Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Serving those in need fosters cooperative ministry

December 9, 2011 02:33 PM

By Pastor John Hagedorn


During the bitter winters of 2003-2005, two Latino men of our community froze to death due to exposure and no safe place to go. The Putnam Community Action Program of Brewster recognized the problem and turned to local congregations to see what could be done. No homeless shelter existed in Putnam County, and a feeling toward immigrant day-laborers was at an historic low.


In January 2006, a Methodist pastor called a meeting of concerned congregations and the Brewster Emergency Shelter Partnership (BESP) was formed. I was asked to chair the informal gathering as we developed our mission statement: “To provide a safe, warm sleeping site for those in need of emergency shelter during the coldest nights of the winter.” Initially, seven congregations decided to join. We chose to rotate our sleeping site weekly to avoid permanent shelter status and to allow the ministry to work with as many congregations as possible.


Over the next several months, we set up a booth at the Annual Brewster Founder’s Day, planned a fundraiser, gathered needed materials, enlisted volunteers, and worked with the three sleeping sites to meet all village code requirements. We conducted a series of prayer walks through the village and held peace services to show our solidarity with those in need. We reached out to denominational funding sources, especially the Metropolitan New York Synod, the Lutheran Crusader Fund, and Catholic Charities. We contacted Latino congregations in the village, worked with the community outreach social worker, found a local deli that volunteered to be our pick-up site, searched for a laundry that would wash sleeping bags and towels, hired bi-lingual overnight supervisors, and placed signs in English and Spanish throughout the village inviting our first guests in December.


The Latino community was leery at first and no guests arrived for weeks. But when local police shut down the sleeping area in the woods where men had been gathering, we received our first four guests. Now, five years later, we still serve those in need of a warm, safe place to sleep. We are open 18 weeks each winter and average up to 12 guests per night. Over the years, the demographics of our guests have changed: we now serve an equal mix of Caucasians and Latinos, males and females. The negative feelings in the community have mellowed; in May of this year, BESP was recognized by the Putnam County Mental Health Association for its work in helping those in need.


Wonderful stories have emerged. A young couple, obviously pregnant, came to our door needing a place to sleep one December night. Of course, they were welcomed--that night happened to be Christmas Eve! One year, a guest from previous seasons came in; we welcomed him back. He made it known that he was not back as a guest: because of the shelter and care we had provided him, he was able to get his life together, get a job, and find a place to live. He had returned to serve BESP as a volunteer. And a neighbor who had initially opposed BESP’s outreach came back three years later, thanked us for our caring work, and offered herself as a volunteer.


Ecumenical and interfaith cooperation has been essential. BESP now has over a dozen faith communities participating—we receive volunteer and financial support from Protestants, Roman Catholics, our local synagogue, and even the nearby Buddhist monastery. Girl and Boy Scout troops, confirmation classes, men’s and women’s groups, private family trusts, and generous individuals have all given their support and resources. Our volunteer force has grown from a few the first year to over 185 people. Volunteers provide food for the evening meal, come and serve the meal, donate hygiene supplies, contribute clothing, purchase cots, make sleeping bags, serve as overnight hosts, and support the staff supervisor. Helping the “least of these” has united people from various denominations and faith groups to provide a cooperative ministry.



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