FOR I WAS HUNGRY AND YOU FED ME, A STRANGER AND YOU WELCOMED ME by Priest Aaron Warwick

feedingI commend Orthodoxy in Dialogue for once again offering an opportunity for your readers to give alms to the homeless during this Nativity Fast through your 3rd Annual Feed the Homeless on Christmas Campaign. All of us Orthodox Christians certainly understand the importance of ministering to the homeless as emphasized in the Gospel from St. Matthew (25:31-46) on the Sunday of the Last Judgment.

I thank you also for your gracious offer to allow me to write about another ministry to the homeless, one that I hope other Orthodox churches will consider exploring. The opportunity presented itself to our St. Mary Church (AOCA) in Wichita a few years ago.

In 2016, our parish committed to being a host church with an organization called Family Promise of Greater Wichita. This local chapter of Family Promise will be one of over 200 Family Promise affiliates nationwide. Since 1986, Family Promise has been working with churches to provide shelter and training to homeless families. You can learn more about them on their national website. We at St. Mary are excited to partner with this worthy organization, and we hope that other Orthodox churches will look to participate with or begin a local chapter. After introducing you and your readers to the Family Promise model, I will let you know some ways you might be able to help.

Family Promise specializes in housing and training temporarily homeless families. To be “temporarily” homeless means that certain circumstances led to the homelessness (e.g., loss of job, medical bills, divorce). This is different from “chronic” homelessness, where a person is homeless for a long period of time, normally due to mental illness and/or drug abuse. While referring “chronically” homeless to other local agencies, Family Promise works with temporarily homeless families referred by organizations such as the Red Cross. Unlike most homeless shelters, Family Promise only accepts families. In other words, to be part of Family Promise’s program, the homeless person must have at least one child living with them. No single men or women without children are allowed into the program. Thankfully, most communities do have other shelters that serve single people, and the local Family Promise affiliates will refer people to them as necessary.

Once families pass a rigorous screening process and make a formal, written commitment to complete the Family Promise program, they enter the Family Promise community. The community is centered around the “Day Center.” The Day Center provides the families with a permanent address, access to showers, computers for job searches and classes, and other basic needs. It is from the Day Center that children will be shuttled to school and adults to work. While in the program, families bank 80% of their income with Family Promise to hold for them to obtain permanent housing once they “graduate” from the program.

In addition to the Day Center, thirteen communities of faith (predominantly, Christian churches) serve as a “Host Church.” The host churches each agree to host the families for one week each quarter (i.e., four times per year). During the host week, families will arrive at the host church around 6:00 pm. The host church is responsible for providing a warm dinner to the families. There are never more than 14 total people in the program at one time, so this is quite manageable. After dinner, families may retreat to their own private room (we host families in our Church School rooms) or can interact with volunteers at the church. At 9:00 p.m., lights are out and each person is able to sleep in a cot provided by Family Promise. In addition to the family members, two volunteers will stay overnight at the church. In the morning, a continental breakfast provided by host church volunteers is served early in the morning. The families will then leave the Host Church for the Day Center in time to allow volunteers who spent the night to get to work or do whatever else they have planned during the day.

Another level of participation available to churches who partner with Family Promise is to serve as a “Support Church.” These churches are unable to serve as a Host Church, but do provide support, usually in the form of volunteers, to an assigned Host Church. In short, Support Churches are there to pick up the slack for churches who have the space to host, but cannot provide enough volunteers for an entire week.

Our parish committed to being a Host Church because we believe it allows us to use our facility in a manner that glorifies God and puts into action the teachings of Holy Scripture (again, the lesson from the Sunday of the Last Judgment most especially comes to mind). My hope in sharing this article with Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s readers is that other Orthodox Christians and churches will consider partnering with Family Promise to help local families in need. Of course, for the non-Orthodox Christian readers of Orthodoxy in Dialogue, we hope you will consider helping or starting a local affiliate as well!

One of my favorite aspects of Family Promise is that we are able to interact with the families. Although there are many worthy causes, it sometimes seems stale to simply send money to an organization and never meet the people they serve. With Family Promise, we are “up close and personal” with the families. We also often see families who graduated from the program years later, still doing well (in fact, 100% of the graduates from the Wichita program are still in permanent housing). We see them, and even help some of them, earn a GED. We watch their kids grow up and go to college. One of the families has even spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with our family because their daughter and one of my daughters became good friends.

If you would like to learn more about Family Promise, please contact me at fraaron@stmarywichita.org and I will be sure to help you connect with a local affiliate, if one exists. I would also be happy to speak with your local priest about our partnership with Family Promise if that is something that interests him.

I wish you all a blessed Nativity Fast and much success in this year’s campaign for the homeless of Toronto.

Father Aaron Warwick is a parish priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. He holds an MDiv from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and an MA in Philanthropy & Non-Profit Management from the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. He podcasts weekly at Teach Me Thy Statutes.

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“If you cannot see Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the Chalice.”
St. John Chrysostom

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