A Church That’s More Than a Church

Pastor Richard Berry never planned to turn his church into a homeless shelter. It just happened.

For years, Richard had invited a certain friend (“Stan”) to visit his church, Trinity EFC in Skowhegan, Maine. No dice. Stan wasn’t interested. But one day two years ago, an unfortunate event changed that. “I’m going to be homeless and on the street at noon,” Stan told Richard. “I have an eviction notice. What can I do?”

The two men stared at each other for a moment. Stan had never faced homelessness before. Neither had Richard. But the pastor could imagine no less than offering a couch in one of the church’s empty rooms.

As Stan settled in and helped around the church, Richard realized that the need was bigger than one man: The church was also committed to ministry in a local prison, and ex-offenders were being turned out onto the streets after serving their sentences. Some were sleeping under bridges.

So Richard approached the church’s leadership team and ‘fessed up about Stan. He also addressed the growing need of the men they’d been discipling at the prison: “These are our brothers; I believe we have to do something.”

The congregation voted unanimously to let the men stay in the church building. Richard and others organized daily prayer meetings, incorporated the men into church life, and began connecting them with social services and free medical care.

Not quite “smooth sailing”

Over the next 1-1/2 years, however, Richard saw 80 percent of church members change their minds about the idea and leave, including several from his own extended family (four generations of which attended Trinity EFC). By then, the numbers had grown to as many as 38 men living in the church. Soon, state fire marshals were paying a visit. Several visits, in fact.

“At our third such meeting,” Richard says, “at 25 degrees below zero, they pointed out three-and-a-half pages of code violations and said, ‘You’ve got to fix it or we’ll tell you to send these guys out.’”

“Fixing” the church wasn’t a feasible option. But what about constructing another building that met code? The fire marshals conveyed that as long as they could see progress, they wouldn’t shut down the shelter. “Progress” wasn’t clearly defined, so Trinity EFC leaders and the men started building as fast as they could secure donations. And each week there was some “progress.”

The building, scheduled for completion by Christmas 2010, has the capacity for 60 men living dorm-style upstairs and for four handicapped residents downstairs. It is the only Christian shelter in New England that will take the handicapped.

And it might well be the only group with a 90-percent rate of healing from drug and alcohol addiction. One social-services worker told Richard, “I’ve never believed in God and never gone to church; but that’s a miracle and there’s got to be a God.”

Last year Trinity EFC received an award for best crisis organization in Maine—the first time it was granted to a faith-based group.

The shelter is now operating as a separate congregation—a church plant called Church in a Church EFC, with its own finances and recognized by the New England District of the EFCA. Richard pastors both congregations.

Changed from the inside out

“All these guys are a family to us,” Richard says. “We’re doing things the way they did them in Acts Chapters 2 and 4. The people who left said, ‘We can’t go to church with those kinds of people.’ But the ones who stayed don’t see ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Now there is just ‘us.’”

“It is not the same church,” agrees Ron Spaulding, Richard’s nephew and an elder at Trinity EFC as well as church chairman. “Our church actually had the reputation of being the ‘mean’ church in town.

“We had a lot of one-hour Christians (show up for one hour each week and your work is done). Those who were active in the church were far more interested in theology and deeper learning than in doing anything with the knowledge they had acquired.

“For a long time I was one of them. Had I not joined the prison-ministry team and had the church not made the decision to take care of the homeless, my faith would be dead and I would still be a one-hour Christian.”

Despite 80 percent of its giving walking out the door, Trinity EFC has remained in the black. Church in a Church EFC supports itself through fundraising. In January 2010, both congregations even helped launch a women’s and children’s shelter at another Evangelical Free Church 15 miles north.

“Not everybody is going to have people living in their church,” Richard recognizes. “But every church has people around them who are hurting desperately, people who don’t turn to the church because churches haven’t been there for this kind of stuff.”

Church in a Church EFC now hosts about 20 men in temperate months and close to 40 in the winter. In their combined services, about 100 people call Trinity EFC and Church in a Church EFC their home. To learn more, contact Pastor Richard Berry via e-mail or phone (207-474-8833).

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