant step,” Bowers said.

Other partner churches are Saumsville Christian Church, Wakeman’s Grove and Valley Pike Churches of the Brethren, Caroline Furnace Camp partnering with Emanuel Lutheran Church, Lebanon Lutheran Church, Strasburg Christian Church, St. John Bosco Catholic Church, the Mitchell Family partnering with St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Restoration Fellowship Church in Strasburg and Mt. Hermon United Methodist Church in Mount Jackson and St. John’s United Methodist Church in Edinburg.

Besides hosting families on-site and providing dinner and breakfast, churches plan to help support a family center in a vacant Woodstock building previously occupied by the Shenandoah Community Health Clinic, where families may shower, do laundry and attend job training sessions, receive assistance with child care and gain skills like money management. The program also aims at helping families obtain permanent housing and employment, and Antioch’s van will help with transportation.

Hoping to develop connections with community agencies that partner with the Department of Social Services, Bowers said he expects to obtain referrals from sources like Shenandoah County Public Schools on which families could use the help.

Over the last year, he’s learned of 49 school children classified as homeless — 29 of whom are still considered homeless. For every school-age child, he said it’s likely there is at least one younger child in the family also homeless, meaning about 60 county children and their parents could benefit from the program if it opened today.

At one planning session, he recalled, a Strasburg resident shared her experience living in her car for a time. “And just to be able to find shower facilities is a challenge,” Bowers recalled her saying. “To be able to prepare students for school each day and to get them there and back can be a challenge.”

Although the program will be housed on church property, Bowers said evangelism is not the overall goal. Instead, he said, it’s to offer an interdenominational effort that brings together so many in the community for a like-minded purpose.

“We are attempting to be the hands and feet of Jesus,” Bowers said. “[To help families] get back on their feet and show them the love of Christ at work.”

Family Promise meets monthly, with its next meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. June 30 at Valley Pike Church of the Brethren, north of Woodstock. Prayer is at 6 p.m. with an orientation for newcomers at 6:30 p.m.

For more information, call 540-459-3661.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com