How opening our doors to those in need ignited a transformation
at First Covenant that continues to evolve
Written by Marsha MacKinnon
Webmaster for the First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant
On many cold winter nights, while most of us are warm in our own homes, First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant Elder Pat Tracy and Associate Clerk of Session Dale Sweet are in Knox Hall welcoming overnight guests to come in from the cold, offering a warm meal and a safe place to sleep for the night. Pat and Dale oversee the running of Our Neighbor’s Place seasonal shelter for those without homes while at First Covenant.
How First Covenant and other churches became a part of this program to house the homeless during the fall and winter months grew out of a necessity. There are simply not enough available beds on any given night in the City of Erie to house those who need them. For Pat, it was a call to action.
“For years I clearly heard the words, ‘you hypocrite’ as we would drive past Griswold Park on our way to church and see people who are homeless gathered there,” Pat said. “I wanted to do something but didn’t know what. In September 2012, I saw an article in the Erie Times News about how Kitty Cancilla would be hosting a meeting the next day concerning the idea of a seasonal shelter. I called Dale, who was chair of the Mission Committee at the time, and he agreed to go with me. The two of us attended many small meetings throughout the remainder of that calendar year where the meat was put on the bones of this idea. In December 2012, we presented the plan to session, and we opened for the first time on Jan. 2, 2013.”
That first winter was a learning experience for Pat, Dale and the army of volunteers they recruited to help run the overnight shelter. This became a new ministry at First Covenant and the beginnings of a transformation.
“Dale and I expected resistance, but there was none,” Pat said. “This is for a few reasons. We had done our due diligence at all those meetings we attended, and our congregation had been opened to the need to care for others during Dale Southorn’s pastorate. The only negative I heard was someone asked me, ‘What are you going to do when you get bed bugs?’ I replied we would exterminate them. To date, we have never had a bed bug infestation.”
Overall, members of First Covenant and the community have embraced Our Neighbor’s Place and are supporting this ministry that ran for 18 weeks during the 2018-19 season. First Covenant hosted eight of those 18 weeks.
“The response from the congregation and community has always been quite positive,” Pat said. “We have several faithful members who always volunteer or make food. Many members take tags from the giving tree to purchase supplies for the shelter, and financial support has been good, particularly since the option is given for flowers or a donation to a church ministry.”
What became apparent early on was the complexity of the issues surrounding the homeless guests who came to the shelter. To ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ is at the heart of this ministry. Dale said it wasn’t just a learning experience but an education.
“We soon realized we were dealing with people who had mental health issues, drug and alcohol addiction and sleeping disorders,” Dale said. “We absolutely realized that we needed to try and connect, on a personal level, with these people to develop some kind of relationship. In some cases, this was not possible, and we had to accept that fact. We also quickly realized that we could not fix anybody. The standards that we as volunteers live by are not the same as our guests; we could not be critical of the situation they live in. We just have to accept them as they are and keep encouraging them to do the best they can.”
This type of ministry doesn’t just happen. A tremendous amount of planning, preparation and organization are required along with dozens of volunteers putting in thousands of hours to run Our Neighbor’s Place from November through March. Each participating church operates the shelter for a session of two weeks, then it moves to another partner church. In addition to First Covenant, the other participating churches are Holy Trinity Lutheran, Church of the Nativity and St. John the Baptist. This is no small undertaking.
“Each night the shelter is open 12 volunteers in addition to Dale and I are needed to run the shelter,” Pat said. “Each night a meal is served, so several people are cooking, and three or four people deliver and serve the meal. We also need someone to come in each night at 6:30 to get drinks and the kitchen ready. An entire fleet of men is needed each time the shelter arrives and leaves to carry cots in or out, to assemble cots as needed, and to move all the supplies that come with the shelter.
“Another team of women come in prior to the opening of the shelter to sort, hang and organize the clothing distribution room. Jackie Jones is instrumental to the success of the shelter as he takes a cot and spends the night each night that the shelter is at FPCC. He also prepares breakfast each morning. There is a great deal of shopping that takes place behind the scenes as we purchase food items, boots and particular clothing for someone in need.”
During the 2018-19 season of Our Neighbor’s Place, the seventh year for the program, several changes and trends emerged. Community Shelter Services is no longer the umbrella organization for the seasonal shelter. Instead, the Erie United Methodist Alliance is now serving in that capacity. Pat believes this change has been positive.
“We moved our ‘Parent Company’ to EUMA,” Pat said. “EUMA has fully invested in the shelter program and has been very helpful throughout the season. They have supplied people to come in regularly and help people get housing. We had more people get housed this year than ever before.”
As of April 10, 21 people were moved from homeless to a permanent home of their own. That means success in transitioning guests to permanent housing is possible. However, Dale admits that sometimes this ministry can be frustrating.
“After seven seasons, I feel we are more attuned to the guests’ needs and attitudes,” Dale said. “We continue to host people who were there when we started seven years ago. I must admit that is a bit disappointing, but we just have to accept this fact. Many would be incapable of the responsibility of having their own place. Many have tried but often return to the shelter for many reasons.”
EUMA Executive Director Kurt Crays said Our Neighbor’s Place seasonal shelter is fulfilling a crucial role in reducing the number of people living on the streets in Erie.
“Our Neighbors’ Place exists to provide our neighbors experiencing a housing crisis – those who are unsheltered and in the greatest need – a pathway to permanent housing,” Kurt said. “Mental illness, substance abuse and broken systems are substantively contributing to most of our neighbors using ONP. ONP is a critically important, foundational part of our system of care that is working to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring in NW Pennsylvania.”
Volunteers for the 2018-19 season witnessed a significant increase in the number of guests seeking shelter – more women and more young adults, including a teenager for the first time, and a record number of men seeking beds on several nights. Pat reported the youngest guest was 17 years old, the oldest 83.
“We had previously housed as many as 65 guests, but that was rare,” Pat said. “This year we housed numbers in the 70’s five different nights with the highest night being 75 guests. Our average number of guests per night in February was 65 guests. The number of women seeking shelter is increasing as we sheltered 17 women on multiple nights. Previously we weren’t seeing more than 12 women. The age of the guests is getting younger. We originally sheltered mostly middle-aged men, but now we additionally shelter many guests in their 20’s and 30’s and a few in their teens.”
Through the ONP experience, Pat developed the Sunday Supper program. On any given Sunday in the City of Erie, those who need a meal will find one at First Covenant. Up until this ministry was started more than five years ago, there was no place in Erie on a Sunday for those in need of a meal to receive one. These outreach ministries have had a transformative impact on Pat.
“The impact on my life has been significant,” Pat said. “I now go through downtown looking for people I know. Some people who have been previously homeless are now my friends and I do things socially with them on occasion. I’ve learned over the years that I truly care about the well-being of our guests, and I have a desire to stay in contact with them. Sunday Supper is a ministry that grew out of Our Neighbors’ Place, and that keeps me very busy, and keeps me in contact with the guests year-round. I don’t stop thinking about them or stop helping them when the shelter closes, as I believe this is my calling from God in my retirement.
“I get calls from people needing help year-round. My life has also been impacted by realizing I needed a crash course in social work. Learning to navigate the system has had its challenges and continues to be challenging, but each year we learn more as people consistently come to us for guidance on navigating the system of social services.”
Our Neighbor’s Place and Sunday Supper outreach ministries have had a far-reaching impact, both inside and outside the church.
“I believe this ministry has had a positive effect on this congregation, we are opening our doors to the neighborhood we live in,” Dale said.
The transformation at First Covenant is palpable in the pews, in the neighborhood and in this community.
“FPCC is now open to someone who may be different from ourselves and the congregation does a wonderful job of welcoming and embracing the ‘other’ in our midst,” Pat added. “I wish more church members would be directly involved through volunteering, but I understand that this is outside the comfort zone of some people.”
First Covenant has experienced a seismic shift since the church threw open the doors to its neighbors – all neighbors. It proved to be the catalyst for this transformation.
“They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” Pat said. “I believe the reputation of FPCC has changed in the community in dramatic ways. We are no longer considered to be the ‘rich church’ but instead are looked upon as a congregation who is ‘being the church.’ When I heard guests call someone and say, ‘I’m down at the church to eat, come on down’ and the person on the other end knows that means FPCC, that’s a really good feeling. Guests are comfortable in our space, and they see FPCC as a place that will always welcome them.”
For Dale, this transformational experience has been a blessing.
“I feel personally enriched by my participation in ONP,” Dale said. “I have a more understanding heart for the needs of my homeless friends. I have gotten to know several of our guests and created a healthy relationship with them. I always try to encourage them to do the best they can, I believe that is what Jesus tells us to do in Matt. 25. I have been blessed.”
Kurt had this observation about First Covenant: “When I see the faces of the volunteers eating with our homeless neighbors – I’m a believer. When I see volunteers, in the wee hours of a bitter cold January, whispering prayers of comfort and peace into the ear of a severely mentally ill guest unable to sleep for the voices in her head – I am a believer. When I sit in the apartment of a newly-housed former guest at ONP – I am a believer. Without the hundreds of volunteers who feed, shelter and welcome our homeless neighbors and the church leaders who open wide their doors and arms of welcome – none of this would be possible. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul said, ‘Imitate me as I am in Christ.’ I say, in my letter to you, ‘Imitate the saints at First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant as they are in Christ!’