It can be as simple as allowing overnight parking in the church parking lot, or as complicated as taking on city hall
December 23, 2022
Churches in the Presbytery of Denver are reaching out to their neighbors without homes in traditional and even system-altering ways, including a successful effort to get the Aurora City Council to alter zoning on a tract of land to permit development of much-needed affordable housing in what’s become the seventh most expensive place in the nation to own or rent a home.
A recent edition of Being Matthew 25, which can be seen here or here, explained how churches helped change the community’s zoning laws requiring more expensive single-family homes, explained in a video that can be seen here. The Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and DeEtte Decker, acting senior director of the PMA’s communications ministry, co-hosted the hourlong broadcast. Two guests were featured: the Rev. Dr. Dee Cooper, lead presbyter for the Presbytery of Denver, and the Rev. Sheri Fry, the interim pastor at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Northglenn, Colorado.
The presbytery has established a Matthew 25 team. Cooper quoted one of the team members, the Rev. Louise Westfall, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Denver, on why people want to be involved in the Matthew 25 invitation: “This is not just a program,” Westfall said. “This is a movement, the church embodying and embracing real and relevant issues and addressing the barriers and the injustices that we face as we live into the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
“We can’t just focus on direct care without looking at why it’s happening,” Cooper said.
“Having a home is essential,” said Moffett, who served churches for more than 30 years before being elected to lead the PMA in 2018. Even systems designed to help people living on the margins, such as states expanding Medicaid eligibility, are often “set up in a way that denies human dignity.”
Decker said she once served a downtown church that ministered to a large population of people without homes. “We had a feeding center, and we began to build relationships with these folks,” Decker said. “I learned the system was stacked against them.”
In fact, we often “objectify people who don’t have a home” or access to proper nutrition, Moffett said. “They become things, not people.”
“We see them as projects. Even actions of kindness come from objectifying and not seeing the whole child of God,” Cooper said. “I think that comes from a place of fear.” For many of us, the loss of a job or a sudden serious medical issue might place us in a similar situation, Cooper said.
“Instead of dealing with that reality [of being without shelter], we talk about proving and demonstrating why they deserve to have a home,” Cooper said.
Fry talked about Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church’s months-long effort to convince its neighbors that opening its parking lot at night for people to stay safely in their vehicles was a good idea. Guests are vetted by the church and by government officials.
The church held four sessions to listen to their neighbors’ concerns. Fry said much of the opposition “came out of fear and not knowing anyone experiencing homelessness.” At first, neighbors suspected the people in the parking lot were drug dealers or were being bussed in from Denver. “We heard a lot of NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard],” Fry said. “At the last listening session, I invited the loudest voices to come join us. We created a program with regular check-ins, and [the neighbors] began to come on board, but it took nine or 10 months.”
A few months ago, church members invited a woman named Mary to transition from living in her car to living in a room at the church. “We have learned a lot from Mary,” Fry said. “She invites people and provides hospitality to people. … We have learned a lot about her life, and she has learned a lot about us. It makes a difference to not be so scared of people who don’t have a home, to open our hearts and minds to folks having to live differently.”
“It’s a slow process, but it’s working,” Fry said. “It’s changing our neighborhood and our church, and it’s changing Mary as well.”
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Being Matthew 25 congregations
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Holy and Eternal God, the church is your church, the mission is your mission, the power is your power and the glory is your glory. Grant today that we may be equipped for every good work, growing in the knowledge of God. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.