Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Tearful Goodbye to our Guests, until Next Year
Jill and I would often take the boys to visit her parents. At the end of our visit, as we packed the van and loaded our little ones into car seats, Jill's mom would get a tear in her eye. She loved having us there, and it hurt to say goodbye.
Today, Wednesday, March 31, is the last day of our homeless shelter guests being with us. They will spend one more night in the warmth and shelter of the Fellowship Hall. Then, tomorrow, Maundy Thursday, April Fool's Day, the shelter staff and volunteers will pack up the cots, dividers, and equipment and store it away until next January. The shelter guests will walk back out our doors into the world, most of them unsure about where to spend the nights ahead.
This shelter season was already different and odd. We weren't able to serve and share meals with our homeless guests. We haven't been able to spend time with them, getting to know their names and stories, or read stories to any children. We haven't been able to provide or connect them with laundry services, or showers, or a warm dry place to spend the day. Most public spaces they have normally used during the day, like the library, are still closed due to COVID-19.
Some mornings, especially the coldest or wettest ones, a few of our guests have lingered at the benches by the church doors to the Narthex. The overhang there provides some shelter from rain or sun. The sidewalk there is warm and dry thanks to the heated defroster installed underneath the concrete.
Sometimes, we have said hello to them, asked their names, brought them a warm cup of coffee or snack, invited them to stay for worship or to use the tables in the Garden. Other times, we have shooed them back into the world to make room at the doors for the Remote Learning Hub kids or other arriving church members and guests.
I am proud of this church for opening the doors and the Fellowship Hall one month a year to these homeless guests. I'm grateful to hear the history of serving them meals and showing warm hospitality.
Today though, I have a tear in the corner of my eye. As we say goodbye, I am aching for our guests. Emergency shelter one month a year is something, but it doesn't feel right to me to send these guests away from our doors, away from our shelter, to make room for Easter festivities.
My prayer today is a vision of something beyond shelter one month per year.
I can imagine a PREVENTATIVE fund that helps people stay in homes, that helps cover rent, utilities, or other bills that might cost them their home if left unpaid. (expand the Good Neighbor Fund) I can imagine an EMERGENCY shelter that operates 12 months a year and welcomes families without separating them, feeds them, and brings essential services to them. (Perhaps, the Good Neighbor House?) I can imagine TRANSITIONAL housing, very low cost, perhaps Tiny-homes, where families regain some independence and have community and communal support nearby. (Good Neighbor Village?) I can imagine AFFORDABLE full-size apartments with different entry rules than most landlords to easily welcome those recovering from homelessness. (Good Neighbor Apartments?) I can imagine an OWNERSHIP initiative, where affordable homes are renovated to be safe and clean, and apartment residents are assisted overtime to become vested homeowners. (Good Neighbor Residences?)
In the months ahead, I hope to start many different conversations that lead toward this vision. I pray for the inspiration and courage of CVMA (Chester Valley Ministers Association), this church, and others in our community to design, fund, and build a more comprehensive safety net for the homeless among us before next year comes. Will you pray with me for this vision?
Deuteronomy 15:11 - Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I, therefore, command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert