Before Matthew Best even set foot in St. Stephen Lutheran, New Kingstown, Pa., on his first day as pastor, he saw what would become an important mission for the congregation: homelessness.

Under a picnic pavilion behind the church, Best spotted a man who appeared to have moved in. Cooking equipment, cushions, and other odds and ends were scattered around. When he met the office administrator, Best asked about the man and learned this was how the congregation was helping him because area shelters were full.

Best soon discovered he knew the man—Michael (last name withheld)—from his time working at a food pantry after his career in politics and before starting seminary. After re-establishing a relationship with Michael, he asked what items would be the most useful in an emergency homeless bag. Michael listed several things and went on to tell Best about people who live out of their cars at the nearby Flying J Truck Stop because of its showers and laundry facilities.

Best shared what Michael told him with the congregation’s social ministry committee. “This tidbit of information sent our committee into action,” said Crystal Houser, a member. “I personally wanted to run to the Flying J. I felt like God was calling me to action and he did not want me to walk—he wanted me to run.”

Best and Houser went to the Flying J—just 2 miles from the church on Interstate 81—to tell the manager what they had learned. The three agreed the congregation and the Flying J would partner to offer assistance.

St. Stephen members sewed waterproof drawstring bags, filled them with personal care items and arrived at the Flying J to meet with people. But no one they were hoping to reach showed up. “We knew they were just outside in their vehicles, but nobody came,” Houser said.

Months went by, they changed the time, they put signs up around the truck stop, and still—nobody. But committee members continued to show up. “We laughed together, we talked, we prayed and we bonded,” she said. “Then, one day, people came, and they have been coming ever since.”

Two years later, with grant support from the Lower Susquehanna Synod and ELCA World Hunger, parishioners go to the truck stop twice a month where eight to 20 people receive emergency bags and help with laundry. The Flying J donates showers.

“That’s what transformation is all about. That’s what an encounter with Jesus looks and sounds like.”

After they get the laundry going, they go to the Denny’s restaurant attached to the Flying J to eat together. “The meal is the opportunity for everyone to just relax,” Best said. “People experiencing homelessness are just like everyone else. They have good days and bad days. They get angry and sad. They have joys and sorrows. And we get to share ours with them too.”

Months into St. Stephen’s ministry, one of the people they had met at the truck stop asked if they could share a prayer before the meal. “I said yes and asked if the person would say the prayer, and they did,” Best said. “At that point I knew they were ready to add in worship.”

Best said worship was always a component he had hoped to incorporate, but he knew they had “to build a level of trust with people first.”

Ministry of presence

Today about a dozen from St. Stephen are involved in the ministry at the truck stop and more help out behind the scenes, including members of a nearby Methodist church. “That core group has grown as people have seen lives changed in ways no one ever imagined,” Best said.

One story is about Ebony (last name withheld), who had just gotten out of jail and was staying at the Flying J with her boyfriend. “Ebony didn’t trust us,” Best said. “Why should she trust a group of white people? Every other group of white people had screwed her over.”

When parishioners invited her to join the meal, she declined. But eventually she joined them, sitting at the end of the table, away from everyone. After a few more times, she began to join in voluntarily and shared her story with them.

One evening Best arrived to find Ebony in the middle of the group, inviting new people to join them. “She was saying, ‘Come on over here. This is great. It feels like family,’ ” he said. “That’s what transformation is all about. That’s what an encounter with Jesus looks and sounds like.”

St. Stephen started incorporating social service agencies into the ministry to help people find housing and sign up for medical or food assistance. Through this they were able to help a man who was denied worker’s compensation for a shoulder injury. When he couldn’t do his job because of the injury, the man was fired. With no income, he lost his apartment. He came to the Flying J on a night when the medical assistance representatives were there and signed up so he could get treatment and get back to work.

“We were able to supply him with a bus ticket to pick up his [medical assistance] card,” Houser said. “He said he had never received so much help and really seemed to be amazed by it.”

Houser said the congregation has learned a lot about homelessness and the difficulty of getting out of its cycle. Some people had been renting and the owner sold the building. Others had a major medical event that kept them from working and couldn’t pay their rent. Many have an income that doesn’t cover the first and last month’s rent and a security deposit.

“Many of these individuals find themselves in a hotel cycle,” Houser said. “They pay for hotels, but this eats up all their resources and they’re unable to save what they need to find permanent shelter. If they are paying for the hotel rooms themselves, they are not technically homeless and cannot get housing assistance.”

As its ministry continues, St. Stephen is considering adding a second truck stop and resources such as haircuts, financial education, job training and job application assistance.

Although many factors play a role in homelessness, Houser said it’s the simplest assistance that has the greatest impact. “What we have learned in this ministry is that the most valuable commodity we are offering is community,” she said. “Our participants have no place where they fit, where they are welcome, where they are cared for without judgment. No, we cannot solve all their problems. We work together to find the resources they need, but at the end of the day, we are present and listening.”

Lori Haugen
Haugen is a writer, editor and librarian. She and her family are members of Grace Lutheran Church, Fairmont, Minn. 

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