By Brenda Sanford Diehl
Homelessness is a complex and challenging reality in virtually every region of the country, including the city of Staunton, Va., home to Arbor Hill Church of the Brethren. After dozens of meetings and discussions with other churches and community agencies about the area’s homeless population, members of Arbor Hill offered a simple proposition: There are people who are homeless, and we have a fellowship hall. How can we make this work? In March, they opened their church seven days a week to those in the Staunton area who did not have a warm place to sleep at night. They planned to keep the shelter open until at least April 15, depending on weather needs.
Arbor Hill pastor Lee Reid said local public leaders have been great to work with. One councilwoman coordinates daily breakfast for the new program. Reid observed, “We have made Jesus relevant in the secular community for at least a little bit.”
When asked how the congregation came to undertake this ministry, Reid remembered his path in life that had brought him face to face with people who were homeless over the years. Before 2008, he was worshiping with an Episcopal congregation when he visited Mountain View Fellowship Church of the Brethren in McGaheysville and felt a transformation through the first love feast he attended there. He later joined the church and eventually worked in various ministries, including serving as unofficial chaplain at the area’s WARM shelter and the official interim chaplain at Valley Mission for a year.
He and his wife, Becky, have also had a ministry called Grace Happens for the past 15 years. During warmer months, Grace Happens offers a free cookout in a local park every other Sunday evening, followed by a praise and worship service. It is attended by people who are homeless, as well as passersby who happen to be visiting. They have had 28,000 people over the years at these services. These ministries laid the foundation for Reid accepting a call to be licensed to the ministry at Arbor Hill this past January and, soon after, embracing this shelter program.
In its early weeks, the shelter averaged eight to twelve guests each night. Reid reports that one congregational volunteer was tentative about working with the shelter program but testified recently that she walked in with fear and walked out with love. He summarized, “When we focus on what we’re here for, the Spirit can work through the process.” And on Maundy Thursday, the congregation went one step further, holding their love feast with their guests in the fellowship hall turned shelter.
Citing Romans 5:8, Reid asserted, “We said yes because Christ said yes to us first.” He elaborated, “I look at it this way: It is like grace with presence. Those who were rejected are now accepted.” —Brenda Sanford Diehl
This article first appeared in Messenger. Subscribe to Messenger here.