Life is more than a tiny bit easier, safer and more dignified for members of Seattle’s homeless population thanks to five teenagers and the congregation they inspired.

For their final confirmation class project at Peace Lutheran Church, Seattle, the teens partnered with the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) in 2016 to build a “tiny house,” an 8-by-12-foot structure that serves as a temporary home for people who otherwise would have no place to live.

“We’d been trying to think of a project we could do and were trying to think outside the box,” said confirmation class member Alyssa Bernd. “We were trying to think of something that could be bigger than the typical project.”

In their quest to come up with a big idea, Alyssa and her classmates—Katharine Menstell, Joanne Robson, Ginny Sunde and Julianna Boeckh—were moved toward something small yet intensely powerful in the way it translated faith into meaningful action.

On any given night in Seattle, one of America’s rainiest cities, more than 3,000 people are sleeping on the streets. Statistics show that 69 homeless men and women died in King County in 2016.

Into that challenge waded the confirmation class. The small (roughly 100 worshipers per Sunday) but vibrant all-age-group congregation in the West Seattle district is a few miles from the skyscrapers, sports stadiums and homelessness of the city’s downtown area.

“We had helped with homeless programs in the past,” Ginny said. “We all feel for homeless people but aren’t always sure that our efforts, such as making care packages, really make a difference.”

The girls started seeing “these little houses popping up around the city,” said Alyssa, who pitched the idea of building one after reading a newspaper article about the tiny-house initiative that had been launched by LIHI.

The first tiny house went up in 2013, and LIHI currently manages six such sites around Seattle. The houses are insulated and have doors and windows that lock, and the sites are legal encampments with food, water, toilets, a kitchen, security and case management services.

“We were quite literally doing God’s work with our hands.”

Gathering blueprints

Peace’s confirmation group quickly jumped on the idea of building a tiny house, using James 2:15-18 as its first blueprint.

Of course, the girls also needed an actual blueprint—that’s where LIHI and construction partner Home Depot came in—and before that, $2,200 to buy the necessary building materials.

An informational presentation to the congregation and a fundraising drive produced the needed cash. Then the work of procurement and project management began.

“LIHI has an arrangement with Home Depot,” said Steve Bernd, Alyssa’s father. “We raised the $2,200 and gave it to LIHI, and they gave it to Home Depot, and we got a blueprint and all the supplies we needed. Then we had a construction party, like a barn raising, right at the church.”

The work took place in August 2016. Serving as the job superintendent was Peace’s pastor of 12 years, Erik Kindem.

Kindem, who co-teaches confirmation with Nicole Klinemeier, Peace’s director of youth and family ministry, has a construction background that came in handy in guiding a crew of 50-plus with varying levels of carpentry expertise.

“We needed someone with that kind of experience,” Steve Bernd said. “There was some trickiness to it. It took us the good part of two full days to get all the sides up and get the meat of it done, and then there was still a lot of fine tuning. But we even had people who don’t belong to our church working with us. They just heard about the project and wanted to help, which was really cool.”

Faith in action

The tiny house is now in place and occupied at LIHI’s Georgetown encampment in south Seattle.

“This was a very concrete, very tangible faith-in-action project,” Klinemeier said. “We really encouraged them to think of something the whole congregation could be involved in. The girls were inspired, and it was one of those things that just kind of spread.”

Kindem noted that many of the construction volunteers wore blue shirts that bore the message “Live Generously.”

“When a friend and colleague stopped by to see the build, he commented that it was the book of James in action,” Kindem said. “This kind of work is something that brings heaven and earth together—we were quite literally doing God’s work with our hands. We built something substantial and real that will make a profound difference in someone’s life and has already made a difference in our own.”

Ginny said the project helped her faith because “it showed me how much people truly care about the well-being of others.”

“I saw how people will really unite behind a great cause, even though there may be obstacles,” she added. “The community and the goodness were so inspiring and made me feel like I was doing something that would spread love and make the world a better place.”

Steve Lundeberg
Lundeberg is a writer for Oregon State University News and Research Communications in Corvallis.

Read more about: