With Homeless Guests, Our Worship Changed

EUGENE, OR (December 30, 2013) — The Register-Guard ran an article last week by author Kay Marshall Strom, a member of Valley Covenant Church. She recounts what happened earlier this month when the church hosted a warming shelter for the homeless, but then things didn’t go as planned.

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Kay Marshall Strom

Kay Marshall Strom

On a bone-chilling Sunday morning, Valley Covenant Church’s congregation squeezed into the small room we call the Gathering Place. Despite icy roads and frigid temperatures, friends and fellow worshipers pushed together shoulder to shoulder with visitors and strangers who slipped in to escape the cold.

Yes, our church does have a sanctuary. Quite a nice one, in fact, comfortable and warm. This past summer we reluctantly went into debt to replace the aging, worn-out furnace with a dependable new one. We made this decision for our own comfort, yes, but also because on cold nights, when the temperature dips below freezing, our church is one of the hosts for the Egan Warming Center.

We volunteer our time and resources to welcome the homeless to come and spread their sleeping bags out across the sanctuary’s carpeted floor and get a safe night’s sleep. We wanted to be certain the room would be warm for them.

We don’t usually volunteer our church on Saturday nights, though, because we need the sanctuary early Sunday morning for our worship service. How can we worship properly with all the furniture moved out and nothing set up as it should be?

But that Saturday night was different. Practically the entire country was caught up in the icy grip of a bitter cold snap. Everyone was suffering. Here in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the temperature didn’t manage to climb above freezing for five entire days.

Snow had started falling Friday morning, and by nightfall it registered eight inches. That night, with snow covering roads and piled high in drifts, the temperature plunged to 7 degrees below zero. The forecast warned of even colder temperatures to come­down to 10 below, the weather guy said. No one should be out on a night like that!

We would have to worship with scruffy people rousing themselves from our sanctuary floor. Hopefully they wouldn’t hang around and disturb our service. And, oh, we would so miss the comfort of our toasty warm new furnace!

Our Advent text for the morning was Romans 13:4-13 where the Apostle Paul admonishes us to pray that God would give us “the same attitude of mind that Jesus had,” and that with one voice we would “accept one another just as Christ accepted you.”

Jesus’s mind and attitude? Let’s see: He welcomed the poor and the lonely. He turned his back on accepted religious behavior and invited himself to eat dinner with the socially unacceptable. He touched the untouchable, loved the unlovable, placed inestimable value on the unworthy. And never once did he argue for his own comfort.

Jesus was born in a barn. His first crib was an animal feeding trough. His first visitors were dirty, smelly shepherds. He roamed the countryside, scruffy and unattractive. He told the religious leaders of his day exactly what he thought of them and all their self-righteous showiness. When they were quick to pass judgment, he stood up to them and insisted, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

To accommodate the warming center, we had to move our carefully positioned Christmas tree. And the other decorations, too—poinsettias and Advent candles and the crèche and all. We had to relocate the Catholic Charities collection barrel and the receptacle for donations to the food pantry and the box of gifts for the Angel Tree children.

Pared down, rearranged, inconvenienced. How could we worship like that?

Perhaps it’s the only way we truly can worship: Stripped of all unnecessary trimmings. Shoulder to shoulder with both friends and strangers. Well-dressed squeezed in next to the worn-out and shabby. Well-groomed praising and praying beside the weary and unwashed.

In the warm glow of the Advent candles, we raised our voices and sang, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

He did.

And he still does. Oh, yes, he still does.

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About the Author

Ed Gilbreath

Edward is an award-winning journalist and author. Besides being the executive minister of Communication at The Evangelical Covenant Church, he is author of Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church and Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity. Ed’s mission, both professionally and personally, is to be a bridge-builder, bringing people together across racial, denominational, and cultural lines.

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4 Comments

  1. Thank you for your report on Christmas celebrated as it should be … Open to all. I’d say “God bless you.” But it seems God already has.

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