"That’s God up there, isn’t it, right?”
Jordan Garcia pointed above a table covered with a hearty dinner spread of salad, pasta, bread and chicken casserole.
The 7-year-old with large dark eyes stood gazing at the crucifix for about 30 seconds before turning his attention back to the meal he was about to eat.Jordan and his mother and seven siblings are homeless, but at that moment they were surrounded by shelter, food and strangers-turned-friends at St. John Bosco Church in Woodstock. There, parishioners hope God will be known not only through a crucified Christ hanging in the parish hall, but also by the love and hospitality they offered the large family, who stayed at the small parish for about a week as part of an ecumenical program new to the region.
Family Promise of Shenandoah County is the 200th affiliate of a national nonprofit that helps low-income and homeless families achieve independence through support from faith-based communities. Host churches house a homeless family for a week at a time four times a year, and St. John Bosco was the first to open its doors last week.
On Feb. 11, as her children, ages 6 months to 10 years old, were held, chatted with and chased in a game of tag by parishioners of all ages, single mother Alexandria Pabón Rodriguez wore a tired smile. “I’m very grateful, very happy to be here,” she said. A native of Puerto Rico, Pabón Rodriguez has struggled for years to maintain consistent housing and employment.
“We are not here to proselytize, we are not here to question them about their past or ask why they are homeless; we are here to show them the love of Christ,” said Deacon Steve Clifford before parish volunteers arrived with the night’s meal.
St. John Bosco parishioners, the deacon and Father Michael J. Dobbins, pastor, joined with 12 other Christian churches to bring Family Promise to Shenandoah County early this year. The host churches provide families with a place to sleep, breakfast, dinner and sack lunches, toiletries, clothing and baby supplies. More than 20 support churches “fill in the gaps when needed,” said Sherry Arey, executive director of Family Promise of Shenandoah County.
Around 40 St. John Bosco parishioners donated time and countless items in order to help the family of nine feel comfortable. Hanley Hall was converted into part dining room, part living room, and a religious education classroom was transformed into a bedroom, complete with a parishioner-made welcome sign. On one nightstand rested new toothbrushes; on another a small image of Mary and the Christ Child next to an alarm clock. In spite of cinderblock walls, the space was homey and cheerful. Five-year-old Michael Garcia repeatedly said, “Come, come see my room.” “To hear that, that’s one of the reasons I’m doing this,” said Eileen Simmons, assistant parish coordinator for Family Promise. “These children haven’t had their own space to stay in for a long time.”
Pax Christi Institute Sister Laura Nieves, parish director of religious education, said the program has been a powerful teaching tool for the entire parish, including the children. It’s a “wonderful way to begin Lent and the Year of Mercy,” she said. The students, whose religious education classes were moved to the church to accommodate the family, “were asking all sorts of questions about homelessness,” said Sister Laura. We are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, she said, “and we are showing what that looks like.”
Susan Tully and her husband were one of two families
who joined the homeless family for dinner. Other volunteers were to arrive later to spend the night.
“It’s a great opportunity for the kids to learn to serve and to see that homeless kids are just like them,” said Tully, a mother of seven.
“This is a perfect way to come together with other Christian churches in the community, and it’s a tangible and visible expression of Gospel values,” added Father Dobbins.
After arriving at the parish two years ago, Father Dobbins heard about Family Promise while having lunch with Rev. George Bowers, pastor of Antioch Church of the Brethren, who initiated the local affiliate.
Begun in New Jersey in 1986 as an interfaith network, Family Promise became a national organization two years later, with the belief that “communities and churches can find creative solutions to homelessness,” Arey said. Family Promise of Shenandoah County is the second affiliate in Virginia, with the first based in Roanoke.
During the day, Family Promise participants either go to work or attend the Family Center in Woodstock, where they are connected with service agencies, set weekly goals for employment and housing searches, and receive money management guidance. The goal is to find permanent housing for the family within six months; most secure it in just over two.
Eligibility requirements include a background check and drug test. If employed, program participants must save 75 percent of their income to put toward their first month’s rent.
After dinner last Thursday, one of the children was having a tough time and found a spot under a bench to curl up. Father Dobbins came over to him, sat down and spoke gently.
Reflecting later on his attempt to draw the little boy out of his gloom, Father Dobbins said he knows that the parish effort is just a “drop in the bucket” when it comes to helping homeless families.
The children have psychological and spiritual needs that are impossible to address in a week, he said. But the parish can offer them shelter, food and something he hopes they can take with them, even as they pack up their few belongings and move on to the next church. “We hope to give them Jesus,” he said, “pure and simple.”