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Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship (FCMF) may be small, but its nickname, “The Little Church that Could,” is well-earned through its involvement in serving the homeless. The FCMF sanctuary is now a true sanctuary for the community’s homeless families seeking refuge from the elements.
Fort Collins, a college town located just 30 miles south of the Wyoming border, has a population of 150,000, yet it has only two homeless shelters. Its homeless population is currently twice as great as the number of available shelter beds and 60% of those homeless are families.
Located in the heart of Old Town Fort Collins, FCMF is only a couple of blocks from the city’s only two shelters. From the windows of FCMF, the homeless are easily visible– resting on the library lawn across the street, walking or biking past the church with all their worldly possessions in a backpack or bike trailer, knocking on the back door of the church for food, stopping by to have a chat with the pastor … and sometimes sleeping in the bushes.
FCMF’s 50 or so “regulars” takes very seriously Jesus’ words in Matthew 25: 40 — “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
FCMF has always gone out of its way to open its doors and its hearts to a more diverse group of people. It welcomes and includes people from all walks of life – those without homes, those without jobs, those without friends, and those in need.
In January 2012, Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship strengthened its dedication to serving “the least of us” when it became one of the first 8 churches in Fort Collins to get involved with Faith Family Hospitality (FFH). This is a consortium of local churches and synagogues that host families experiencing homelessness and provide them with food, lodging, and fellowship for one week at a time, one church at a time, four or five times a year.
Getting involved with FFH took the Fellowship’s dedication to peace and justice to a new level. “We took to heart the words and actions of Jesus,” says Pastor Steve Ramer. “He ministered to people who needed him, where they needed him, whenever they needed him — and not just one day a week!”
Pastor Steve continues, “We are all called as Christ to reach out and address the needs of the least of us. That is why we believe our building should never stay empty; it should always be filled with people from the community.”
When families stay with a church in the FFH program, they typically arrive at their host church in the late afternoon, eat dinner, stay overnight, and leave early the next morning after breakfast.
The families spend each week looking for work and affordable housing, going to appointments, talking with the FFH social worker, and dealing with the uncertainty of having no home. Their weekends are spent packing up from one church and unpacking at another, which can be stressful. However, one wonderful thing remains constant amidst the chaos: a friendly church full of friendly people, welcoming them each week.
It’s hard to imagine how unsettling and frightening life can feel to a family that has no place to call home. Family members wonder where they are going to sleep, when and if they are going to eat, and how they will survive. But once they join FFH, many of those concerns are taken care of: they have a place to get a warm meal, put away their bags, and sleep. They have a room where they can lock a door … a place they can feel safe and welcome.
In December 2012, after its third round of hosting the families, Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship grew concerned. The winter temperatures were bone chilling with snow on the ground. When the parents and their children left the church each morning, many simply rode a heated city bus until they could drop their children off at school or until places of business opened. But how would the families cope during Christmas break, when the children were no longer in school?
The church decided to offer up its sanctuary during the week as a place of hospitality during winter break. “Families in the FFH program could come and spend time each day in our sanctuary to get warm, rest up, and relax, says Pastor Ramer. “We staffed the Center with our own volunteers.”
The church sanctuary became a real sanctuary – a warm place to get out of the frigid weather, where parents could rest and their children could play during the day. Parents could take their children across the street to the library to read and the Fellowship was willing to provide a home address so parents could check out books and videos.
The daytime sanctuary was a great success. One Fellowship volunteer commented, “I was going through some emotional hardships in my own life when I decided to volunteer. The experience of working with the kids on Christmas art projects for their parents was profoundly moving and I forgot all about my own troubles while I was there.”
When Easter break approached, FCMF opened up its sanctuary again as a place of hospitality for the FFH families whose kids would be out of school.
“We liked seeing our church sanctuary used by the families over the holidays,” says Pastor Ramer. “We liked feeling that people were benefiting from our building which normally stands unused during the week. So when FFH approached our church to become a permanent Day Center, it seemed like a no-brainer!”
FFH agreed to pay a monthly rent for the use of the building, as well as pay for supplies. This provided the Fellowship with much needed financial relief.
In the summer of 2013, the Day Center opened and FFH provided a quarter-time social worker and an AmeriCorps volunteer to run the center, along with volunteers from other FFH churches. Later, in 2014 the Day Center began operating year round, four days a week. But more was needed.
As the Fellowship got to know various FFH families, it learned about their daily hardships. Not all hosting churches had shower facilities and families had to visit a nearby church or recreation center to clean up. Washing clothes was an even bigger ordeal. During the week, the families collected their dirty clothes in large plastic bags or hampers. On the weekends, they hauled the bags on a bus or in their car (if they had one) to one of the few laundromats in Fort Collins.
To alleviate this stress on families, FFH raised the funds to expand its services by remodeling the church’s bathrooms to include showers and a laundry room.
Fortunately, one of the members of the Fellowship was a long time Habitat for Humanity construction foreman and there were plenty of volunteers available. The work was finished by the end of 2014, complete with a big open-house ceremony.
Over the past three years, the churches involved in FFH have hosted 70 families consisting of more than100 adults and 144 children. FFH has helped half of these families to move into permanent housing!
The Day Center is now open at FCMF six days a week with a full-time social worker. The original eight host churches have grown to 15 host churches and 12 support churches, and the goal is to add nine more host churches to double the number of families served.
FFH continues to create a voice for homeless families and strengthen congregations like Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship. As people volunteer, something new is born within them. They have an opportunity to let their lights shine and become empowered by the opportunity to make a difference. Volunteering becomes s a tangible way to serve the poor and marginalized as Jesus did.
Not content to stand on their laurels, The Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship continues to expand its homeless outreach program, determined to make their building a true sanctuary – one that never stands empty during the week and is always available to those who need it.
The Fellowship has expanded its homelessness outreach program by providing a safe and comfortable haven for Fort Collins Homeless Coalition. Every Friday evening, people without shelter come to eat a warm meal, talk with one another, and take showers while waiting for the local shelters to open. Additionally, the Coalition meets to plan, strategize, and advocate for more humane treatment of those experiencing homelessness by the city.
Most church buildings in North America are woefully underused. Just imagine if every church did what this Fellowship did– opened their sanctuaries to help and house the homeless? We just might eradicate homelessness!
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