Commentary: Not joining is choice, not a lack of hospitality

Recently, an article was published in a local weekly newspaper and another, a commentary column by Roger Barbee, was published in the Northern Virginia. Both articles raised the concern in our communities addressing the needs of the homeless. Both sought more involvement from our community in addressing this crucial need. Then both articles raised the question of “why aren’t churches doing more for the homeless?” As a pastor of a local church, I would like to respond.

I concur with both the educator and the reporters that more can and should be done to assist those who are struggling in this difficult economy. As a pastor, I am well familiar with the financial crisis that many now find themselves, especially those who were on the edge of solvency before the economy crashed. Both articles assert that not enough churches are committed to the new Family Promise program for homeless families (only seven of the necessary 13). But their conclusion suggests that the reason for insufficient church support is due to a general lack of “practicing hospitality.” I would like to offer a different reason, based on my own experience.

For my congregation, not participating in Family Promise is a choice, not a sign of apathy. We sent representatives to the first community meeting introducing the program. The literature provided by Family Promise was studied by our church’s mission leaders, and we considered the limits of the program (i.e., homeless families but not individuals). We considered the space that we would need and concluded that our facility is significantly inadequate. We also reflected upon the number of volunteers needed and realized that ours are already heavily committed. So, we chose to decline — not because Family Promise is a bad program or because we lacked concern for the homeless. Primarily, we chose not to participate in Family Promise because we are already addressing many other needs — needs that are not addressed by Family Promise.

Dealing with poverty requires a multifaceted approach. About 20 percent of our church’s offerings go to missions and about 70-80 percent of our volunteers are involved in some form of local mission. As their pastor, I am very proud of what they are doing.

We have a “Lend-a-Hand” ministry for helping individuals and families needing assistance with their utilities. Over the winter months we will average about 20 calls a week and disperse approximately $2,000 a month in this ministry. We often coordinate our efforts with both the Shenandoah Alliance for Shelter and the Valley Christian Outreach, which work to provide long-term solutions with folks in need.

In the cold of winter, we have mission dinners during Lent where we collect supplies and receive donations for six local ministries. In the hot days of August, we have 60-70 volunteers run a food booth at the Shenandoah County Fair for the sole purpose of raising mission funds for five to six local groups.

Also during the summer, we join with Mt. Olive United Methodist Church in their REACH program, which provides meals and activities for children who are on the free-lunch program in school. Altogether in a typical year, our congregation provides some level of help to the Volunteer Farm, Shenandoah County Free Clinic, A Small Hand, Shenandoah County Pregnancy Center, Bread of Life (Woodstock), Compassion Cupboard (Strasburg), the Response shelter, and ShenPaCo Industries. All told, I consider this to be a significantly dynamic response to poverty in our area, especially considering the size of our congregation.

I hope that Family Promise finds the support that it seeks. Perhaps it can turn to some of the local civic organizations that also have volunteers and space. I hope that homeless families will receive the care they need. I hope that our community will do more to practice hospitality to all of the marginalized. But for now, I am satisfied that my congregation is making a resolute effort (and has been for 135 years) to address as many aspects of poverty that we can.

The Rev. Robert M. Throckmorton Jr. is pastor of Toms Brook United Methodist Church.