Meeting Homelessness Face to Face

by Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Recently, I came face to face with homelessness for the first time. Sure, I’ve read the stories and statistics. But in my deepest depths, I never quite believed that homelessness really existed where I live, in Faribault. We are, after all, a city of 25,000 in out-state, not metropolitan, Minnesota. We are a growing, dynamic community. Our official website says so.

However, that naiveté—or perhaps a case of not wanting to believe—changed when I met a woman after Sunday worship at my congregation, Trinity Lutheran Church.

When the middle-aged woman and her companion, a young man in his late 20s or early 30s, walk into our nearly-empty narthex, I can’t help but notice them. In their worn attire, they don’t fit in.

Even writing that last sentence, I feel profoundly judgmental. I have just come from a contemporary “connection” service where I’ve sung about embracing others. Although I can’t recall the exact words, I remember a line about a strange woman slipping into the pews and the staring glances of faithful worshipers.

I confess that on this particular Sunday morning I am more cautious than welcoming. As the woman enters the narthex, I approach her because, clearly, she is looking for someone.

“Can I help you?” I ask as she walks toward me. Her male friend (maybe he is her son) is already halfway across the room. I keep a distrustful eye on him. Earlier this year, a stranger prowled our church during worship and stole a computer and other items. Since then, we have been watchful.

As I am thinking all of this, the woman asks to speak with the pastor, whom she met months earlier. “Which pastor?” I ask, giving their names.

She doesn’t remember. I tell her I will take her to a pastor. As we head toward his office, she explains how she already has been to another church in town that morning, seeking help. She found none there, although, she says, she got a doughnut.

I am surprised that she shares this information—and her first name. Perhaps she is trying to emphasize her desperate situation.

She talks about a man who “tricked” her—and something about the wife he is divorcing and that’s why she is without a place to live. I don’t understand. It seems complicated and messy. But rather than probe, which is typical of me, I keep quiet. She seems to need a listening ear, and I can at least give her that, I tell myself, and her dignity.

Then she apologizes for her comments. I tell her she’s entitled.

We are walking through the gym now. Volunteers are setting out food for an afternoon reception. “Are you having a lunch here?” she asks.

The optimism in her voice is palpable.

“Oh, it’s a reception for someone who is retiring,” I reply, knowing full well that she’s likely hungry. I wish I could offer her some food, but I don’t feel it’s my right to do so.

Then we are at the main office, where the pastor is just leaving.“These folks would like to talk to you,” I say, wishing I could remember the woman’s name.

Typically, I am good at recalling names.

As I turn to leave, the pastor unlocks his door and ushers the pair inside. The door closes.

I walk away, the words of Matthew 25 echoing in my head: “I was hungry and you gave me food, . . . I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Have I truly done that? I ask myself. Sure, I took her to see Pastor. But even now, days later, I wonder: By failing to remember her name, will it will be easier for me to dismiss her and her homelessness?

About the Author: Audrey Kletscher Helbling is a writer from Faribault, Minn., and a member of Trinity Lutheran Church.

What Happens When the Door Closes?

Like many other LCMS congregations, Trinity, Faribault, has a longstanding human-care ministry that reaches out to people in need.

Trinity Lutheran Church, Faribault, had an active human-care ministry when he was called to the congregation a quarter-century ago, observes Rev. Steven Kuehne, assistant pastor. Begun by lay members, the ministry serves people confronting a variety of issues. Also, Kuehne adds, it is part of a community network that includes other churches and local social-service agencies. “I was impressed with the ministry when I got here,” he says.

Kuehne notes that the help might be as modest as providing vouchers for gas at local stations or as significant as helping a pregnant young woman whose unborn child was in need of heart surgery.

The young woman had no money for the surgery and no way to get to the out-of-state hospital where the surgery could be performed, Kuehne explains. Trinity, along with its fellow congregations and community partners, found the resources to pay for the surgery and travel expenses.

Because Faribault lies alongside Interstate 35, a major Midwest north-south artery, requests for help come, not only from the community, but also from people passing through, Kuehne says. If the help requested is beyond the scope of Trinity’s ability to assist, individuals are referred to agencies that can provide appropriate resources.

Trinity sponsors a Stephen Ministry also. And at the beginning of the year, the congregation joined other churches and community organizations in establishing Faribault’s Community Cathedral Café, a service that provides a complete evening meal once a week. Kuehne says the meal is free and attendance averages more than 100.

The congregations in Faribault give generously to support human-care efforts, but with the recession, they are finding themselves stretched pretty thin, Kuehne says. At Trinity, however, members still contribute faithfully. “We have a standing fund for human care, and when that fund drops to a certain level, we ask for donations. We’ve always been able to replenish it.”

Web-exclusive Story

Helping the Homeless: A Sleeping Mat Ministry

Congregations across the Synod are reaching out with hands of mercy in numerous ways. Writer and editor Sandy Wood explores one imaginative ministry to the homeless: Making sleeping mats out of plastic shopping bags. The mats are versatile and serve as a witness to Christ’s love.

Read how Immanuel Lutheran Church and School in palatine, Ill., is taking part in this ministry. — J.H.H.

September 2010

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