By Martha Roden, Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship

At Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship (FCMF), we think of ourselves as “The Little Church that Could” when it comes to matters of peace and justice. Thanks to hard work and big hearts, our building stands as a true sanctuary for the community’s homeless families seeking refuge from the elements.

Fort Collins has a population of 150,000, yet has only two homeless shelters. Its homeless population is twice as great as the number of available shelter beds and 60 percent of those homeless are families.

Located in the heart of Fort Collins, FCMF is only a couple of blocks from our city’s only two shelters. From the windows of FCMF, the homeless are easily visible — resting on the library lawn across the street, walking or biking with all their worldly possessions in tow, and knocking on the back door of the church for food.

Our small congregation of 50 “regulars” takes very seriously Jesus’ words that “whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.”

In 2012, we strengthened our commitment to serve “the least” when we were among the first eight churches in the area to join Faith Family Hospitality (FFH), a consortium of local churches. Each church takes turns providing homeless families with food, lodging and fellowship for a week at a time, four to five times a year.

Getting involved with FFH took our dedication to peace and justice to a new level. “We took to heart the words and actions of Jesus,” Pastor Steve Ramer said. “He ministered to people who needed him, where they needed him, whenever they needed him — and not just one day a week!”

However, after our third round of hosting families in December 2012, we became concerned. Temperatures were plummeting with snow on the ground. When parents and children left the church each morning, many simply rode a heated city bus until they could drop their children off at school. How would the families cope during Christmas break?

A real sanctuary

Our pastor, Steve Ramer, offered up our sanctuary as a place of hospitality during winter break.

“Families in the FFH program could come and spend time each day in our sanctuary to get warm, rest up and relax,” says Steve. “We staffed the Center with our own volunteers.”

The church sanctuary became a place where parents could talk to a FFH social worker, focus on looking for work and affordable housing, and deal with the uncertainty of having no home. It was also a place where parents and children could play during the day. Parents could take their children to the library to read and FCMF was willing to provide a home address so people could check out books and videos.

When Easter approached, we opened our sanctuary again as a place of hospitality for FFH families whose kids would be out of school.

“We liked seeing our church sanctuary used by the families over the holidays,” Steve says. “We liked feeling that people were benefiting from our building which normally stood unused during the week. So when FFH approached our church to become a permanent Day Center, it seemed like a no-brainer!”

FFH agreed to pay monthly rent for the use of the building, as well as pay for supplies, providing the church with much needed financial relief.

In the summer of 2013, the Day Center opened and FFH provided a quarter-time social worker and an AmeriCorps volunteer to run the center, along with volunteers from other FFH churches. Later, in 2014 the Day Center began operating year-round, four days a week. But more was needed.

Expanding the sanctuary

As our Fellowship got to know the FFH families, we learned about their daily hardships. Not all hosting churches had shower facilities and families had to visit a nearby church or recreation center to clean up. Washing clothes was an even bigger ordeal. Families hauled dirty clothes in plastic bags or hampers by bus to one of the few laundromats.

To alleviate this stress on families, we requested FFH funding to remodel our church’s bathrooms to include showers and a laundry room.

Fortunately, one of our members was a long-time Habitat for Humanity construction foreman and there were plenty of volunteers available. The work was finished by the end of 2014.

Over the past three years, the churches involved in FFH have hosted 70 families consisting of 100 adults and 144 children. FFH has helped half of these families move into permanent housing.

The Day Center is now open at FCMF six days a week with a full-time social worker. The original eight host churches have grown to 15 host churches and 12 support churches, and the goal is to add nine more host churches to double the number of families served.

Ongoing work
Today, our Fellowship continues expanding its homelessness outreach by providing a safe haven for the Fort Collins Homeless Coalition. Every Friday evening, people without shelter come to eat a warm meal, experience fellowship, and take showers while waiting for the local shelters to open. Additionally, the Coalition meets to plan, strategize, and advocate for more humane treatment of those experiencing homelessness in the city.

Most church buildings in North America are woefully underused. Just imagine if every church did what this Fellowship did– opened their sanctuaries to help and house the homeless? We just might eradicate homelessness!

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