I always first begin with the liturgy for the week. Everything flows from God so why not begin with the word of our Lord? Especially during this time between the celebratory nature Christmas and Epiphany and that of Easter and Lent, we are overwhelmed with the presence of God.
What a direct connection to Family Promise and to the Corinthians reading! I bear witness to God’s love and spiritual gifts daily. I see God’s love when we pray before board meetings, at our annual breakfast when 260 people gather and you can hear a pin drop during our graduates’ testimonies. I see God at work when volunteers and families are unknown to each other on Sunday and by the following weekend, a transformational relationship has unfolded.
Family Promise prevents and ends homelessness for families by engaging faith-based congregations, volunteers and donors. Words are powerful; the families are not “homeless families”- they are experiencing homelessness. They are so much more than their current circumstances, as we all are. They are families with children. We remain, in 2016, the only provider of shelter that keeps families together; we do not split dads from the family and we will serve all ages of children. We prevent and end homelessness by engaging the faith community. It is the donors and volunteers who make it happen. Enter spiritual gifts and being the hands and feet of our Lord. And…as with true transformational relationships, the line between who is “served” and who is “helping” is truly blurred.
While I was preparing for this, and looking for inspiration everywhere, I received the email from the volunteer who coordinated our family move this past Friday. Ashley and her two children, whom you met in December when you hosted, moved into a three bedroom apartment in Newark. The volunteers secured furniture and moved it in with Ashley. There was a picture attached of over 10 people smiling, some sitting on a couch and some standing behind it. If you had no idea about the Family Promise ministry, this could have been a family reunion photo or a motley crew of friends gathered together for a brunch. There was no distinction between “us” and “them”, “guest” and “volunteer”, “homeless client” and “agency workers”. In the picture, there was only gratitude, hopefulness and a love that connects us all through our spiritual gifts.
I recall vividly the moving in experience of one family in particular this past year. Alreise and Yarelis was a married couple with two beautiful little children. You hosted this family on just their second week in their network. They were in another part of the state and had no other options, as both had lost employment. We did the majority of our intake process over the phone because we knew if they made the drive up, they were most likely going to stay. Some said, what a leap of faith you took, Carolyn! But look at it from their perspective. They were driving to another county; a half of tank of gas was not a luxury they could afford to waste. When they arrived, they were timid and overwhelmed, though not quite fearful. Within an hour of arriving, they were told, “take these pillows and hop on that van, you’re going to the hosting church”. Talk about the trust-faith- this family had in Family Promise but really had to have in God.
That very first van driver who met Alreise and Yarelis could have approached his role as just, “this is just what I do on Tuesday night” and called it a day. Maybe his wife put him up to it. Or, he could see that he is serving the Lord in this capacity; that he is part of a larger group of change agents, disciples working together to end homelessness. He could realize the magnitude of his role, that if he didn’t show up, this group of children and their parents would not eat dinner and the network would fall apart. If he did not show up, or on time, the families could say, “see, the world is not a good place”.
The van driver, or we now can say, disciple with spiritual gifts, said to Alreise and Yarelis that first ride, “Welcome” in the most, heartfelt sincere way. They knew they belonged. That is sharing one’s spiritual gift and that is what the volunteers of Family Promise – what YOU do. The families are left transformed. Anxieties, fears melt away and hope and trust move in.
And, it is not just the families who are transformed.
Time and again, volunteers who are actively engaged and get their role of providing exceptional and radical hospitality, say they are forever changed too, that, they “get more out of this ministry than the families do”. What a powerful statement! The families secure employment and get housing. They receive financial support, clothing, food and have all their basic needs met while in the program. How does a volunteer get more than that? A volunteer may serve a home cooked meal, sleepover, attend our fall breakfast or walk our 5K in June. How does this measure up against getting faith restored and housing in place? Perhaps it’s because had you not done these things, the 150+ families we serve annually would not reach lasting independence. We talk about how good that feels to know you made a difference, but we need to also talk about the responsibility we have to share our spiritual gifts, to be disciples, to serve. The bible reminds us that we cannot hide our light under a bushel.
You might have spiritual gifts you are not even aware of until put into a situation. Family Promise is an opportunity to stretch, even challenge yourself. Serving is not always comfortable. Ashley moved to the third floor apartment on Friday. Carrying the furniture up the flights of stairs was literally not comfortable. Sleeping on an aerobed and getting up by 5:30am on a weekday may be a challenge. Your belief systems might be tested, but you realize the depth of your grace is a deeper well than you realized. You may never have thought you could handle 9 children under the age of 8 but you find out that patience is one of your spiritual gifts.
Sharing of our spiritual gifts is guided by what is needed. What is needed should dictate what we give. If a family is in need of employment support, job leads, a mentor do practice interviews, financial support to go back to school will help. Clothing, prayer or food will not fill this need. As much as I love casseroles and I believe ketchup is God’s gift to the culinary world, this is not necessarily the case for everyone else. The preferences of our families and cultural factors should influence what we serve for dinners.
Each one of you has spiritual gifts, whether it is time, treasure or talent. The Corinthians passage illuminates that, “to each person, the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all”…We all benefit. There are different ministries, different gifts, different results, but always, always the same Lord.
By the end of this year, you will have hosted 88 families. You will have set up beds, served dinners and driven the van for over 308 and children and their parents. Your financial contributions, item donations are leveraged because we serve even more families than these you meet. There’s Lerone, a single father of 3 including a child with special needs. He never spent a night in Family Promise but received financial support and so he could get out of motel and into a place of his own. There was Takima and her three children. She just wrote us an email, thanking Family Promise for the holiday gifts and help getting into an apartment in Newark. She too was not in Family Promise because we were at capacity.
You also never met Gail, Tammy or Tasha and Damon, all families we were able to keep out of the shelter system with our new “Diversion” program we started last year. The same love, creativity and resources we provide to families in our network, we can now extend to families experiencing a housing crisis and help them get into stable housing before they have to enter the shelter system. Your spiritual gifts extend even to these families. As Damon said when we were delivering furniture to him, “God is Good!” Amen.
I mentioned at the beginning Alreise and Yarelis, who drove up from Southern Delaware and got on that white van driving off to a church within an hour of meeting Family Promise staff. So where are they now? After only 59 days in the network, they moved out to a two bedroom apartment in Claymont. They are both working and their kids are in day care. They wrote a note, saying “We would like to thank you for your kindness and for all you have into helping us in any way you can. We appreciate everything and that god has put us in good hands with very good people. We would love to see you all again now that we have a better outlook, stable and independent. Thank you”. They are at peace and this is what Family Promise success looks like. This happens over and over because you shared your spiritual gifts over and over. Not just as Christmas time. Not just when it’s convenient or easy. Not just out of guilt either. You share your spiritual gifts because it is what we are called to do and it is the right thing to do.