Our little church, Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship, is passionate about advocating for justice, peace and helping those in need. Here in Colorado, COVID-19 restrictions went into effect in March 2020, so we opened our church building to the most vulnerable homeless people and became a true sanctuary. Although we could not let everyone in due to the pandemic, our church did become a place of friendship, food, showers, clothing and lodging — and a gathering place where the homeless help one another.
“I believe our church building, a place of worship, has finally become a true sanctuary, a place made holy by those who come in, off the streets, and grace us with their presence,” Pastor Steve Ramer said.
Nine years ago the congregation of about 50 active participants decided to open its doors to a local nonprofit, Faith Family Hospitality Network, which provides services for homeless families. We provided a place where families could come during the day for support and comfort and use laundry, shower and kitchen facilities.
Every three months, our church took its turn hosting four families to live in and enjoy our church building for a week. This rotation of hosting families had to stop during the pandemic for safety reasons, and the families are living in a large church at this time.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we provided a place for home-cooked meals, laundry and hot showers for up to 200 homeless people each week. We installed 20 large lockers outside the back of our church, with an application system to determine the need and assign lockers.
Today, homeless people keep their personal belongings safe in the lockers during the day while they work, look for work or travel to and from various locations for meals and support.
During the pandemic, the church has housed about 25 people in total, often 10 or 12 at a time. Seven have been living in the church this month.
We welcome the unhoused because we want to follow Jesus’ teaching that “what you do to the least, you do to me.” Also, during the pandemic we desired to become true stewards of our little church building and make sure it did not sit closed and empty. In sharing our resource of a building with those who had no place of their own, we have been blessed with new friends.
Our 2020 budget was not formulated with the added expenses of utilities, food, clothing and toiletries for people living in our church building all day, seven days a week for over a year. Wanting to be good financial stewards, we applied for grants, reduced our pastor’s salary and increased our giving for 2021.
Since that wasn’t enough, we just started a GoFundMe fundraiser, gofundme.com/true-sanctuary-for-the-homeless, to extend this homeless sanctuary as long as needed, during this pandemic, to protect the lives of our unhoused friends.
For the past year, like many churches, we moved our worship services to Zoom. Our pastor personally delivered the new hymnal, Voices Together, to all of us so that we might become acquainted with it during our time away.
During the summer we met, socially distanced, in the park across the street from our church. Just as before the pandemic, numerous unhoused neighbors joined us to worship outdoors in “God’s cathedral.” This spring we look forward to having our services outdoors again, when the weather is warm, so we can welcome our old and new friends back to in-person church.
The fellowship has become close to the people needing assistance and has seen some of them move on into housing, jobs or just going back to family. Our pastor and the elders continue to think up new ways to make life a little more comfortable and to share our blessings with the large homeless community in Fort Collins.
Recently some of the grass in front of the church was removed by volunteers, and pavers are being placed for an outdoor meeting area with tables, umbrellas and chairs for the homeless community to enjoy.
Denise Steffenhagen is a member of Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship, retired high school teacher, vice president of her homeowner association and community activist. To learn more about FCMF, visit Facebook @fcmennonite or the congregation’s website, fcmennonite.org.