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Railroad in Gyula (Hungary)
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As perhaps is normal whenever you start something new, this has been an eye-opening couple of weeks. We have learned things that both encourage and uplift us, and things that also might make it easy for us to become disheartened. My range of emotions about this project has been swinging between ecstatic and completely disappointed, and everything in between.

Looking back at the reasons why we opened this shelter, it could be easy to get discouraged. We were told by our earliest local partner agency that there would be a lot of traffic at our shelter. They had the connections, and knew that there were at least 15 homeless men living on the railroad tracks along the commuter line, just outside Lansdale in the direction toward Philly. When they came to us with this information and asked us to open a shelter, we jumped at the opportunity. What an amazing answer to prayer! What we have discovered since then, however, is that if those men are out there, this particular partner agency does not have a relationship with them. Whether they were overly optimistic about their ability to get the men indoors, or knowingly overstated the truth about their existence, is unclear to me. Needless to say, the result has been rather anti-climactic. What is clear is that we have a lot of relationship-building that needs to be done among the homeless in our area if we ever expect them to trust us enough to come spend the night in our church building.

That is why outreach has become so important. I learned this week that the best time to do outreach and build relationships with members of the homeless community is during the summer. In the summer, homeless people are more visible in public places because of the warmer temperatures. We will need to do some intense outreach during this upcoming summer in order to really know who is out there that we can serve. Only then will we be able to make a decision about the future of our shelter.

The encouraging piece in all of this, however, is that we are helping people. Although the shelter is not getting as much traffic as we had hoped, we have had a few regular guests staying with us. One of those men is struggling with addiction and recovery and spent half the night up talking with me and my colleague one night a few weeks ago. The battle between darkness and light is going on inside him, and he is struggling with letting the light in. Being invited to share in that struggle with him has been a real blessing. Another one of our guests was able to find a more permanent solution to his problems through our shelter. Last Wednesday night he got connected to the county system and is now working toward a more permanent place to live. There is some sort of a healing process that we have noticed that is going on in the people we are keeping warm at night. I am glad we are able to help in some small way.

Another encouraging part of this project is the way that it has brought people from the community together in service to each other. We have been overwhelmed with the outpouring of support from our community–Trinity members and non-members, Lansdale residents, agencies, and even people from other counties! We have gotten checks in the mail. Someone left a bag full of knitted hats on the table in the shelter on Christmas Eve. Cookies and other goodies magically appear during the daytime. A local boy scout troop collected toothbrushes and toothpaste. Youth from a church in the next county over made baked ziti for dinner and brought it down. And then there are the volunteers–so many wonderful people from a variety of faiths and backgrounds, who are coming together under our roof with a common purpose–to serve others by providing a warm, safe place for people to sleep.

Finally, I have been encouraged by our relationships with Manna on Main Street, our local soup kitchen and food pantry, and with CHOC, the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center of Montgomery County. CHOC continues to go above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to the help they are giving us. Their outreach team came out to our shelter again last week and took us out on outreach, this time accompanied by a woman from Lansdale who is living at the permanent shelter in Norristown. She is familiar with the homeless population here, and knew where to look. They are also the ones who are working with several of our guests to help them find more permanent solutions for themselves. The amount of help CHOC continues to give us, and the things they continue to teach us, show me that they will continue to be a valuable partner for us in the long haul. Manna has also asked how they can better partner with us in this project. They probably would have asked earlier, if we had been more diligent in speaking with them up front (check that off in the “things we’ve learned” column). They are excited about the possibilities of this ministry. We are going to begin talking with them about how they can help us build bridges between them, us, and the homeless population in the North Penn area.

When all is said and done, this is an exciting time for our shelter. We have hit a few bumps in the road that could be discouraging, but there are also a lot of good things that are in the works. We just have to keep on learning.

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It actually began well before that in the summer of 2009 when someone in our weekly staff meeting thought it might be a good idea to explore opening our own non-profit so we could receive outside funding for some of the work we’d been doing. It turned out that “should we start a non-profit” to help with ministry would be the starting point of a larger conversation that would end up asking much bigger questions:

  • What needs do people in our community have that are not being met?
  • Who are the agencies who work to help people in need, and what kinds of work do they do?
  • How can we be a part of that work–would our contribution be welcomed, and if so, how can we get busy helping?

We got together a group of people with expertise or interest in the non-profit social service sector, and we started with prayer. We asked God to guide what we firmly believed would be a discernment process.

“God, help us to know what you would have us do. Show us your will. Help us to be your hands in the world.”

We read scripture passages about justice and advocacy: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

And then, after taking care of the spiritual work, we got to the physical work: We canvassed the neighborhood. We asked a lot of questions of a lot of agencies. What we learned was astounding. A public school system where more than 50% of the high schoolers are on subsidized meal plans. Kids who go to bed hungry because parents prefer to spend their money on alcohol than on food. A staggering rate of homelessness and a community that is trying at best to ignore it, and at worst to drive it out of the town limits. An electric company with a corner on the market that is turning off electricity in homes with young children because of overdue balances of under $100. The list went on and on….

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