HEADLINE: ‘Warm Hearts Warm Hands’ project provides vital daily essentials living without shelter, and connects churches across the synod
By Pastor Devlyn Brooks
BEMIDJI, Minn. -- There is about 175 miles between Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Wheaton, Minn., and Peoples Church located in the Mississippi Headwaters region of north-central Minnesota.
For that matter, there’s even 75 miles that separate Good Shepherd on the Northwestern Minnesota Synod’s southern border from Churches United for the Homeless situated in Moorhead, Minn.
But Good Shepherd member Nancy Laines doesn’t see why the efforts of her church’s Evangelism & Social Ministry Committee can’t serve their own community as well as those living in Bemidji or Moorhead, which coincidentally, also is home to the synod office.
To her, it’s just being church together.
“We have to find ways to reach people no matter what,” said Laines, who prompted by a project mentioned on a synod flier distributed at the Synod Road Trip, spearheaded an effort at Good Shepherd to collect items such as gloves, hand warmers and snacks to build kits for those who are experiencing a lack of housing.
Laines said her church regularly looks for opportunities for mission opportunities outside their own four walls, with the aim of picking projects in which everyone at the church can be involved. And when Good Shepherd Pastor Cheryl Berg passed onto her the synod’s flier suggesting a good ministry project for the ELCA’s annual “God’s Work Our Hands Sunday” might be building kits for the unhoused served by Peoples Church, it felt like it fit like a glove.
Dubbed “Warm Hearts Warm Hands,” Laines introduced the project to the Good Shepherd congregation through a “temple talk” during which she explained that Peoples Church is “a multicultural congregation … with a special emphasis on outreach to people living in poverty,” and is in Bemidji.
In the following weeks, the church set out boxes to collect items such as gloves, hand warmers, beef sticks and granola bars. And the congregation, which worships about 50 to 60 people each Sunday, graciously responded.
Enough supplies were donated that Good Shepherd was able to put together 75 individual kits that contained these vital, everyday essentials.
Then, on Sunday, Sept. 17 -- a week later than the ELCA observed God’s Work Our Hands Sunday because of a timing conflict with Rally Sunday -- an intergenerational group of Good Shepherd members gathered to compile the kits and write loving notes to attach to the bags letting the recipients know that they are loved. Once complete, the church celebrated by breaking bread together as well.
“It worked great; everyone was involved,” Laines said. “It was a good day for everyone to be gathered together.”
Eventually, the church decided to deliver 30 of the kits to Peoples Church in Bemidji, 30 of the kits to Churches United in Moorhead, a shelter that also serves those who are unhoused, and they hand delivered 15 kits to their local law enforcement personnel who also encounter situations with people who don’t have shelter.
Laines volunteered to be the one to drop off the kits at Churches United in Moorhead, an experience that left an impact on her.
“It brings you down to earth when you come face to face with those in need,” Laines said. “You need to do it to know how good it feels. They were so grateful. That warmed my heart!””
Pastor Birgitte Simpson, who is a mission developer at Peoples Church, said that the “Warm Hearts Warm Hands” project led to the shelter receiving about 100 individual winter kits from a total of six congregations throughout the synod.
“We started getting boxes of things from people,” Pastor Simpson said. “Some have beautiful messages of support. It’s really awesome!”
Peoples Church, which according to its website, is “a multicultural mission congregation … with a primary focus on aiding and uplifting local people who are experiencing the crisis of living without a home or without enough food to sustain them.”
And the church’s roots run deep in Bemidji.
About 25 years ago, Pastor Bob Kelly began holding a Bible study in the building where Peoples Church is now housed on the south side of Bemidji, in a neighborhood known as Nymore. That night, after the Bible study, Pastor Kelly learned that some who had attended did not have shelter. And so, he invited them to stay at the church. Ever since, Peoples Church has aimed to serve those who find themselves without housing.
The result of the work over the last quarter of a century has led to a ministry wholly unlike any other. Peoples Church nowadays serves many who have been chronically without housing -- some for years -- and so they serve emergent, as well as chronic shelter needs.
In addition, Peoples Church is an active worshiping community too. And so, every Sunday Synod Authorized Minister, Julia Plum presides over a service right there at the church.
Additionally, the church aims to provide a stable food source to those who don’t have shelter, serving a hot dinner five nights a week and a breakfast every day of the week.
Finally, Peoples Church also serves as an indigenous ministry in Bemidji, incorporating elements of native theology into its overall worshiping community.
With such a unique ministry portfolio, and few typical worshiping members, the shelter/church looks to funding sources from the MN department of human services, the broader ELCA church, the synod, and congregational and individual partners. And given the size of the need for service, Peoples Church is always searching for more funding.
So, Pastor Simpson said that donations such as the ones that came from the “Warm Hearts Warm Hands” project are vital for a couple of reasons.
First, the obvious: Those who use the Peoples Church’s services benefit because even if they can’t or choose not to stay in the shelter, they can take these small, individualized kits with them when they go back out into the elements. And, in Minnesota winters, these kits could literally save lives.
And second, Pastor Simpson said, whatever resources that Peoples Church doesn’t have to purchase, leaves more money for operations. More specifically, it means more money to pay staff wages, which means that the shelter can operate longer hours and serve people longer.
“For us to be a shelter to be open all year round is vital to the community,” said Pastor Simpson, adding that a common misperception is that those without shelter only need services like Peoples Church in the winter.
Actually, she said, those without shelter utilize their services all year long. Yes, in the winter they’re escaping the cold. But in the summer, people are escaping the heat, and in the other seasons, they’re escaping wet and muddy conditions too.
Pastor Simpson said the shelter can comfortably accommodate 25 adults, with 30 being the absolute maximum. But, she said, if people come to the church in need, no one gets turned away. Not even those with children. “In those cases, we find a way. We have too.”
Bemidji’s homelessness situation is a small microcosm of the housing problem nationwide, the pastor said.
“There’s just not enough housing for people. Until we invest in building more, we’re going to have challenges (housing everyone),” she said. “There’s just not enough places to live, period. We have people at our shelter who have full-time jobs who don’t have places to live. They work full-time, and they are literally homeless!”
Pastor Simpson said the donations received through the “Warm Hearts Warm Hands” project are very much appreciated, and the church even held a special blessing for them on their altar one Sunday during service. Now, the kits are being put to good use, and they are making their way through the Bemidji community.
But of course, homelessness is experienced year-round, not just in winter, and so Peoples Church dreams of forming relationships with other Northwestern Minnesota Synod churches that are ongoing.
And donations are accepted all year long.
Peoples Church website at https://peopleschurch-elca.org/ contains an updated list of current needs at the shelter, which currently reads: blankets, coffee, sugar and creamer, peanut butter and jelly, bread, milk, cereal, cleaning supplies and hygiene supplies.
“We would love to have a relationship with the congregations of our synod!” Pastor Simpson said. “We will always take donations, and I'll even drive to pick up donations or people can drop them off at the synod office in Moorhead.”
Pastor Simpson also is willing to visit congregations to share Peoples Church ministry, and how God is showing up in their community. “I would be honored to lead Bible studies or education time with adults or youth or kids or to preach!”
You can get in touch with Peoples Church by calling (218) 214-9066 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The church’s mailing address is P.O. Box 2050, Bemidji, MN 56619.