Living and Growing: A house of welcome

Practice Random Acts of Kindness. I have been thinking about this phrase lately in relation to the outpouring of goodwill for the Youth Shelter we have opened at Northern Light United Church. It conveys a sense of hope that witnesses against cynicism and despair, even as I wonder whether it is enough. The Youth Shelter for homeless Yakoosgé Daakahídi High School students is a cooperative venture of the church, the Glory Hole, Yakoosgé Daakahídi, and the community at large that has been buoyed by many acts of kindness. The Youth Shelter has been featured previously in the Empire. Bishop Burns wrote about the shelter and its needs on August 19, and a Neighbors Section story ran on September 2. Over 30 people have signed up to volunteer. The City and Borough and the neighborhood have expressed support. Numerous individuals and groups have donated money and dropped off snacks, personal care items, socks, and blankets. The most random act of kindness came from an Atlanta nurse who was in town filling in at Bartlett Hospital. She arrived at the church with a photocopy of Bishop Burn’s piece and boxes of donations. She collected soap and shampoo from the motel where she was staying, solicited toothbrushes and toothpaste from dentist offices, and bought three boxes of spiral notebooks and pens she found on sale at a local store. She had to hurry off to catch her plane back to Georgia, and I didn’t even learn her name. The backing we have received from so many is encouraging. We are a community of compassion that believes that everyone deserves a roof over their head. Thank you!

“How is the shelter going?” is a question I frequently hear at church and on the street. In many ways, the answer is, “Great!” We have hired two terrific staff persons and interest in the shelter remains strong. The only problem is that we have had few students stay. On one level, this is not a problem at all. If it means there are fewer homeless students than we thought, this would be good news. There are, however, other factors. Some who need help are hesitant to ask because of the stigma attached. Some are couch surfing or camping but will need a more secure or warmer option before long. Some might resist even the minimum rules the shelter has. There are others who might benefit from the shelter who are not Yakoosgé Daakahídi students, and we have not found ways to communicate with them or develop appropriate intake procedures. But there is one reason I have heard from some students who have stayed at the shelter that haunts and saddens me. They have friends who could be staying at the shelter but who will not come because it is in a church.

A 2007 survey of 16- to 29-year-olds found that a majority view churches as judgmental, hypocritical and focused on being anti-gay. If this is the way churches are viewed, no wonder students are hesitant to stay at the shelter. Churches have divergent views on sexual orientation and differing ways to address issues of accountability, but I know of no congregation that aspires to be judgmental, hypocritical, or anti-people. On the contrary, hospitality is a central tenet of virtually all religious traditions. The way we express this at Northern Light includes a pledge to welcome people into fellowship and leadership “without regard to race, class, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, age or disability.” Each Sunday when we gather for worship we declare that “whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” But our declarations are for naught if we and other religious communities are perceived as unwelcoming. At best, we have a public relations problem, because fair or not, perception is reality. When it comes to offering shelter and other aspects of hospitality, it behooves all of us to do some soul searching to discern whether we really are as friendly as we say we are. We can also continue to offer a word of welcome, and we can redouble efforts at extending the welcome mat, because actions speak louder than words.

Random acts of kindness are what make Juneau a great place. Let’s continue to practice them. Sooner or later, the actions will speak loudly enough and those who need shelter will find it. Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, may you find a place of welcome.

• Campbell is the pastor of Northern Light United Church


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