Saturday, February 12, 2011

Family Promise

My church participates in a non-denominational ministry to homeless families called Family Promise. The program provides temporary housing to families with children who do not have a permanent home. Each week, the families live at a different faith community’s campus. Several weeks each year our church’s nursery, library, and Sunday school rooms are transformed with cots and cribs into make-shift bedrooms for a week. Members of our congregation coordinate with the Family Promise program to make this happen. Volunteers from our congregation cook and serve meals in our parish hall for the families each night of their stay.

My own family has provided meals several times and we did so again a few weeks ago when Family Promise came to our campus. The first time we volunteered, my husband and I frankly found it very awkward. We didn’t know how to make small talk with the parents of the guest families. We didn’t want to say the wrong thing. We were overwhelmed with the plight of the families, but didn’t want to appear to be in any way pitying or condescending.

Though my husband and I were socially inept in that setting, we were very proud of our kids who were great at breaking the ice. We had explained to them beforehand why these families were living at our church for the week. Our kids definitely understood the difficulty of the families’ situation. But unlike their awkward parents, our kids had no trouble just interacting with the children of the guest families in a natural, genuine and loving way. The first time we helped with Family Promise, the kids of the guest families patiently took turns teaching our kids to play ping-pong in our church’s parish hall. The kids of the guest families were also very sweet to duck quickly and not admonish when our kids’ ability to return the ping-pong ball was not stellar.

On another occasion when we served dinner for Family Promise, the families had been taken shopping that day and were given a bit of money to be able to buy a couple things. That evening, my younger daughter and I sat down with a teenage girl to eat dinner. My younger daughter adores princesses and anything with a touch of bling. She was in awe of some little beaded bracelets the teenage girl was wearing. Without hesitation, the teenager asked my younger daughter which one she wanted. I protested that was not necessary, but the teenager insisted and I did not want to offend her. My younger daughter was over-the-top thrilled to get to wear and take home a lovely little bracelet. I later learned that bracelet was one of three the teenager had bought with the bit of spending money she had been given. It was a special treat for her to have those bracelets. It broke my heart that she had made that sacrifice, but it seemed to make her happy that my daughter admired something of hers and she was able to share it.

Parenthetically, when I was at the St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco recently, the volunteer coordinator told a similar story and explained that it helped the dignity of the clients to be able to give something back to others. Sometimes it is just a kind word or a complement because that is all they have to give. But on the day I volunteered at the St. Anthony Foundation, a young man had gifted a scarf to one of the professors volunteering. The volunteer coordinator explained that for several reasons the scarf was very valuable to the young man. It was cold and he needed it to stay warm. And he had just received the scarf the month before as a Christmas present knitted by volunteers at the St. Anthony Foundation. It had undoubtedly been his only Christmas present. But the volunteer coordinator explained it was appropriate and helpful for the volunteering professor to accept the gift. The volunteer coordinator described that when one is always on the receiving end, it makes one feel inferior, powerless and unimportant. But giving to someone else helps level the playing field. Being able to give his scarf may have been a sacrifice to the young man in some respects, but the volunteer coordinator indicated it also helped raise his spirits and self-esteem tremendously.

Recently when our family served dinner for Family Promise, several toddlers I had never met ran up to me to hold my hand for the evening prayer circle to bless the meal. I felt like I had been mistaken for a movie star. My own kids (who had been holding my hands) generously made room for the toddlers on our side of the prayer circle. Indeed, they felt like big kids to hold the toddlers’ little fidgety hands.

One of the dads of the guest families had just come from work, and he still had his uniform on. Based on the uniform, he worked at a fast food restaurant chain that I won’t name. The dad seemed to really appreciate the baked chicken, salad and green beans we served that night. I guess at work he doesn’t serve that many vegetables.

Another dad was looking for work and had a hearing aid. His teen son seemed to have some type of a cognitive disability. After we went home, my husband said that he had learned that dad had had a particularly tough day. He had lost his wallet. It apparently fell out of his pocket at some point as the Family Promise coordinators took him to various places that day. I got teary-eyed to think what that must be like. These families have no permanent place to stay, they move each week, they have no place to store their belongings. I’m sure his wallet had his most important documents. With no fixed home or telephone number, I’m not sure how he’ll get back the papers he needs. I felt overwhelmed for him.

One a more positive note, there had been a real victory for one of the families staying with our church that week. Some friends of ours had counseled the families on job interviewing skills. One friend helped one of the dads find a decent outfit from our church’s thrift store, so he had a neat pair of clothes for a job interview he had at a landscape company. The dad got the job! His new bosses said he was the first person to ever come for a job interview in something other than jeans. We were all so thrilled for his success. But he won’t be making a huge amount of money and the family still has a lot of challenges in finding a more permanent place to live. We pray that this job will be the first step towards more stability for the family.

At dinner, my younger daughter and I ended up sitting with a single mom and her three year old. The mom had a serious look on her face the whole evening. I’m not sure she smiled the entire time we were with them. The little girl was beautiful but was a handful. The mom was struggling to make her sit down and eat some of the nutritious food being served. The little girl just wanted to eat cupcakes.

After dinner we went outside to the little playground at our church campus. After the sun went down, it became cold. The mom told me how she suffers from the cold and was very grateful because our church had heat in the rooms where the families were sleeping. Apparently most of the churches where they were staying did not. At the other churches, she had to ask for extra blankets and had trouble sleeping due to the cold.

Our family served dinner on the last night the Family Promise guests were with us that week. The next day they were being taken to a new church. That night my husband and I had such heavy hearts. It is hard enough to raise children with two parents and a steady roof over our heads. We couldn’t imagine the challenge of the young mom that night. I keep praying for her and her little girl.

If you would like to learn more about the Family Promise ministry, you can visit the link below:

Ezekiel 22:7 (New Living Translation)

Fathers and mothers are treated with contempt. Foreigners are forced to pay for protection. Orphans and widows are wronged and oppressed among you.

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