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Chesapeake Members Shelter Neighbors From the Cold
Story by Taashi Rowe
A young member of the Atholton church offers dessert to Conrad Neal who became homeless two weeks prior.
As the 22-year-old mother of two tried to get her friendly, rambunctious, four-year-old daughter to sit still at the dinner table, her five-year-old son sat counting. He was doing pretty well. He almost made it to 100, when Luritz Parker, a member of Chesapeake Conference’s Atholton church in Columbia, Md., interrupted to hand them three clear sandwich bags filled with soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste and wash cloths.
“Do you need anything else?” He asked kindly.
“No, this is fine,” the mother replied softly. “Thank you.”
“Do you think you’ll need lunch tomorrow?”
“No, we’ll be okay,” she responded.
When Parker departed, she and the children resume eating their meal—chili and cornbread with all the fixings—perfect for a cold, rainy Thursday.
The mother didn’t want to share her name, but looking around at the large, open gym where there were pallets and blankets laid out on the floor, enough for 20 people, one could understand her hesitation.
“Our lights got turned off a few days ago,” she said explaining how she and her children ended up seeking shelter at the church. “This happened a few days ago and we’ve been going to hotels and family members’ houses. One family member started acting like they didn’t want us there anymore.”
She added that although she has a job at a Macy’s in Virginia, which she somehow makes it to without a car, they had been living with her mother to save on costs. But when the power got cut off, it was too cold to keep the children at the house.
Shawn Paris, senior pastor of the Atholton church, was one of the hosts who welcomed the young mother and some seven other people who had nowhere else to stay on a cold November night. Paris is fairly new to the 600-member church and to the program, which members have participated in for eight years. Each year, when the temperatures drop, some 15 congregations in Howard County, Maryland, work with an organization called Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center to offer shelter to those who need it. Each church hosts the shelter for a week. They also cook three meals a day and drive their “guests” to a day center where they can take showers and look for jobs. And because Atholton’s week fell during Thanksgiving, the church cooked a special meal to celebrate.
“Between the cooking, driving and hosting, we have some 40 to 50 members involved in this ministry,” Paris said.
Members like Tim Belton, the church’s community services leader. “I believe that the church should help our community through service and the gospel,” he said. “We are called to help our fellow man. If we can’t do for our brothers, then Christianity is just a useless exercise.”
Roosevelt Marsden, associate pastor, agrees that this is a critical ministry. “You can’t make impact without contact, and I think that is one of the areas in which we as a church really make a difference.”
Bonnie Bensink, a deaconess who stopped in to make sure there are enough items in stock for breakfast, added, “We just want to give them a warm place to sleep and show a little bit of the love of Jesus. My heart just goes out to them.”
Doug Carl, manager of emergency and outreach homeless services at Grassroots, helps to coordinate the cold weather shelter. The organization has a 51-bed shelter in nearby Jessup, Md., that he says is always full. They also have a resource center where folks can do their laundry, pick mail and look for jobs.
“We do coordination with the county and the church does everything else. The state is getting a really big bang for their buck,” he said. “I really believe in the separation of church and state but to me this is a wonderful public-private partnership.”
“People are surprised to hear there are homeless people in Howard County,” he continued. “The school system says there are 200 homeless children in the county. This is a new phenomenon in my lifetime—watching people fall from the middle class. People never had a problem finding a job before and paying the bills, but now by the time they realize they have to take anything that comes along even though it comes with a pay cut, they need help.”
That night one of those people receiving help is 26-year-old Neal Conrad who runs a video arcade business. “This is a lot better than sleeping in the streets in the rain,” he said gesturing to his pallet on the floor. After being homeless last year, he found a room for rent in the Oakland Mills area of Columbia. He left two weeks ago when he realized that he couldn’t continue living in a place where there was physical and drug abuse. He has family living nearby but they can’t take him in. “I’m trying to save money so I can get back on my feet,” he said. He seems confident that he won’t stay in a shelter for very long.