Goshen News, Goshen, IN

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December 23, 2012

Local churches work together to help families in their time of need

Program provides shelter, food and day services

GOSHEN — On a late Friday afternoon in Goshen, Nicole Rodriquez is in church with her children. For the time being, she’s also home.

The Rodriquez family lost its Elkhart home in July. Nicole lost her job. She has family in Michigan, so the Rodriquez clan moved there in the hopes Nicole could find work. That didn’t happen, so she and her children moved back to Indiana.

They needed a place to stay. Enter the Goshen Interfaith Hospitality Network.

On this particular Friday, the hospitality is offered at Trinity Lutheran Church. It’s where Nicole and her children will spend the night and where they will eat dinner. Chicken and noodles is the main course, served up by church volunteer Carole Ulmer.

On this day, the church along Greene Road is home to Nicole Rodriquez and her family. She says she feels comfortable here.

She’s being helped, and that’s fine with Phil Keller.

What it is

Keller is the former director of adult education at The Crossing, and was program administrator for a group helping inmates reintegrate into their communities. The ordained minister was recently named executive director of Goshen Interfaith Hospitality Network.

Six months ago, he’d never heard of the organization. Keller jokes about thinking it might be an association of Christian hotel owners.

Not quite.

The interfaith hospitality concept originated with a New Jersey woman who traveled back and forth to New York. She kept seeing homeless people and thought somebody should do something about the problem. She came to the conclusion that “somebody” was her, Keller said.

The woman went to her faith community with the idea of using churches to provide temporary housing to homeless families. The church communities would network together, with the families living in their facilities on a rotating basis.

Keller said there are now 181 such networks around the United States, with 39 more set to join.

Goshen’s non-profit Interfaith group formed in the fall of 1995. Seventeen churches are part of the effort, as host sites and/or providing volunteers. Families have access to Interfaith’s day center at 105 S. Fifth St. from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Overnight, the families — guests, Keller says — stay at host churches and are provided meals there.

Keller said families can stay in the program up to six months. He also said Goshen Interfaith hosts an average of 35 families a year, with 3,324 nights of shelter divided up between the churches.

“It’s always families, and we define ‘families’ rather loosely — single mom with kids, single dad with kids, a single mom that is pregnant, and then of course couples with children,” Keller said. “The children are the key issue to the concept.”

Getting started

In the Goshen area, the Interfaith concept got off the ground in the mid-1990s. Myron Schrag was pastor at Eighth Street Mennonite Church then. He recalled being at a Goshen Ministerial Association committee meeting when the group was talking about community problems.

“Somebody brought up the problem of homeless people,” Schrag said, “which for some of us, it was kind of a revelation.”

A pastor who had come from Kentucky said his former community there had an Interfaith-type program. The ministers took the idea back to their congregations. Members of the Eighth Street Mennonite Church community talked about it got involved.

“There are homeless people. They need to be looked after,” Schrag, now retired, said of why the church opted to participate. “...We were looking for ways to be more service-oriented in the community, and this is one of the problems that came up and we decided yes, this is something we could do.”

They’ve been doing it ever since. The Eighth Street group partners with the St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church community, which provides volunteers.

Church involvement is key to the Interfaith mission. Proselytizing is not, according to Keller.

“The Interfaith part of this is very, very low-key,” he said. “We sponsor no Bible studies. (Guests) don’t have to listen to any sermons. They don’t have to attend Sunday School.”

Rather, Keller said, guests see the Gospel being modeled for them by Interfaith staff and the church volunteers. There are around 700 such volunteers between the 17 churches. One of them is Carole Ulmer.

Helping out

“There’s plenty of bread, honey,” Ulmer tells one of Nicole Rodriquez’s children. “Do you want another piece of bread?”

Ulmer is helping feed Nicole’s family at Trinity Lutheran. The children are Dezzaray, 15, Demarreon, 7, and twins Janeal and Taneal, 5. They are four of many children Ulmer has met over the years.

“Last year, we actually had a newborn baby come right from the hospital” to the church, she said.

Ulmer feels Interfaith is a good project for her church community. As a volunteer, she feels she’s helping meet a need.

“It’s been a good experience,” Ulmer said.

Rodriquez’s experience with Interfaith has been positive as well. Her family had moved into Trinity Lutheran the previous Sunday (Dec. 9).

“Every seven days it’s a different church,” she said of the rotation. “That’s different from any other shelter I’ve ever been with. But you get used to it, and it’s actually comfortable. The churches do make you feel comfortable.”

Getting on track

Through Interfaith, guests’ immediate housing and food needs are met. Keller also thinks more long-term. He sees people whose lives, for whatever reason, have run aground.

“How can we help (them) right the ship?,” he said.

That could involve connecting guests with services that didn’t know about, food stamps being one example.

“In some cases, some people are really new to needing help,” Keller said.

Another key component to Interfaith is trying to empower families to help themselves.

“It’s not about, ‘What can we get for you? Let’s go out and get money to give you. Let’s give you this, let’s give you that,’” Keller said. “It’s ‘How can we help you help yourselves?’ Because everyone’s goal should be to provide for themselves.”

Interfaith guests may need guidance in resume-writing or filling out an application, or sometimes even knowing how to look for a job.

“We provide case management in trying to say, ‘OK, what could be some goals? What are you looking to do?,’” Keller said. He added that in many cases, families don’t have a concept of looking past the end of the week, or maybe even the next day.

“Because their needs are so immediate,” Keller said. “They’ve been worrying about shelter. They’ve been worrying about food. ‘What do you mean, what would I like to do next year? I’m worried about can we stay here until the end of the week.’”

Treated with respect

Nicole Rodriquez and her children have a place to stay. They’ve been with the Interfaith program two months. Nicole was hired at Kinro on Nov. 5, and she’s working full-time. She’s also been approved for transitional housing through the Elkhart Housing Authority.

As her children ate at a nearby table at Trinity Lutheran, Rodriquez said she’s moved 19 times in the past five years, staying at different shelters, staying with people. She’s tired of that.

As she looked ahead, Rodriquez also reflected on what Goshen Interfaith has meant to her family.

“The workers at Interfaith, they don’t treat you like a number,” she said. “They treat you like a human being. They’re good people to talk to. They’re understanding. ... They give you the respect you should be given as far as a human being.”

What Goshen Interfaith offers has been met with approval in the community, in Keller’s view. Interfaith receives grant money, but is largely funded by private donations. Keller said Interfaith’s budget is fairly small thanks to what the church communities do. Church volunteers provide families with an evening meal, for example. Interfaith staff often provides lunches at the Third Street center, plus healthy snacks twice a day.

“This community has been incredibly gracious and has really opened their churches and their pocketbooks in a lot of respects,” he said.

Community support aids the Goshen Interfaith mission. To hear Keller tell it, that mission is about more than somewhere to stay and something to eat.

“If people can catch a glimpse of hope and think that tomorrow can be better than yesterday, we can begin to really give them some assistance then,” he said.

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