On April 12, 2013, Sam Rennebohm sat down to talk with Jonathan Neufeld, Pastor for Community Ministry at Seattle Mennonite Church, about the achievements and challenges experienced through his congregation’s Companionship ministry.
The church’s Day Center is the primary location for the community ministry. Four paid staff and 12 volunteers, all members of local faith communities, help to maintain the Center. Both the building itself - a converted house - and the constant presence of a strong cadre of staff and volunteers offer a stable, safe location that people experiencing homelessness can count on. In Neufeld’s words, they are working together to develop a new sense of “home.”
Through its neighborhood-based approach, the ministry aims to build community and empowerment among both homeless and non-homeless residents. Seattle Mennonite has been intentional about keeping the Center’s focus local. It is not listed among citywide social service resources, and folks come to the Center only after hearing about it from other people in the neighborhood.
Working out of the Day Center, Pastor Neufeld and his staff use the Companionship model to support those seeking services. Companionship, a ministry model developed by Rev. Craig Rennebohm, provides guidance in responding to the needs of people who have been marginalized by homelessness, mental illness, and related life challenges. It provides an important adjunct to other aspects of the ministry, given that approximately 75% of people served have substance use problems and half or more carry formal diagnoses of mental illness.
Seattle Mennonite’s Companions “walk along side” people as they attempt to move from the streets to permanent housing and recover from mental health and substance use problems. Through the development of a trusting, one-to-one relationship people feel supported and develop the confidence and perseverance required to re-establish themselves as active members of the community.
Staff and volunteers provide meals, a mail service, hygiene services, laundry, and opportunities for socialization, in addition to Companionship and informal case management. Seattle Mennonite also collaborates with a number of local organizations to help meet other basic needs. One day per week the Center collaborates with Seattle University to offer a medical and with Medical Teams International to offer a monthly dental clinic.
Local agencies have provided low -income housing for many people served through the ministry. Other churches use the building to deliver various services and programs, including a “women only spa day” and a “mental health Bible study.” The Center also serves as a hub for the congregation’s education classes and service projects focusing on homelessness, mental health, trauma and related topics.
The ministry has been effective in promoting permanent housing for people who want to move off of the streets. A recent one-night count of the number of people experiencing homelessness in the Lake City area identified only three people living on the street and 10 in shelters. Five years ago, before Seattle Mennonite had fully developed its housing ministry, there were an estimated 60 people who were homeless in the neighborhood. The ministry has used a number of strategies to help people obtain housing, including providing living space in houses it has purchased and connecting with agencies that provide low income units in the neighborhood.
This summer the current building that houses the Day Center will be razed and a new building with 21 units of housing for people coming off the streets will be built in its place. The Day Center will be housed on the first floor of the new building.
Some neighborhood residents and organizations do not appreciate Seattle Mennonite’s efforts in the neighborhood. The ministry’s success, coupled with the new low income housing and a city-sponsored shelter (now closed) that operated nearby, have become the target of a Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) sentiment being voiced by some neighborhood groups. They claim that the Day Center has brought more people who are homeless to the neighborhood, making it less safe and less comfortable. As Neufeld explains, the Day Center may in fact be doing the opposite by decreasing homelessness and increasing community connections (as the one-night counts cited above would confirm).
It seems that ministries like the Day Center - providing such basic fundamentals as hospitality, community, and home for people who are marginalized - also challenge the status quo and draw people away from what is comfortable. Stepping away from what is comfortable can mean developing a new way of being in relationship to people experiencing homelessness and mental illness. But as Neufeld and his colleagues have witnessed, it can also bring considerable anxiety and resistance from those who are uncomfortable with change.
The ministry’s emphasis on hospitality, empower-ment, and community building have changed the way many people in the congregation and even in the wider neighborhood relate to one another. Congregation members used to feel overwhelmed by the challenge of serving the needs of people experiencing homelessness and accommodating their presence within the neighborhood. Today, however, the congregation has become a place where people are free to tell their stories of recovery and community integration.
The establishment and celebration of relationships has come to overshadow past anxiety about how to meet people’s needs. People do not simply walk by when they see someone who is homeless. They are now more likely to know the person’s name and to greet them as a familiar face. New relationships and connections have been formed. People have begun to see one another as neighbors.
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This article was adapted with permission from the May 2013 Pathways to Promise Newsletter. Learn how Seattle Mennonite's ministry got started and more on their Community Ministry.
Photos courtesy of Seattle Mennonite Church and Pathways to Promise.
Sam Rennebohm, M.Div, works with families experiencing grief after a traumatic death and has been doing research for Pathways to Promise on a volunteer basis. Jim Zahniser, Ph.D., is a psychologist who provides program development and evaluation consulting services to Pathways to Promise, a national interfaith organization that works to increase understanding of mental health problems, reduce stigma, and enhance faith communities' capacities to provide support. Sam and Jim are currently conducting a study of Companionship programs that are being offered in a variety of faith communities.