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A warming place

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This article is reposted from The Lutheran magazine. All text and photos used with permission.

STORY BY BILL NELSON

Milwaukee area churches offer ‘prayer vigil’ and a place to sleep

Last December, when temperatures dipped into single digits and the winter continued as one of the harshest on record, Milwaukee south-shore churches offered an all-night prayer service that gave the area’s homeless an answer to their prayers: a warm space in which to bed down.

When asked about the all-night prayer vigil at St. Mark Lutheran Church, Cudahy, Mark Thompson, pastor, quipped, “This isn’t the first time people have fallen asleep in church.”

The churches’ creative offering of space under the guise of a “prayer vigil” was both a response to brutally cold nights and to being denied a shelter program by the local plan commission, which called it inconsistent with the city’s zoning code. But fears about what such a shelter would mean have waned.

Kevan Penvose, pastor of Unity Lutheran in the Bay View neighborhood of Milwaukee, poses with the sign that sums up what the congregation and 13 other area churches will do this year when offering a winter-weather ministry to the homeless.

Kevin Fech, Cudahy, who with his wife and three children helped feed the hungry at Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church in the Bay View neighborhood, used these words to describe his volunteer experience with a dozen or so homeless men and women: “Thankful. Polite. Gracious. Everyone appreciated the fact that they were treated with care, compassion and respect. Each said ‘thank you’ on multiple occasions. All cleaned up after themselves. And after he or she finished eating, each offered to help in any way possible.”

Tippecanoe and its pastor, Karen Hagen, took the lead last December in what has come to be known as the “Divine Intervention” program. Soon eight to 20 people were bringing their bedrolls and taking advantage of the church’s warmth and hospitality. Guests were required to sign a sobriety and abstinence from drugs covenant, and were told when food would be served.

The Presbyterians’ gesture of hospitality spread among faith communities. While the city of Milwaukee has several emergency shelters, there weren’t any in the Bay View neighborhood, suburban Cudahy and St. Francis (all close to Lake Michigan). The homeless sleep under a nearby freeway overpass, beside canopied trees in parks, even under school bleachers. Many had simply fallen on hard times, losing their jobs and homes, or had low-income jobs that couldn’t support housing.

Fourteen faith communities will participate in various ways this year.

Three churches, all within a mile of each other, will host on a rotating basis: Tippecanoe, which was open 110 nights last winter (four months of overnights), Unity Lutheran Church in Bay View, and Chapel of the Cross (Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod), also in Milwaukee.

Kevan Penvose, pastor of Unity, said, “We have a big church — 28,000 square feet — and we can use four Sunday school rooms for overnights” — two for male sleeping rooms, one for females and the fourth as a lounge.

Unity also serves supper every Wednesday evening to 160 guests who are homeless, low income or lonely. It offers a food pantry and clothing closet, and a free clinic for the uninsured and underinsured. In the summer it hosts groups doing mission projects.

“So having people stay in our church is not a new experience,” Penvose said. “We expect that we’ll know many of the overnighters; they won’t be strangers. We’re on a first-name basis.”

A sign prominently displayed in Unity church sums up the commitment: “We go into the community to serve and welcome all people.