I’m told that elected officials and city staff have complained in connection with this week’s sub-zero temperatures, that churches should be doing more; for example, that they should open their doors 24/7 to people in need. Whether they mean we should offer temporary emergency shelter, or that our doors should literally be unlocked all of the time isn’t clear to me, and the comments have apparently been removed.
I suppose the logic runs something like this—we receive property tax exemptions as non-profits, we have facilities that can offer shelter, why don’t we do it? Well, we are doing it. Religious organizations provide the core of Madison and Dane County’s emergency shelter for the homeless: the Salvation Army, The Beacon, which though partially funded by city and county dollars, is operated by Catholic Charities. Then there is the Men’s Drop-In Shelter, operated by Porchlight, but housed at Grace Episcopal Church with overflow shelters at St. John’s Lutheran and First Methodist. Bethel Lutheran Church has also had a significant homeless ministry over the last years. This week, First Methodist and its Outreach Coordinator Karen Andro, received national media attention for offering their space as overflow shelter for families.
No doubt, any comments critical of churches would have excused the work of these downtown churches and religious organizations, aiming at other targets: the many neighborhood churches that dot the city, or perhaps, the megachurches that are mostly located in suburbs. But these churches also do their part, providing volunteer labor and funds, for example, helping to provide the meals at the Men’s Shelter 365 days a year, or supporting the Beacon, or by organizing food drives for food pantries and the like.
For many of these other churches, offering temporary shelter is unrealistic. I talked with one pastor on Friday who told me his church was 1 ½ miles from the nearest bus stop. Most of them are in unsuitable locations. But there are other problems. Temporary shelter, even on a short-term basis, requires incredible resources. Most churches lack the staff to operate such shelter. For example, our facilities are cleaned by a service that comes twice a week. We could not provide the necessary security. Our staff and volunteers are neither trained nor competent to deal with the issues raised by a large intergenerational group confined to a small space. Imagine a 75-year old volunteer trying to mediate and de-escalate a dispute between two men in their twenties, who might be mentally ill or high. In addition, volunteers would need to be vetted in advance. Our denomination requires, and quite rightly, that volunteers undergo training for the prevention of sexual abuse. We also carry out background checks, especially of volunteers working with children. We cannot accept the help of any random volunteer, and I’m sure the mayor and city staff understand why such measures are necessary.
This is the second Polar Vortex I’ve experienced since coming to Madison. I was reflecting this week how different it is in 2019 than it was the last time. Then, we scrambled day by day to make sure there were spaces for people to stay warm during the day. On MLK Day that year, with the libraries, and many churches closed in observance of the holiday and no day shelter, Grace Church opened its doors to more than 100 people who sought refuge with us. But we couldn’t have done it by ourselves. Karen Andro brought a group of volunteers from First Methodist to provide lunch and staff from the homeless ministry at Bethel as well as other volunteers and outreach workers offered their professional expertise. In 2019, the presence of the Beacon makes an enormous difference. And I’m so grateful for Catholic Charities, for Jackson Fonder, Executive Director, and the amazing staff and volunteers who help operate it.
I’m sure I speak for all other leaders of religious organizations throughout Madison who have met with people this week and throughout the year who are in need of food, shelter, or other services and who have seen the effects of these record-breaking temperatures on the most vulnerable of our neighbors. We are doing our part. Indeed, many of us are operating at or beyond our capacity in terms of our financial resources and our volunteer base.. The religious community will continue to do what we can, but to expect us to do more, in the midst of the long-term decline in American religion, changing demographics, and the amount of work we are already doing, comes across as nothing more than an attempt to shift blame and responsibility. It is divisive, unhelpful, and counter-productive. In emergencies like this, the whole community needs to come together and cooperate on solutions.
So, rather than taking potshots or criticizing congregations and religious organizations for “not doing enough,” perhaps city officials ought to invite us into the conversation. I’m sure Dane County and the City of Madison have emergency plans in place for various natural disasters. Is there such a plan in place for another lengthy period of sub-zero temperatures? There certainly should be. Whether there is one or not, if city officials want congregations and religious organizations to “do their part,” they should invite us into the process, and work with us to develop a plan that will ensure no resident of Madison lacks shelter when temperatures hit -20.