[Editor's note: Some ten Bethlehem churches and one synagogue are participating in the second year of an emergency sheltering program, coordinated by Bethlehem’s Trinity Episcopal Church. It began in 2008 when Trinity Soup Kitchen staff discovered that there were no emergency shelter beds for people in Bethlehem during a particularly cold period, and people were in danger of freezing. The story below is a snapshot of Friday night when St. Andrew's Episcopal Church on the Allentown/Bethlehem border opens its doors to the homeless. For context, see an earlier story by David Howell.]
By Scott Allen, Jean Evans and Colleen Kram
Last January, when St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania, decided to open their doors to the homeless on Friday nights, we had no idea what we were in for. While it’s a great deal of work and we deal with some difficult personalities who have exhausted the social service networks, we were in for blessings beyond our imaginings. As the priest there, I knew that this is what we are called to be and do by the gospels – but I had no idea of what grace and transformation this ministry would yield.
Recently, I asked one of our parishioners, a retired primary school teacher who is part of our hospitality team, to write a short reflection on her experience that evening (even though she had volunteered many times before). Each time we host is a little different and a snapshot like the one that follows is indicative of a “typical” evening – if there is such a thing – in this sort of hospitality ministry.
Friday Night – January 29, 2010 – Emergency Homeless Shelter Notes –– The tables were set earlier in the week so we planned to arrive at 5:30 to heat up the food and do any other last-minute preparations. I brought some primroses for the tables, Scrabble, and a few newspapers, posted a menu and some behavioral guidelines – always a teacher, I suppose. We had volunteered to make and serve food with another couple, but when we got there others took charge and we didn’t have much to do. There was a need for more sleeping bags so they volunteered to go off to purchase them. Lots of people from the church were in the kitchen just like the first time I came to the shelter last year. We laughed as we scrambled around to make last minute decisions and to heat large quantities of food on the stove and pour it into fancier containers for serving!
The first two guests who arrived around 5:30 were upset about the closing of the state hospital. One of them smelled like he had been drinking beer but we weren’t sure which one. The tattooed younger man in a green cutoff sweatshirt went over and played a few notes on the piano, wanted to know what the entertainment would be, and said he’d rather hear rock music than watch a video. Later, he said we should call the police because an older man who was sitting at a table alone smelled bad.
When the other guests came around 6:30, some read the papers while many went to get snacks, toiletries, and socks. (Chocolate is popular, I learned from last year.) One guest requested a washcloth, which we didn’t have. Then they set up their sleeping bags, found a place at one of the tables, and socialized until dinner was served at 7:00.
Shortly before dinner, J arrived. He was distraught because another woman, who had arrived earlier, was in J’s usual spot and she wasn’t going to “sleep with the enemy.” This upset the other woman. J was counseled to improve her behavior or she would be asked to leave. She stayed.
A prayer before dinner was requested and said by the priest as everyone bowed their heads. Beef stew (it took four days to thaw after being in the church freezer), ham, mac ’n cheese, potato casserole, and bread and butter, four-bean salad, (more on that later) and make-your-own sundaes were served buffet style. The guests ate heartily and many came back for seconds. The man who said he was in too much pain to eat dinner got up to make himself a sundae.
Out of the blue, one of the men got up and accused J of causing trouble. She had some sympathetic supporters. The man with the gunshot and stab wounds said she was bi-polar. The other guests listened to the rant without reacting. They’ve heard it before at the library where they spend their days I was told.
We stayed for a while during the movie and played Scrabble without rules or score keeping with M who was very happy because she was “working her brain.” M remembered playing cards last year. Another man was asked if he wanted to play but he said his mind was too messed up. Then a young man came over and wanted to join in the next game. He proudly showed us his travel Scrabble game. At this point, some of the guests settled into their sleeping bags despite the bright florescent lights and the sounds from Pirates of the Caribbean on the TV but most sat and watched the movie.
When I left, a few of our guests very graciously thanked me. On Sunday after church, the priest, who spent the night, joked about the after-effects of the bean salad he heard during the night i.e. “tooting” as our granddaughter calls it. We may have to ban beans!”
During the night we got two calls asking if we could house women. Homeless women are sometimes far tougher than men as it takes a special woman to burn her relational bridges and options and become homeless. One was an African-American woman referred by a Pentecostal Church in Center City Allentown. The State Police referred the other. She was from an adjacent county, released from the hospital late in the day and had no way of getting home. She had been the victim of a home invasion and had been beaten by the intruders. Friends were caring for her 17-month-old baby as she recovered. We said yes to both.
In the morning its always good to see the breakfast crew arrive and the place being cleaned up. You know you made it through another night without incident and that you provided a warm, caring and safe place for people in our society who don’t have a lot of experience of that during the day.
Another parishioner who stayed over night reflected on her FaceBook page: