Going Home: Family Promise and the End of Homelessness

“somewhere between the veranda and the city”

By the Rev. Stephen Setzer

If I had to offer a simple sentence summarizing the whole of Scripture, I might say this: It’s all about going home.

Think about it for a moment. The story begins in a garden where Adam and Eve walked with God in the cool of the day. As a kid growing up in the South, I used to hear this verse and immediately imagine three people stepping off the veranda after suppertime, while the sun nudged its final, warm rays through the heart-shaped leaves of catalpa trees lining the drive. It’s an image that speaks to the nearness of God to his creation and his desire to be with us at home together.

But if the story begins with God and his family stepping off a veranda, then it ends with God hailing a cab in the middle of Times Square, because the biblical story begins in a garden but ends in a city! The final scene in Scripture comes from Revelation where John writes, “The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him  … And they will reign for ever and ever” (Rev 22:3,5b).

The story goes something like this. There was a good world with two people, Adam and Eve, who were to be archetypes for how humans should live with God and one another. But, as so often happens, something went wrong. These two people chose themselves over God. and because of that, they were sent away from their home. They became homeless. The rest of the story is all about how God is saving them, which is to say, how God is saving the world and how He is bringing homesick humanity back home.

We hear echoes of this throughout Scripture. And even in our own lives we know instinctively that something just isn’t quite right with the world; something just isn’t quite right with us. Like a feeling of homesickness, we know that there must be something more. We know this because we’ve heard the echo of God’s voice speaking to us like he spoke to Adam and Eve. And we know this because we’ve heard an echo of God’s voice speaking at the end of the story when he says, “I will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Behold, I am making all things new.” This story of Christianity is all about how God is bringing the world to a place where the sorrow of homesickness will be no more, to a place where our joy will be complete, to a place where everyone will be at home.

Over the past year at Christ Church, Christiana Hundred, we’ve been partnering with Family Promise of Northern New Castle County, an organization that helps families experiencing homelessness find housing while keeping the family together. Keeping families together may seem like an obvious thing to do; however, it’s quite rare. In fact, Family Promise is the only organization in New Castle County that does this.

Think about that for a second. What if there’s been an emergency medical expense in your family that depletes your cash reserves. Your two-income household suddenly goes to one. After a few months you realize that you’re not going to be able to stay in your apartment. You stay with friends and family for a few weeks, but the situation reaches a point when  you spend three nights in your car. You decide to go to a shelter, only to realize that your family must split up — kids go with mom; dad stays alone. As if the trauma of homelessness was not enough, you’re now separated from your family, the ones you need the most at this critical moment in your life.

It’s a tragic story that, unfortunately, is played out every day in the state of Delaware. There are more than 2,600 homeless children in Delaware, and in the Christina School District alone, more than 800 children experience homelessness every year!

Family Promise sees unified families as an asset while they are trying to find housing and reestablish themselves. This may be one reason why Family Promise is one of the most successful organizations in the state for helping families both find and keep homes. However, they don’t do it alone. They partner with the faith community,. and this is where Christ Church, Christiana Hundred enters the story.

Late in 2016, Carolyn Gordon, executive director of Family Promise, was telling me about the organization and how they partner with nearly 40 religious organizations, including St. James’ Church, Mill Creek, and St. Barnabas Church, who provide emergency shelter to families while they find homes. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this before and if Christ Church, Christiana Hundred, could also get involved. So in early 2017, we began to talk about whether we might also become a host congregation. We officially launched this new ministry in March and hosted our first four families in September.

I remember the day they arrived. Classrooms had been transformed into little hotel rooms with welcome baskets and cards with the names of the families posted on the doors to their rooms. We were all a little anxious when the 15-passenger van pulled up and out poured nine little children and their parents. The kids ran directly for the playground. After digging around in the sandbox we finally were able to get the last of the kids up to the parish hall where dinner was served. But here came a big difference for our parish families who were volunteering. They didn’t simply serve the food. They sat down with guest families and ate with them. And that made all the difference. At the end of the night we felt like we’d  had friends over to our house and heard stories that were different from our own. But  something resonated deep inside with all of us. Why? Because the feeling of homelessness is not something that is isolated to families living with friends or other family members. The feeling of homelessness is not isolated to families who are in an emergency shelter situation at a church. The feeling of homesickness lies deep within the heart of all God’s children.

At the end of that first night, our volunteers were getting ready to leave. The kids had gone to bed, the families were quietly tucked away in their make-shift bedrooms, and we were all standing near the doors when I noticed a vestry member who had tears streaming down her face. I stood a little closer and put my arm around her as if to console her in her sympathy for these families. However, she quickly responded to my movement and assured me that she was not crying out of pity. “Stephen,” she said, “It’s just so beautiful.” She had gotten a taste of something that had resonated with her. Something that had spoken to a deep need inside her. I knew it almost instantly when she looked at me and intimated her feeling. I knew it because sitting down with these families at dinner that evening had reminded all of us of the spiritual homelessness that we all feel as Christians from time to time. Why? Because to be Christian means to be caught in that time between the veranda and the city. Caught in that in-between time when we hear echoes of what God is calling us toward — to a place where he will wipe away every tear from every eye, where he will take away sorrow from everyone, and where we will finally all be home. This is something that we all long for as followers of Jesus Christ. It’s why we have to pinch ourselves back to reality every week with the words, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. And by God, Christ will come again!”

I believe that as followers of Jesus Christ we are called to bear witness both to the homelessness in our souls and in our society and to point toward the city in which we will soon all be at home. Thank God that he works not only in Scripture and in our liturgy week to week to remind us of this, but He also works through organizations like Family Promise that pinch us back to reality and remind us that we are all in this together, somewhere between the veranda and the city.

To learn more about the work of Family Promise, visit www.familypromisede.org/

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