This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Indiana congregation puts faith in house of hope

GOSHEN, Ind. — Members of Faith Mennonite Church wondered if God was calling them to expand their ministry of hospitality. They’ve found their answer next door.

On Dec. 7, 2016, a number of people met at the Faith House, the congregation’s hospitality house on South Seventh Street. The house next door had come up for sale.

The Central District Conference Leadership Council held its fall 2017 meetings at the Faith House. Gathered in the living room are Matt Morin, Kay Bontrager-Singer, Emma Hartman, Marlene Suter, Carrie Mast (back to camera), Ron Adams and John Powell. — Mary E. Klassen/CDC
The Central District Conference Leadership Council held its fall 2017 meetings at the Faith House. Gathered in the living room are Matt Morin, Kay Bontrager-Singer, Emma Hartman, Marlene Suter, Carrie Mast (back to camera), Ron Adams and John Powell. — Mary E. Klassen/CDC

It didn’t take long for representatives from Oaklawn, a local mental health organization; and the Elkhart County Clubhouse, a network of support for people with mental illness; to convince them of the need in Goshen for more short-term transitional housing options like what the Faith House had been offering through its guest room for 11 years.

A new question emerged — how to raise the $139,000 purchase price quickly in a tight housing market?

The next morning they had an answer when a local businessperson who was aware of the need came forward with a significant offer of logistical and financial support.

“We felt that God was responding to that question,” said Deron Brill Bergstresser, who co-pastors Faith with Kay Bontrager-Singer. “At each step, someone kept appearing who felt called to support the ministry.”

After 11 days of prayerful discernment and discussion of the practical implications, the congregation affirmed taking the next steps to expand the ministry and offered pledges toward the down payment for the house.

“When Kay and I talked to our local Mennonite pastor peers, we heard a lot of interest in our mission, which also gave us confidence in proceeding,” Berg­stres­ser added, noting that the financial support of a number of sister congregations and individuals ultimately helped make the house purchase possible.

In March, the Central District Conference congregation closed on the property — now known as the Hope House — and continues to pay down the mortgage with outside support. They’ve already hosted seven guests.

A welcoming home

Hospitality has been a central focus for Faith since it was founded in 1990 by a small group from Assembly Mennonite in Goshen to connect with people from the neighborhood who had no church home, Bergstresser said. Since then, Assembly has continued to offer Faith the use of its building for its weekly Sunday evening worship service and meal. The congregation now consists of 80-90 people from a range of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds.

Assembly’s provision of worship space helped make it possible for Faith to purchase the Faith House in 2005 and have space for meetings and church activities, and to host short-term guests. As those coordinating the ministry built connections in the community — particularly to the Elkhart County Clubhouse — the guest room came to be in steady demand, Bontrager-Singer said. The Faith House has provided transitional housing for more than 30 people over 12 years.

“Some people need a welcoming and safe setting while waiting for a Section 8 housing voucher or a disability check,” she said. “Many of our guests are working at least part time and need a few weeks or months to save up for a deposit on an apartment after some tough-luck experience, often related to challenges of coping with a mental illness.”

Between the two houses, there is now space for three guests. Two live-in long-term hosts, Matt Pflederer and Nick Bouwman, help provide continuity and support. Bontrager-Singer noted that most guests stay six to 12 weeks; they need to have a plan and outside support for moving toward permanent housing. One benefit of staying at either house is that guests can qualify as homeless, which can shorten the wait for government assistance from two years to two months. The congregation is receiving more requests than it can accommodate.

Both pastors see it as a strength that the Faith House is a hub of activity for both formal and informal gatherings. People bring their laundry. Faith’s youth and some small groups gather there regularly. Open Table Mennonite Fellowship, another CDC congregation that grew out of both Assembly and Faith, meets at the house on Sunday mornings for worship and a meal. CDC leadership groups have met there on occasion.

“We have discovered that the combination of uses creates a vibrant atmosphere in the Faith House that is conducive to physical, spiritual and mental well-being,” Bontrager-Singer said.

Parker Kennedy, the Hope House’s second guest and a former Faith House guest, agreed.

“One night, [Hope House host] Nick invited me and his girlfriend and Matt [Faith House host] to play cards together,” he said. “It was just so great being together and being normal. When you’re homeless, the ability to have fun doesn’t really follow you around anymore.”

Bontrager-Singer said the congregation has learned that having transitional housing is crucial for people moving out of homelessness and that it’s not easy to find.

“This is one concrete way we as a congregation feel called to share the love of Christ in our City of Goshen and to grow in relationship with our neighbors,” she said.

This article originally appeared in the Central District Conference Reporter.

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