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A Warm Refuge

As we did last year, the Community of Christ congregation in Apple Valley provided space for up to 55 people to have dinner, have a shower, rest, sleep, and have breakfast for about 4 weeks from mid December to mid January. This year, we hit the 55-person maximum most nights, which was an increase overall from the prior year, where 35 - 45 people was the average. The normal daily schedule of having guests from 6 pm to 8 am the following morning was extended to welcome the guests on Christmas, since so many public places where they might have been able to spend the day would be closed.

There were many ways to help support this temporary sheltering initiative that was managed by an agency called Matrix Housing Services -- volunteer shift work, providing a meal, washing laundry and returning it the next day, and donating items on the wish-list. Sign-up Genius was used to manage this. Many people from the community served, not just those in our congregation. Extended families, clubs, church groups, and groups of friends came together to provide meals.

We continued to hold choir practice on Wednesday nights in the sanctuary, sharing the space with the guests making their beds along the back. It was exciting to feel the energy in the building as we practiced, and we rather enjoyed having to stand around the piano to practice due to space constraints. We extended the invitation for the guests to join our practice, but they politely refused. However, they did stay and listen as we practiced "Old Church Choir", clapping for us after each run-through of the song. The temporary sheltering initiative welcomed pets to stay with their owners, and as the photo shows, a beautiful white dog sat on the cot, intently watching us practice for the entire hour.

I had the opportunity to volunteer for a few evening shifts, which entailed welcoming people at the door, having them sign-in, making sure they knew about our shower sign-up sheets, and trying to answer any questions that I could. During another shift, I was stationed in the eating area, where it was a pleasure to share in the lovely soup and salad meal made by your team, and to fellowship with the guests. I also would heat-up the leftovers from the evening meal for those arriving later in the evening. Many of the guests would come to the shelter straight from work.

I found it helpful to knit while I sat, the knitting being a way for me to be present and approachable should anyone wish to have a conversation. Many talked about having learned how to knit or crochet in the past, but being unable to remember how to do it now. Two younger gentlemen of Native American heritage shared how their grandmothers had taught them how to make beaded artwork, and the conversations continued to flow from there. Another guest shared about his love of drawing, and showed me his sketches of cars, which led to a very entertaining discussion of cars. We laughed and laughed about our common experience of having the same problems with our Chevy Citations in the 1980's.

Volunteering to wash the common towels, sheets and blankets was another way to support the shelter. Doing this job also illustrated in a very personal way how unpredictable life can be for those experiencing homelessness, when personal belongings were found in the laundry to be washed. The guests have the ability to sign up for future nights, reserving their spot. However, if the guest doesn't return as planned and can't be reached by phone, after a day, that person's spot is picked up so that someone else can use it. As their thin mattress is stripped of its bedding for washing, sometimes their personal belongings hidden in the bedding get mixed in, to be found by the laundry squad volunteer as he or she is loading the washer. You wonder what happened to this person, and pray they are experiencing better days.

Community was experienced in the way the guests looked out for each other, wondering where someone was that would normally arrive by a certain time each night, for example. Community was felt at meals, around the TV in the narthex, around a puzzle in progress, and outside at the smoking station. People shared what they could with each other - cell phones to make a call, cigarettes, information on bus routes, etc. The last night that I volunteered, as I was leaving at 9:30 pm, community was there around a table in the entryway, where two shelter guests, a volunteer, and a staffer were playing a board game together.

It gives me great joy to see our church building shared with this thankful community of people experiencing homelessness!

Questions about the emergency winter shelter or other things happening at Apple Valley? Contact pastor Dan Gregory.

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