The local television station flashed an extreme weather announcement at the bottom of the screen. They encouraged us to cover our plants and to take our animals inside. Frigid temperatures were expected overnight; too cold to be outside.
This was such an ironic message—it was too cold for animals to be outside but a segment of the homeless population endured these extremes nightly. Women and women with children sleeping in doorways, living in cars, or subsisting in makeshift camps.
No shelters for women and children, no reprieve from the cold, no safety from those that would prey on the helpless.
A local church heard about the desperate need and agreed to sponsor an emergency shelter that year. Providing some 100 unique women and women with children a place to sleep, a warm meal, and safety for the night.
The shelter was funded by a group of generous donors, staffed by volunteers and paid professionals, and widely supported by local police and the medical community.
The shelter’s operations followed the weather predictions, nights of below-freezing temperatures—doors opened. Nights when temperatures didn’t dip to freezing, women and children were to be returned to the streets. The women were fortunate; temperatures hovered around the freezing mark from December to March allowing the shelter’s doors to open each night.
Church leadership was excited to have the shelter run from their building. The outreach aligned with the church’s mission, allowing them to be God’s hands and feet to the most vulnerable population in the community. The board longed for a ministry that allowed the congregation to get involved and give selflessly.
Sermons were preached about serving the least of these, invitations were sent to the homeless women to attend Sunday services, women’s events, and children’s church…and then things changed.
When Reality Hit the Church
When you open a shelter, you don’t get to select the people that will enter your doors. Especially when you run a “low-barrier” shelter—a shelter that allows anyone in need to enter regardless of their condition. As long as they can “behave” and are not a harm to themselves or others, all are welcome. High on drugs and alcohol—you can enter. Have significant mental illness—you can come in. Your partner is waiting for you in the parking lot to harm you—you have a home. You have babies, children, dogs, cats—the door is open.
Women were sleeping on the gym floor and those with special needs slept in church offices.
Amanda had been at the shelter for a few weeks. She was hesitant at first but time allowed her to start trusting the volunteers and staff. She had an abusive past, suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and couldn’t sleep in a room with the other women.
Amanda chose to sleep tucked neatly against the wall in the hallway. She needed the security of a wall at her back—safety against her past and protection from her dreams. She pulled her suitcase and duffle bag close, encircling her small body, acting as a barrier from the world. This is where she felt safe.
It was early Tuesday morning. A group of church board members toured the shelter and found the hallway sleeper. Snuggled in a warm sleeping bag, a blanket pulled over her head. She was content.
The tour made its way around Amanda, moving into the gym and then downstairs to the dining room. Along the way, they found children playing, dogs eating breakfast, and women laughing. The tour moved through the building, no words spoken, no greetings offered, no “hands and feet” service. Out the door and nothing was heard from the team until a week later.
The shelter’s director was asked to attend a church leadership meeting to share more information about the program. As she sat in the meeting room, surrounded by church leadership and board members, she knew this would not be an easy conversation.
Instead of being asked to share the status of the program, she was peppered with comments:
“I’m tired of having to step over women in the hallway!”
“We need to make certain these women are out of the building before Sunday service starts, choir practice begins, the preschool children arrive.”
“There were dogs and children everywhere!”
“I don’t think we want these women and children at our services.”
The director looked into the eyes of those in the room—fear, anxiety, and shame staring back.
The pastor confirmed the team’s perspective. “These women are addicts, the children are dirty, and the parking lot is littered with cigarette butts. This is not what I signed up for.”
It’s Not Easy to Be the Hands and Feet
Over the next few weeks, the tone of this meeting repeated. Attempts to raise the monthly rent, a request to limit participants, control entry, and end the program early. Board members walked the building, taking notes. The pastor oscillated between supporting the program and wanting to close the doors. Homeless women were asked not to attend women’s events and Sunday services.
Being God’s hands and feet is not as easy as you may think. Especially, when it challenges our biases or causes us to step outside our comfort zone, the small bubble that protects our lives.
The concept of helping poor homeless women and children had been translated in the church’s mind to a Christmas nativity scene. Beautiful women holding their babies to their breasts, calm, quiet, angelic. But in the real world of homelessness, things are messy, sometimes dirty, and always more complicated than expected.
We are broken people, helping broken people. And in our brokenness, we bring our agendas and misconceptions. All things we are forced to overcome.
The church was well-intentioned. Their heart inclined to serve, but reality hit, stared them in the face, occupied their building, and stood on their doorstep. It was hard—harder than they thought!
“… Love the Lord your God, walk in all his ways, obey his commands, hold firmly to him, and serve him with all your heart and all your soul,” (Joshua 22:5b, NLT).
The cold weather season ended in April. The doors closed and women and children returned to the streets. As the church reflected on the experience, they focused on the challenges. They didn’t see the women who received physical and spiritual food, a warm touch, an encouraging word. They forgot about Amanda, tucked safely in the hallway—content, safe. So many lives touched.
God calls us to step out into uncomfortable, often-challenging situations. And when we are obedient, He provides the strength and courage to do His will. He never says it will be easy. But He does promise it will mature us, grow us, and refine us.
These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world (1 Peter 1:7, NLT).
We each have a calling. That one thing that pulls at our hearts, keeps us awake at night, causes us to drop to our knees. Fueled by our past and our experiences, we have a purpose.
Don’t ignore the passion God has placed in your heart. Please don’t look away when it gets hard, or messy, and even a little dirty.
He has called you.
He will equip you.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of ongoing community support, the emergency shelter operated for only one year. The need for a permanent women and children’s shelter remains great. Women and women with children remain on the street, in camps, and sleeping in cars. They are reluctant to go into coed facilities, fearing the risk of assault.
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