Good Steward Award: Leadership (Innovative Outreach)

First Congregational Church of Rockport (Rockport, MA)

A “Good Steward” Award recipient in the area of leadership / innovative outreach, Massachusetts’ First Congregational Church of Rockport ensures families have a safe, warm place to sleep by creating four separate bedrooms in the church.

Here, Outreach Committee Chair James Reed takes us inside this innovative outreach project.

How (and when) did the church identify the need to set up these safe, warm places to sleep within their facility?

For Rockport First Congregational Church, Lake Zurich, IL-based Screenflex designed four family bedrooms using 6’8”-high dividers. These spaces provide transitional housing for members in need.

Reed: In 2009, our church and many more churches had a visitor from an organization called Family Promise. They told us the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had a lack of emergency beds for homeless families and were placing families in motel rooms. At that time, there were more than 100 families in motels in our general area. Today, there are more than 250, according to local anti-poverty groups like Habitat for Humanity and Beverly Bootstraps

Where in the facility are these bedrooms set up?

Reed: We have four bedrooms available. Two are set up in a Sunday school classroom and an adjoining nursery. The other two are set up in the Fellowship Hall of my church, at the north end of the hall, separated from the remainder of the hall and from each other by Screenflex dividers.

What kinds of materials were necessary to get them up and running?

Reed: The church trustees approved and then contracted for installation of carbon monoxide detectors in Fellowship Hall, hardwired to the church alarm system. We appealed to the church and to other churches on Cape Ann, where we’re located, for sheets and blankets. Sheets and blankets were provided also by local inns and guest houses. Cots and pillows were provided by the network of churches engaged for this program. The program is called Family Promise North Shore Boston. Fellowship Hall has a kitchen from which we serve our guests dinner and breakfast. We also replaced the shades on all the windows in Fellowship Hall.

How long did setup of these bedrooms take?

Reed: It takes 60 to 90 minutes, depending on the number of guests anticipated. We host no more than 14 people, or four families, at one time. Most guests are children. Setup occurs after our worship service on Sunday mornings, since the spaces are in use until then.

How does the church decide which families will occupy the spaces?

Reed: The church doesn’t take part in the process which approves families. Family Promise North Shore Boston hires a director and assistant director — both social workers — to vet guests, and then works with them to find housing. Program participants are restricted to (a) families, who (b) are not chronically homeless, and (c) have no current drug, major psychiatric or abuse problems.

For how long do the families stay, typically?

Reed: Families stay for one week and then move on to another host church in the network which covers an area comprising roughly the Eastern end of Essex County, or the North Shore, of Massachusetts. Our church sees families at least four weeks per year. Families stay in the program, on average, about 70 days.

Logistically, how do the families come and go?

Reed: Families arrive at the church daily at 6 p.m. from the network’s Day Center, about 20 miles away in Beverly, Mass. We serve them dinner and after clean-up, they’re free to do as they please until roughly 10 p.m., when church doors are locked by volunteers who sleep in the church for security. Frequently, families will walk around town after dinner. In the a.m., the network van brings them to the Day Center, from which children attend school and parents leave for work.

What kinds of benefits has the church enjoyed as a result of setting up these bedrooms?

Reed: Our participation has multiple benefits. First, we’re gratified by the knowledge that we’re doing what we’re called upon to do. The community sees that we’re a church that uses our faith to do good works for all, which might have benefits on Sunday morning when the doors open for worship.

This is an ecumenical effort, because other churches in Rockport and Gloucester — and organizations like Rotary — supply volunteers, food and material support. Ecumenical activities are rare here. All churches benefit from ecumenism. Now, we have a locus of care that extends throughout the church communities. Because we care for homeless families, we gain understanding of their circumstances, which helps to make us, potentially, activists for improved treatment from the political system.

— Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh


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