Bethlehem’s emergency shelter program is a lifesaver — and not just for those who are  homeless.

“It transformed our congregation almost overnight,” said the Rev. T. Scott Allen, rector of St. Andrew’s, one of three Episcopal churches that helped found the emergency housing program for homeless people seven years ago. “It changed the way people related to each other. St. Andrew’s just turned around. People asked what happened. But I think the simple fact was inviting the poor into the building was a game changer. ”

At the Cathedral Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Dean Tony Pompa was equally impressed with his congregation’s reaction to, and support of, the program, which started in the winter of 2009.

“It was a lovely gut-check here,” said Pompa. “That’s not to say there are no issues, but the beautiful organic piece of this was, in the very beginning, people just started showing up with blankets and sleeping bags. It was organic and wonderful.”

Bethlehem’s emergency shelter program started in January 2009 when seven churches came together to provide emergency shelter during the winter months to 75 homeless men, women and children. Each church opened its doors for one night a week and provided dinner and breakfast.

The program has grown to 13 churches providing shelter for more than 125 individuals December through March. Church of Nativity provides shelter on Thursday nights. St. Andrew’s, located along the border between East Allentown and West Bethlehem, takes Friday nights. The two churches generally house between 25 to 40 men per night. St. Andrew’s is usually staffed by a combination of parishioners and outside groups, and church volunteers make dinner and breakfast.

“About 100 of our parishioners participate in terms of touch; taking turns cooking meals, doing laundry; greeting and checking folks in; and cleaning up,” said Pompa, who serves as the cleanup crew captain at Church of Nativity and in past years has been one of the three volunteers who spend the night. “Last year we had a struggle to get people to spend the night, but this year we have a captain, James Vorosmarti, who is our quiet hero. He sleeps here every Thursday night. He is one of those quiet, humble, faithful guys. Nothing ruffles him. He is just amazing.”

So is Deacon Rodney Conn, who coordinates Nativity’s shelter program.

“Deacon Rodney Conn’s pastoral presence is critical in support of our volunteers and our guests,” Pompa said. “It is truly wonderful to see diaconal ministry being lived out here.”

Allen said one of the “quiet heroes” at St. Andrew’s is Cindy Bowlby, a nurse who has coordinated the parish’s shelter ministry since the beginning.

“She’s a saint,” Allen said. “She takes off work on Friday to be there. She mothers them; it’s tough love sometimes. And because she’s a nurse, she knows when to call the ambulance.”

The story of the program, now called Bethlehem Emergency Sheltering, starts with yet another Episcopal church. Both Allen and Pompa credit the Rev. Laura Howell and the Rev. Elizabeth (Liz) Miller as the ones who planted the seeds for the shelter ministry. Their church, Trinity Episcopal in Bethlehem, sponsors a soup kitchen that feeds many of the city’s homeless population. Howell sounded the alarm in January 2009, pointing out that the temperatures were at dangerous levels and people who were homeless had no place to go. Miller worked to find church shelter sites.

“I realize that I get interviewed for this story,” Pompa said, “but I want to be clear, the only thing I did was say, yes.”

Allen said that after he was approached by Howell, he wrote to his vestry and asked to open the church as an emergency shelter for one night a week.

“No one objected, so that was the first miracle,” he said with a laugh. The second miracle was the ministry’s impact on the congregation.

“The church was looking for something that would engage them,” Allen said, “At that point our ministry had been sort of checkbook, or where folks volunteered at other places. That’s kind of how St. Andrews had done outreach. Never had they brought people into the building.

“It is part of their identity now,” he said of the shelter ministry. “They love it. It is part of what makes them feel good about being in church on Sunday at worship. It’s a way for them to witness to the values of their faith community. We’re not just there for the pretty things and the pretty worship; we also do what Jesus called us to do.”

Allen said parishioners play cards with visitors and interact with them socially. Allen often visits the men in the evening and for breakfast, accompanied by Martini, his miniature schnauzer. “The men love that,” he said. “She has this little ministry of companionship, too.”

Nativity_Dinner_20150312_14aThe need for providing shelter for homeless people is not diminishing; it’s growing. After seven years, do churches remain committed to such an intractable problem?

“This year was our moment to have that conversation,” Pompa said of Nativity. “For whatever reason, it started on the vestry level, with someone saying, ‘What’s the longevity of this?’ It was a philosophical conversation, but somehow it got out into the parish, and people got really upset.

“It was really terrific. It ended up stirring people up and they called me and said we have to keep doing this. We decided we really want to continue this ministry. Parishioners have really latched onto it. Now it is just what we do.”

Allen said he is clear with St. Andrew’s parishioners that this is a powerful ministry that will change their lives.

“It’s not about charity. I don’t want parishioners coming in there thinking they’re some sort of self-sacrificing Mother Bountiful,” Allen said. “I tell them they are going to be changed by this for the better. A lot of them want to come in and ‘help those poor people,’ but they come away changed.”

“I tell people this is a privilege, to serve the Christ who walks among us as the poor.”

The emergency sheltering program shuts down April 1.

“Then the big question is: Where do they all go?” Pompa said. “We don’t know.”

Learn more about Bethlehem Emergency Sheltering online.