I’m writing this note from the FBC Social Hall. It’s 2:23 am as I begin typing. Next to me is Ian Sutherland, on Winter Break from his studies at Portland State University. It’s his first night volunteering at FBC’s overnight warming shelter. We’re working the 12-4 am shift. When we took over from the 8 pm-12 am crew, we brought in one guest who’d been wandering outside, shivering. He came in at our invitation, signed his name on our intake form, set out a cot and some blankets, and joined the others who’d already bedded down for the night.
It’s a pretty easy shift so far. Most of our guests have been asleep since long before we arrived. We’re here as supervisors, help for anyone who might wake up and need directions to the bathroom, or coffee, or someone to talk to. But mostly we listen to soft snoring, find an extra blanket if there’s a request, and read our books.
This is the fourteenth night the Social Hall has been open this season as an overnight warming shelter. The Matthew 25 Committee makes the decision to open on very cold and/or very wet nights, following the forecast as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (www.noaa.gov). There are about forty people on our volunteer list, mostly FBCers but some from the wider community, too. It takes at least six volunteers a night to be open, two at each of the three four-hour shifts.
Some background: Not quite ten years ago, a McMinnville woman died from exposure after being outside overnight. Local churches came together to launch CWISH, a community shelter that would operate during inclement weather. Five churches, each with their own volunteer bases, took turns hosting. More volunteers from other churches came as “roamers” assist to the host churches. Cots, blankets, and other supplies traveled to host locations, and those who needed to spend the night indoors had an option to do so.
Two winters ago, the Yamhill County Gospel Rescue Mission expanded their facility, and said they’d be able to host anyone who needed a bed during inclement weather. They lifted their clean and sober rule for these cold/wet nights, and promised that anyone not causing a disturbance was welcome. With this expanded capacity and openness at the Mission, CWISH ceased its operations and directed its former guests that way.
But this year, FBC is opening again, only on these dangerously cold nights, because there are some people who will not stay at the Mission. There’s a variety of complicated reasons for that, and we are actively trying to see how our guests’ misgivings about the Mission can be addressed; some appear to be legitimate concerns about mistreatment, and some concerns appear to be based on unfounded rumors or assumptions. We are in a process of learning more from our guests and from Mission staff and board members. We are not in competition with the Mission. Our goal is the same as theirs: safe shelter for everyone in our community. The chair of the Matthew 25 Committee, Paul Kushner, has visited the Mission to learn more about how they operate. The Mission director, Kaye Sawyer, has offered to be a resource to us; she’s also asked if our volunteers might also be willing to help out at the Mission. Possibilities for partnership exist.
But while we’re in this learning process, it’s cold outside, so we are committed to being open for those people who will stay here. Tonight there are seventeen of them. Tonight’s volunteers have brought guests’ bikes and backpacks inside, brewed coffee, and fried up some ham. In the morning they’ll set out English muffins and peanut butter and jelly; they’ll slowly turn on the lights and gently rouse the guests; they’ll help fold blankets and stack cots back in the corner. In days to come, some of these same volunteers, and others not here tonight, will advocate with our city council and in other community meetings for a more comprehensive look at how McMinnville cares for the most vulnerable among us.
I pray for the day when we do not need to open again. Until then, every time we do, it is such a gift to see the face of Jesus, hear the voice of Jesus, in every guest who arrives; to know the hands and feet of Jesus at work in every volunteer who serves; to experience the body of Christ made whole in these interactions. Thank you, church, for your heart for this potentially life-saving ministry.