By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer
ELIZABETHTOWN, Ky. — Parishioners at St. James Church here in Elizabethtown have taken the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew to heart.
The passage reads, in part, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.”
The parish has joined an ecumenical effort in Hardin County to provide overnight shelter and a meal to those in need. The program began Dec. 1 and continues through February.
Called Room in the Inn, the program is a collaboration between St. James, its Society of St. Vincent de Paul conference, Warm Blessings, Helping Hands of Hope and 13 other area churches.
Father Martin Linebach, pastor of St. James, said the Room in the Inn effort is a practical way to answer Pope Francis’ call to mercy in the jubilee Year of Mercy, which began Dec. 8.
“The Year of Mercy is intended for everyone to experience the tenderness of God,” he said. “The warming shelter gives us a door to open that tenderness to people in Elizabethtown who deserve a warm place to stay.
“That, to me, puts a human face onto what the Holy Father hopes for us,” Father Linebach said in a phone interview last week.
Each Wednesday evening, St. James offers guests a warm and safe place to rest for the night, a snack and a light breakfast. Volunteers at St. James also provide a sack lunch to guests when they leave the following morning.
The program was modeled after a similar winter-shelter program that was developed in Nashville, Tenn., three decades ago, said Jennifer Moran, director of mission advancement at St. James, in a recent interview.
Seven churches and organizations in Elizabethtown have committed to hosting the shelter one night per week throughout the winter months. And at St. James, 83 volunteers run the shelter. They are split into four teams, one for each week of the month.
St. James’ shelter is located in the lower level of the parish’s Batcheldor Hall, where there’s a gathering space with a kitchen, separate rooms with cots for men and women and bathrooms.
Between Dec. 1 and Jan. 6, 28 guests took shelter at St. James. On any given Wednesday night, Moran said, between 17 and 22 volunteers are on hand. Among the volunteers are parishioners of St. James, St. Ambrose Church in Cecilia Ky., St. John Church in Rineyville, Ky., and the Christ Episcopal Church in Elizabethtown, Ky. Some serve as drivers, picking up guests from Warm Blessings, a non-profit organization that provides a range of services to those in need. Other volunteers set up the cots with a sheet, pillow, blanket and towel.
Some volunteers prepare food and others simply spend time with guests. Three to five volunteers stay overnight at the warming shelter.
Parishioners who want to be involved but cannot come Wednesday evenings have donated food items for breakfast and sack lunches, Moran noted.
The American Red Cross donated cots and pillows to each of the churches and organizations hosting a shelter. The parish has also received countless donations of coats, toiletries, food, towels, gloves and hats.
Moran said the ministry has opened the eyes of some in the parish and has “strengthened our sense of mercy.”
“It’s raised awareness of what is really happening in the community and how some may be struggling or what’s causing them to struggle,” she said
Moran said volunteers are connecting with guests too.
“They are hearing these folks’ stories and becoming attached. They are not just looking at these folks as homeless. They are looking at these people just like themselves,” she said.
Mimi Pike, St. James parishioner and coordinator of volunteers for the program, said the experience of serving others in the shelter has been a “blessing” and said she’s seen the parish grow as a result of the ministry.
“I personally have met guests who are grateful for a warm place to sleep; guests who are starting to get back on their feet and are finding jobs; and guests who are bright, interesting and ordinary people like you and me.
“And we’re here to provide warmth, food and companionship,” Pike said.