The Opportunity House: Serving those in need and guidance toward self-sufficiency
For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me…. Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.Matthew 25:42-44; 45
As part of my discernment toward ordination to the diaconate, I am very blessed to serve my internship with the congregants, staff, and clergy here at All Saints’ Episcopal Church. I must say that I could not ask for a more welcoming, thriving, and active parish to nurture my ministry in the service of our Lord Jesus Christ. Among the components of my internship is to explore my desired calling to advocate for social justice, the homeless and destitute and fighting for racial equity. The direction of this exploration has led me to establish a relationship at the Opportunity House here in Concord.
The Opportunity House is a day shelter, organized, and spiritually supported by the United Methodist Church. I have much familiarity with homeless shelters that provide a place for overnight lodging, but these shelters require the guests to leave the premises upon waking each morning. And, they are not assured of night shelter for the next day. The Opportunity House fills in this gap and more! The professional staff includes Executive Director Kimani Varner, Thad Brown, and Jim Hood who are ordained UMC ministers, Faith Community Nurse Laura Tolbert, and Food Manager Kathy Rowlands. The professional staff are assisted by dedicated volunteers. The services that the Opportunity House provides include:
- Free daily breakfast and lunch
- Laundry services
- Food pantry
- A place to receive personal mail
- Counseling and spiritual guidance
- Job placement and housing assistance
- Alcohol and substance abuse assessment
The guests possess a variety of abilities, challenges, and needs. Many are homeless and their only nighttime shelter is with the Salvation Army overnight services. Some live in their car, couch surf with friends or others while some seek shelter living in tents. Some individuals have jobs and are very educated. I spoke with one individual who is working three jobs, each part time without benefits, yet he still cannot afford the high rent payments so prevalent today. The goal of the Opportunity House is not to have “permanent guests.” As Executive Director Kimani Varner told me, they seek to “keep them moving through.” The goal is to reorient individuals as productive and whole persons. The staff practices compassion but NOT pity. They are catalysts to making sure that people work toward self-sufficiency and keeping and maintaining their individual dignity. The guests are not babied or coddled; the staff are friendly but maintain a professional distance from being “friends.”
The Opportunity House incorporates a unique (to me at least) program of awarding points to individuals by helping around the facility. Guests who volunteer to clean the bath and showers earn 10 points and those assisting and cleaning the dining room earn 4 points. These points can be redeemed to use the washer/dryer (2 points), clothing closet (2 points), and use of the shower (1 point). The staff offers no “free ride” and reinforces responsibility and accountability among the guests. Free services include use of the computer lab, reading and literacy, AA programs, and access to the Faith Community Nurse who provides medication education and monitoring, mental and physical health and education and housing assistance. Also, worship services are offered each Thursday evening and Saturday evening. I have attended one service and plan to attend again. I felt out of my element, BUT I truly was fed and blessed by the Holy Spirit as I witnessed genuine expressions of faith.
My hope, in sharing with the parishioners at All Saints’, is that we can be a presence in this vital ministry. The perceived stigma of homeliness, addiction, and poverty seems to be a problem that is easily ignored by many churches and people of faith. When I first met with Kimani Varner and The Rev. Jim Hill in expressing my desire to get acquainted with the Opportunity House, they both said that they would very much like to have a liaison between All Saints’ and the Opportunity House. One way to get involved is to provide donations of clothing and goods for the guests to use. The needs include: Coats and hoodies, tents and sleeping bags, backpacks, blankets and women’s underwear (sizes 5 – 6). What they DO NOT need are dress clothes and children’s clothing. Non-perishable food and toiletries are also needed and welcomed. I pray that by living into our Baptismal Covenant of seeking to serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being, we can bring God’s Kingdom and Will on earth as it is in Heaven.