|In Lawton, Centenary UMC volunteers unload beds for their guests who will arrive Sunday evening. (Photos provided by Howard Kuchta)
Following the Plan
How do we relate to our community?—a guiding question from the Strategic Plan
Lawton churches open doors to homeless families
By Holly McCray
Each Sunday evening, a church in Lawton welcomes special families for a one-week stay.
These families, all with children, are temporarily homeless. But they find respite through a new ecumenical ministry, Family Promise of Lawton Inc. Besides shelter, the families also find other practical help, such as financial counseling, assistance searching for jobs and permanent housing, and social skills development.
And they are enveloped in Christian compassion and respect. The term "radical hospitality" rightly describes this program.
The concept germinated in Centenary United Methodist and Holy Cross Lutheran Churches, and is steered by layman Mark Ashton, a member of Centenary.
First steps for the Lawton program took about two years. Fund-raising began, community education was provided, and hosting churches were recruited. Almost 200 volunteers have been trained. The official launch was last fall.
Each week, one of 12 hosting churches in Lawton’s Family Promise network houses up to 14 people—adults and their children. Hosting duties rotate weekly. For example, Centenary UMC opened its doors during the week of Thanksgiving, and for a second time Feb. 6-12.
Ashton attributed this gathering of churches into a network of care for homeless families to the work of many dedicated Lawtonians.
"This group of churches would not have been able to establish this network without the tireless work of many folks," he said, "including a great group of trustees and a knowledgeable and compassionate executive director, Sarah Head."
Ashton said, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is not a multiple-choice question. I think it’s a commandment. I try to operate from that principle."
Radical hospitality is one of the 5 practices of Fruitful Congregations. —Bishop Schnase's book
Ashton described the operation. Each Sunday is moving day. Volunteers move rollaway beds, from the church that hosted the previous week, to the next church. Up to 16 rollaway beds—14 for family members and two for the night hosts—are transported. (Lawton motels donated the beds.) Designated space for families is prepared. At Centenary, volunteers move partitions into place to create family cubicles in the fellowship hall. They add small tables, lighting, clocks, chairs, and more "to make it homey inside," Ashton said.
The guests arrive later Sunday, and Centenary members share a meal with them. Throughout the week, between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m., the hosting church provides lodging, meals, and fellowship.
"We are intentional about having people there to talk with the guests," Ashton said, "but we don’t probe. We listen."
Ashton and his wife, Linda, have volunteered as night hosts on Saturday night at Centenary. "The families need privacy, too," said Linda. "We are trying to learn how to be most caring."
When Linda realized the church bathroom lacked an electrical plug for her curling iron, "I found out just how spoiled I am." Her voice softened, "These families have greater concerns than looking good for Sunday worship services."
"At 7 a.m., everybody is up and moving," Mark Ashton said. Employed adults go to work; children go to school. A van transports guests without personal vehicles.
The Family Promise day center is the hub for all daytime activity and office site for the executive director, a paid position. Temporarily located in Grace Fellowship Church, the day center provides a mailing address and home base from which the guests can search for jobs and permanent housing. It also offers laundry and shower facilities.
The usual length of stay is 30-60 days, according to Ashton. "These are people who are situationally homeless, not the chronic homeless."
When families meet their goals and move on, the program follows their progress for a year.
Families are referred to the program by agencies, churches, and individuals in Lawton. Confidential interviews follow. Adults must complete a screening process and must agree to abide by the program’s rules.
And only families with children are enrolled.
"The purpose of Family Promise is to keep the family together as a unit," Ashton explained.
Most homeless shelters are structured differently. "Typically, children 12 years of age and older must stay with persons of the same gender, which, for example, means a 12-year-old male child would be separated from his mother and would stay with other homeless men," Ashton said.
He cited an estimate by Lawton Public Schools that 200 children in that city are homeless.
According to the national Family Promise organization:
- Families are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. homeless population.
- Over 40 percent of that population is comprised of families with children.
- The average age of a homeless person in America is 9.
Gathering the Lawton community in support of the effort was invaluable, Ashton said.
"I want us to have plenty of depth. When you get agencies together, communicating with each other, participating in the Continuum of Care HUD program, you realize you can provide for a need when you didn’t know before that a resource was available," he said.
"And it’s a way churches can relate to one another ecumenically when they wouldn’t normally."
His personal commitment is based in more than 40 years of practicing law.
"Over that period of time, I have talked to a lot of folks who have been poor," he summed up. "I don’t have those stereotypes of poor people any more. I’ve realized there’s not much difference between them and me. If you believe in the Scriptures, you believe that all are equal, at least in God’s sight."
Each church in the network has a volunteer coordinator. Mark and Linda’s daughter Hillary Ashton fills that role at Centenary UMC.
"It’s an amazing experience for our volunteers to put a face on homelessness in America," Hillary said. "Kids doing homework, a boy making valentines for school—what we imagine as a homeless family may not be what’s sitting in front of us when we host them."
She supports Family Promise because it gives families in transition a safe, stable place to stay together.
"All we are asking of our volunteers is to be community," Hillary described. "Our job is to love our neighbors."
The Lawton network includes these 12 hosting churches: Aldersgate, St. Paul’s, and Centenary United Methodist Churches; Bethlehem Baptist; Dayspring Community Church; First Presbyterian; H2O; Holy Cross Lutheran; Trinity Baptist; Grace Fellowship, Central Baptist Church; and Mind of Christ Church.
Among supporting churches are two UM groups: Lawton Heights UMC and Cameron Campus Ministry/Lawton Wesley Foundation.
The Lawton ministry is one of more than 160 Family Promise networks across the nation. Mark Ashton said another Oklahoma network operates in Shawnee.