These days, churches offer everything from meals to food pantries to clothing donation locations for people in need in their communities. But what about those who are searching for a little more? What if someone loses everything due to a fire? Do churches have something in place to help those people?
Paoli Presbyterian Church does. One of the missions the church in Chester County near Philadelphia offers is a Furniture Ministry, which provides things like single beds for children, dressers, lamps, small sofas, love seats and kitchen tables and chairs to those in need. It’s an outreach that has been around for roughly 30 years at Paoli PC and one that continues to thrive.
“We try to take furniture that people no longer need or want and get it in the hands of people who desperately need it,” said Tom Infield, the mission coordinator at Paoli PC. “Chester County is the wealthiest county in Pennsylvania, but that’s very deceiving. You don’t have to scratch very far under the surface to find a lot of poverty and a lot of need. You can find pockets of poverty even in the wealthiest communities.”
Roger Devonald, one of Paoli PC’s team leaders who makes the outreach a success, will quickly attest that those receiving the furniture are not the only ones who are benefiting from this ministry.
“This ministry blesses me with the opportunity to abide by His second great commandment to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ and, in doing so, to glorify His name,” Roger said. “Through this ministry, I can help to make His love tangible to people who, because of their situation, might feel that they have been abandoned. We have helped a single mother and her children stay together where they otherwise would have been separated by social services because they had no furniture. We have helped victims of a fire start to establish a new home after losing everything. We have helped a recovering addict start a job and a new life after graduating from a recovery program. We have helped immigrant families who have come to this country to start a new life and home. We have also helped many, who just couldn’t afford to buy new furniture, make their home more comfortable.
“My greatest hope for this ministry is that the people we help come to the realization that they received help because He loves them and is always there for them.”
People with furniture they’re willing to donate contact the church and if there is room in the two converted Sunday School rooms in the church building where the furniture is stored, someone from the congregation will pick up the furniture and bring it back to the church.
“I remember when we first started, we would pick up and deliver on the same night because we didn’t have a storage facility,” Tom said. “At one point we were storing in someone’s private garage.
“Right now we’re inside our church facility. We gave up some space in order to have it on our property because it makes such a difference to have people actually come to the church and connect the ministry directly to the church. They have to actually come into the church, so hopefully that has an impact beyond just the furniture.”
If there isn’t enough space for a donated item, the church will keep that information on file and contact the donor when there is room. People who are in need also call the church to see if what they are looking for is available.
“It gladdens my heart,” Roger said, “to see that, in most cases, the donors not only want something that has been useful to them continue to be useful to someone else, but most truly want their donation to relieve the need of someone who would otherwise be forced to continue to live in need. I can see that, even though they might not be aware, God is working through them to help His children.”
“This is not a shopping service,” Tom added. “People call and the first question we ask them is, ‘What do you need?’ We put them on a list to come. Sometimes there’s a bit of a backlog. People may have to wait a little.”
If a specific piece of furniture is available, interested people can stop by the church on Saturday mornings to check out the items. The people are responsible for taking the furniture from the church to their homes.
“After so many years in the community, we’re widely known by people who are looking for furniture,” Tom admitted. “We’re referred by social service agencies and Christian ministries in our county. We’re also referred by word of mouth from people who have received furniture from us. Also on the donor end there is a lot of word-of-mouth, not just in our church community but also in the larger community.”
There is no screening process when it comes to who is picking up furniture, and while Tom remembers one time seeing some of the church’s furniture that had been given away winding up in a used furniture store, that is a very small concern for the church. He also cautioned against judging a need based on appearance.
“You always have to remember that you can’t judge people’s needs by the way they appear or the car that they drive,” Tom said. “One time we had a very sort of professional Main Line-looking woman who pulled up in a luxury car and was getting minimal stuff for her apartment. We found out that this woman’s apartment building had just burned up and her son had been killed in the fire. You just can’t judge people’s needs. We were able to help her, temporarily at least. If we had just judged that book by its cover we would have been way off base.”
Doris Rickards, another of the team leaders of the Furniture Ministry, agreed that assisting disadvantaged people is a great reward.
“I enjoy the organizational end as well as helping those in need,” she said. “A lot of people work, yet live on the very edge financially, and we are glad God has put us in a position to help them. Even though it is frustrating when you work so hard to fill people’s needs, schedule them to get the furniture and they sometimes do not show up or let us know if they ran into a problem, we will continue to help where we can, spreading God’s message of compassion and love.”
Because of the limited space in the church, it has allowed Paoli PC to narrow down the items they will accept. While this might sound like a negative thing, it has actually turned into a great positive.
“The reduced space, which is intentional because of the benefits we get by being on the church property, has forced us to be disciplined in what we will take and not take, which is actually good,” Tom said. “We allowed ourselves to take stuff that really wasn’t at the core of what it is we’re trying to do. Sometimes people – for all of the right reasons – want to give you stuff that you really don’t want like their hutches and their entertainment centers. We have even been offered ping pong tables and all sorts of things that have some use but not so much for families living in small apartments.
“If you just got burned out of your house and a social service agency helped you find a small apartment and you had no furniture in it, what would you need the most? That’s kind of our mission.”
But people are definitely getting more than furniture on Saturday mornings at Paoli PC.
“We pray with them,” Tom said. “One of the things we find is that nothing unites people like prayer. Almost everybody, when we say ‘Would you like us to pray with you or for you?’ it’s one in a million who says, ‘No, I don’t want you to pray with me or for me.’ Even people whose faith is nonexistent or sketchy, nobody turns down a chance to be prayed over. We find that that really unites us. It’s terrific for our volunteers, it energizes and reinforces us, and the families and individuals who come to get furniture seem to really enjoy being part of that, too.”
It all adds up to a long-running ministry that is having a lasting effect on not only those who are benefiting from receiving the furniture but also from everyone involved in the process.
“Jesus tells us to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and strength,” Tom said. “There’s a second commandment that says we should love our neighbor. I think this is our attempt to do both of those things: to love God and to love our neighbor. The fact that we can do that and be prayerful about it is very rewarding for the participants in the ministry. We don’t do it to make us feel good but the fact is it does make us feel good.”
Note: For more information about the Furniture Ministry at Paoli Presbyterian Church, call (610) 644-8250.