Reflections on Family Night Shelter

When Betsy Halpern and Katharine Hunt tapped me to head up Family Night Shelter, I was fairly new to St. Mary's. I had volunteered a few times at Saturday Breakfast but had no firsthand knowledge of the Night Shelter program. But I felt a deep sense of gratitude to our congregation and our wonderful church. This was because in Fall 2013, not long after I had begun attending St. Mary's, I became seriously ill and was hospitalized for several weeks. The outpouring of support was so remarkable, and made such a difference to our family and to me personally, that I was looking for a way to give back.


As Betsy, Katharine, and Bingham explained it to me, the idea was to take the ministry that Holly Cabell had run almost singlehandedly for many years, and set up a team-based structure to ensure continuity from year-to-year, and long-term succession planning. I was to be the "head honcho." I agreed on the spot, with the proviso that the title "head honcho" would be replaced by "coordinator." In my heart I was pretty darn scared, with no idea of what I was getting into. But I did know how to work with a team to design and produce exhibits, programs, and events. Could Family Night Shelter be that different?   


Well, it was different. It is a ministry. Everyone involved is trying to be a Christian, to do what Jesus asked us to do--to welcome the stranger. All my previous experience had been secular, and this is spiritual in some very profound ways. Not that there aren't bumps in the road, disagreements, problems to be solved. But underlying everything is the bedrock of service to others and the growing understanding that the people seeking shelter are people like us. As we housed, fed, and cared for them in friendship and hospitality, they became a family.


As the “first church” in the Night Shelter year, St. Mary's welcomes parents and children who have spent the summer sleeping in their cars, in tents, on the street. They so appreciated having private spaces where family members could feel safe and comfortable. Just stretching out on a mattress was a pleasure, as more than one guest told us. I will never forget greeting the families for the first time, as they arrived to eat their first meal and spend their first night with us. A little boy of nine or ten came running into the courtyard and told us proudly and happily, “This is my church! I'm going to live here!”


Everybody who volunteers for Family Night Shelter can share a story like this. It is an inspiration to see firsthand the thought, love, and work that goes into each meal. Breakfast is cooked to order and the volunteers find out and respond to guests' preferences. Dinners are varied, filling, and delicious. Guests who work late find a plate saved for them. Receptionists get to know guests’ names, answer questions and help out wherever needed. The daily cleaning crew keeps the building shipshape for guests and daytime users. Overnight volunteers are available in case of emergency and open the door for parents who work the late shift. Family Night Shelter is a group effort that exemplifies the old saw: “many hands make light work.”

By Alice Parman