SEATTLE – The overnight shelter program at St. Therese Parish in Seattle is embedded in the life of the parish today, but it wasn’t easy getting the ministry started.
Around 1993, a local homeless organization asked St. Therese if it could help out on short notice and temporarily host 20 homeless people, said Brian Mack, one of the shelter co-founders. The idea didn’t go over well with neighbors and some parishioners.
“It was really contentious,” Mack recalled.
So the parish formed a homelessness committee to create awareness, educate parishioners and put a face on the issue.
Some 20 to 30 parishioners began helping the homeless by volunteering at other churches that provided overflow shelter for men from St. Martin de Porres Shelter, a Catholic Community Services program in downtown Seattle.
St. Martin’s was looking for more churches to host overflow shelters and “we felt that after a year or two we were ready to try to open our own shelter for 10 or 12 guys,” Mack said.
Drafting a plan
This time, homelessness committee developed a plan, presenting it to the school and parish community as well as the neighbors. Although parishioners and neighbors still had many questions, a tight program structure was developed to ease fears. When St. Therese finally launched its shelter in 1997, there wasn’t 100 percent approval, but “it really was a great success,” Mack said.
At first the men from St. Martin’s slept in the church’s small vestibule, but eventually the shelter moved into the school gym, which also serves as the parish social hall.
A few years later, St. Therese became the first parish in the Seattle area to host Tent City 3, Mack said. “It took our parish and our faith to a new level,” he said.
Through the years, the number of men served at the parish shelter has stayed constant at 10, the maximum the parish can accommodate with its single bathroom in the parish hall and a mini-bus for transportation.
But the ministry has grown by offering the men more comforts and enlisting more volunteers.
Today, a wide variety of parishioners, including students at the parish school, are involved in making the shelter as hospitable as possible. Besides making hot breakfasts and sack lunches, parishioners like to make holidays special. Valentine’s Day brought notes from schoolchildren for the shelter guests; at Christmas, the parish’s giving tree is filled with requests for socks, flashlights, backpacks and other items the men need.
“Parishioners respond like you wouldn’t believe,” said Joan McNabb, a member of the ministry’s steering committee. “We have a small parish with not a big income, so the amount that people are donating per capita is pretty significant.”
Reflecting on the mission
The shelter leadership team is always looking for ways to improve the ministry, both for the volunteers and the men they host.
Paul Mocha, the shelter co-coordinator who recently retired from working with homeless veterans, has drafted guidelines for volunteers and expectations for guests, based on input from the staff at St. Martin de Porres.
“He brings a professional understanding of the issues facing our guests and how we might best meet them with our limited resources,” said Catherine Pages, the other co-coordinator.
And at the end of the shelter season, the ministry holds a mini-retreat for volunteers. It’s an opportunity “to reflect on what they’re doing and reflect on their own spirituality,” said Patrick King, an overnight volunteer who helps recruit others.
“I’m helping somebody’s brother,” King said, reflecting on his part in the ministry. “That’s a powerful thing, that a good thing.”