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Bread, boots and blankets | Churches provide shelter for homeless during cold snap

The temperatures were cold, drastically cold. Records were being set all over the Upper Midwest as a “Polar Vortex” swept into Minnesota in early January. Highs for several days never approached zero, and lows hovered in the teens and 20s below zero for the metro area.

Gov. Mark Dayton even canceled school across the state on Monday, Jan. 6; many schools called off classes the following day as well.

While many Minnesotans put on an extra coat or turned up the heat or just stayed inside, thousands of homeless vied for shelter beds and did everything they could to gather provisions for the cold snap.

For several churches in NE Minneapolis, the record cold snap was an opportunity to partner together and demonstrate the Body of Christ.

On Sunday morning, Jan. 5, the Rev. Becky Hanson, pastor of Community Care at Elim Church, and others had already made the decision to open up an around-the-clock emergency shelter for those without permanent homes.

“We are in regular communication and friendship with those who are experiencing homelessness,” Hanson said. “So for us to open the emergency shelter, it was an extension of the work that Elim has already said to the Lord, ‘Yes, we will do this; we will partner with you in this.’”

For several years, Elim has operated Hope Avenue, which provides breakfast, showers, free clothing, Bible studies and other necessities for those experiencing homelessness. The ministry typically operates on Sunday mornings and regularly sees 200 people participate.

The ministry, however, doesn’t usually offer overnight stays.

“We started out with three people off the street who were homeless and living under a bridge and decided to do a small Bible study,” said Duane Metz, site coordinator. “That led to somebody bringing in coffee and donuts, and somebody bringing in a toaster and somebody bringing in a waffle iron. That grew to our breakfast ministry that we have now, seven years later, which can be as many as 200, 250 people for breakfast on a Sunday morning.”

On Sunday, Jan. 5, when the record cold snap was in its early stages and several days of frigid weather would follow, “We said ‘yes’ to opening the shelter,” Hanson said. The shelter remained open through Wednesday.

 Body of Christ
“As a pastor, I take real seriously the Ephesians 4:12 verse that tells me as a pastor my job is to raise up the Body of Christ for the work of the ministry,” Hanson said.

To her, that meant telling others about the shelter and asking for help.

Elim Church is part of Mission Northeast, a partnership of more than a dozen churches in the area who collaborate in ministry and on projects.

When the decision was made to open the shelter, Hanson communicated to others in Mission Northeast just what they were doing.

“When we made the announcement that we would open our space and run an emergency shelter here, Mill City [Church] took it upon themselves to notify everybody else,” Hanson said. “It was a collaborative effort of this neighborhood.”

The Rev. Stephanie Williams of Mill City Church communicated the need to her congregation by email, Facebook and Twitter. The response was immediate. They had people donate clothes, buy food and volunteer to staff the church during the four-day ministry.

Williams told of one volunteer who took it upon himself to call several of his friends and notify them that he was stopping by to pick up clothes. When the friends told him they could spare a pair of shoes or a shirt, he told them he expected to pick up much more than that. And he did.

Hanson said when they put out the call for boots, they didn’t expect that by Sunday afternoon they would have 45 pair.

“I had no want for volunteers,” Hanson said. “The churches just came in around us as the mortar. The shelter was open 24/7. It was open at night in the event that somebody came to the door. We didn’t have sleeping bags; we didn’t have mats. That was the Body of Christ that brought all of that stuff to us.”

Each night, the temporary shelter at Elim Church averaged between 20 and 25 people who stayed overnight.

Hanson and Williams believe churches in other cities and neighborhoods can do similar partnerships and outreaches.

For those who are considering such a move, Hanson said, “We would encourage them to come over and meet us. We started not knowing what we were doing. Had no idea. We, however, knew that this was not a call that God gave to me. This was a call that Elim Church heard.”

The impact of churches coming together in efforts like this can have far-reaching consequences, Williams believes.

“When the churches come together in unity and say, ‘Yeah, we’re different, and we might even have some really important differences but that doesn’t mean that we can’t work together to love people in Jesus’ name and that no matter what happens, if we do that together, people who have never paid attention before [are interested in hearing more about this Jesus].’”

When that happens, the effort becomes more about one particular church or ministry. It’s about Jesus.

“This was the Body of Christ coming together,” Hanson said.

ACTIONPOINT: For more information about Mission Northeast, visit www.missionnempls.org. For more information about Elim Church, visit www.elimchurch.com, and for more information about Mill City Church, visit www.millcitychurch.com.

— by Scott Noble