The stone building stood gray against inches of white snow. The parking lot sparkled in solid ice under the shadow of the steeple’s cross. All was quiet outside St. John Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Atlanta.
But inside, coffee makers gurgled, voices chattered, and phone calls were being made.
“We need more cough drops!”
“Can anyone get over to pick up laundry?”
“Who can get out of their driveway to trade nights with me?”
When the thermometer dipped below 29 degrees in January, St. John’s Freeze Shelter went into full swing. Partnering with Mercy Community Church, a ministry housed at a nearby Presbyterian church to serve the needs of people who are homeless, St. John’s retreat center opened as a freeze shelter last winter. Just recently, the congregation helped start a second freeze shelter at the neighboring Methodist church.
From January to March 2010, the shelter was open 40 nights. This past December, it was open 18 nights, including Christmas. As of early February, the shelter has already been open 10 nights in 2011.
The usual number of guests per night is 16. About 35 volunteers are involved on a regular basis serving as hosts, spending the night or doing laundry for guests.
The budget? It’s almost non-existent. Linens, laundry supplies, snacks, hot drinks, food for occasional meals, toiletries, cough drops, tissues and other supplies are donated.
“This is a very unique and fulfilling ministry, and one that keeps us very close to some wonderful people who really need us most,” says Steve Gallo, a member of St. John.
Steve and Faith McKinley, also members of the congregation, are the coordinators who hold it all together.
“We started out providing shelter and a warm bed, but what we discovered is that we were creating community,” says Bradley Schmeling, pastor of St. John.
“The homeless have now become our friends, and it’s been transforming to cross that boundary,” says Bradley. “We are not a more faithful church because we provide beds, but we are more faithful because we’ve risked getting to know one another.”
Even when the roads are almost impassable and travel is at a minimum, the members of St. John feel the work and effort are worth it because they are providing necessary warmth, safety and friendly conversation for people in need.
Jeanette M. Burgess is an associate in ministry with the ELCA Southeastern Synod, based in Atlanta. She’s a member of St. John Lutheran Church in Atlanta.