ALCOA, Tenn. (Jan. 10, 2018) -- During the bitterly cold days and nights of the last two weeks, many church members prayed for neighbors who didn’t have warm houses and beds.
At least two Holston congregations opened their doors to the homeless, and a third congregation placed warm clothing outside for their cold neighbors to find.
“This is what God wants us to do, so we’re going to do it. The need is out there,” said Amy Mott.
Mott coordinates the “Cold Weather Shelter” offered by Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church whenever the temperature drops below 31 degrees in Cleveland, Tenn. The shelter opened on Christmas Eve and stayed opened for 14 consecutive nights.
Wesley Memorial’s shelter is a nighttime ministry, open from 5:30 p.m. to 7 a.m., also offering warm showers and meals. The church’s full-time child-care ministry prevents the shelter from being open during the day. Yet with a maximum capacity of 14 people per night, Wesley’s shelter logs in 220 to 300 guests in an average year, Mott said.
Shades of Grace United Methodist Church opens its doors as a “Warming Shelter” 24/7 when the temperature falls below 20 degrees, during a deep snowfall, or during other extreme weather emergencies, said the Rev. Will Shewey.
Many of the 25 or so guests hosted by Shades of Grace every night from Dec. 31 to Jan. 8 were homeless, as well as the 100 or so who came to eat hot meals donated by churches and businesses, Shewey said.
Not all were homeless.
“Yesterday, an elderly lady came in and asked if anyone had to be homeless to come in,” Shewey wrote on his Facebook page on Jan. 6. “Her water had frozen at home. She had been staying in her car to be warm … Many who warm at our station are residents of the city who are simply too cold or unable to cook at home or their hotel room. Some are lonely and just need a place to be.”
LOADING THE FENCE
Whenever the temperature drops below freezing in Morristown, Tenn., Leigh Travis and other volunteers can be seen “loading the fence” outside First United Methodist Church.
Hats, gloves, socks and scarves are placed inside weather-proof bags with a message in large print: “If you are cold and need this, please take it.” Each bag is color-coded and marked for women, men, girls or boys, then tied with a purple tulle ribbon on the fence.
“We want it to look like a gift,” says Travis, who coordinates the “fence ministry.”
Each time she “loads the fence,” 75 bags go up, equally providing for males and females, adults and children. So far this winter, Morristown volunteers have stocked the fence six times. In a typical winter, 600 warm clothing items are distributed.
“If it’s relatively warmish, about 40 degrees, the bags don’t move quickly,” Travis says. “They’ll be gone in 24 hours if it’s bitter cold outside.”
The church is located within one block of the homeless shelter and within two blocks of a soup kitchen. A low-income apartment complex is across the street. Fence-loading volunteers often receive thanks from passersby as well as church members who say “it’s the best thing we’ve ever done,” Travis said.
“The only drawback I see is that we don’t get to fellowship with people, we don’t get to see them face-to-face,” she said. “But it’s good for them, and they can come get their warm socks or gloves at any time.”
VOLUNTEERS AND DONATIONS
All three of these cold-weather ministries operate through donations and volunteers. Wesley Memorial’s shelter started four years ago as the vision of a 16-year-old youth member who discovered Cleveland only had one emergency shelter.
“I did the homeless census for the United Way,” Mott said. “There are 539 homeless in Cleveland – probably more the census didn’t show -- and 64 beds in the shelter,” Mott said.
Shewey’s Facebook page shows a literal parade of individuals, churches and businesses that show up with food, clothing and money to help the neighbors finding comfort in Shades of Grace’s storefront ministry.
Travis says most of the gloves, hats, socks, scarves – and recently, lip balm – are donated by First Morristown church members. (“We ask them to think of somebody who has to walk to work or to the grocery store -- and to buy warm.”) United Methodist Women and other church groups help bag the clothing and hang them on the fence.
Wesley Memorial’s shelter is supported with fundraising by the youth and other groups. However, this winter Mott says she struggling to find enough volunteers to help feed and host neighbors who trust the church to be there when times are tough.
“We have some transients, people who are just passing by,” says Mott, “but several people come here every year. They call this home, and they actually know if they have issues, they can come talk to us. We get to know them, and they’re our friends.”
Wesley's Cold Weather Shelter is expected to open again this weekend.
Contact Annette Spence at email@example.com.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.