We invited American Baptists from across the country to share their Ministry Stories with the American Baptist Family and with the world! This is a part of the Transformed by the Spirit initiative. Want to share your story? Written and Video submissions are invited at: email@example.com. View the full list of Ministry Story Opportunity Submissions.
Shelter Our Sisters Hospitality House
Transformed by the Spirit – Ministry Story Opportunity
The Mission Story of First Baptist of Cranford/Elizabeth, NJ
In February of 2012, a mother and her young daughter, who had no place to stay, moved into the Hospitality House affiliated with our church. The House is designed for homeless families who are transitioning to independence. The mother is a member of our church. She came to this country, as a refugee who spoke no English, with a very young child. The church helped her receive language instruction, and paid for her to take a course to become a home health aide. She found work in her field, secured a second job, and continued to look to the church for encouragement. One church member picked up her daughter from school, while another diligently cared for her child after school and helped with homework. Other church members provided rides for the mother, when catching the bus was not feasible. The church supported the family in various ways. In fact, years earlier, the mother and daughter had lived with a church family for nearly a year.
In May of 2014, the mother and daughter moved into their own apartment. The daughter who spoke no English when she first came to the church is now an honor student who dreams of attending Princeton. The mother, needless to say, is proud of her accomplishments and her ability to support her family. Living as head of her household, she is forced to work long hours, but states, “I am happy to provide for my daughter and myself. It is good to have my own place to live in.”
This is a powerful story of how a multicultural, urban church with a worshiping congregation of approximately 70 persons approached homelessness as an opportunity to literally open its doors to the community. While many congregations our size would refrain from such an undertaking, we embarked upon this new ministry as an act of faith and as a matter of pursuing justice for the poor. We saw what needed to be done, without seeing how we would do it financially.
We also saw the need to connect the dots theologically. That is, we drew upon the experience of nurturing and pastoring refugees in years past, and housing the homeless during the winter months in the present. We garnered wisdom from our pastor’s D. Min. thesis on urban ministry, and we identified the growing edges in our meal ministries. Bringing together various pieces of our ministry, in a way that helped us to see how God was at work, led us to name ample space in our basement and an empty parsonage as resources. Moreover, our vision led us to reach out to other faith communities. We partnered with a local Catholic ministry with extensive experience housing the homeless. Add to these ingredients a pastor with a heart for the city, who was receptive to the unpredictable workings of the Holy Spirit, and you end up with an amazing narrative of a church that offers a true home for the homeless.
Speaking of our pastor, in 2012 she shared her vision of transforming vacant space in our buildings into places of ministry to the marginalized. When she challenged us to use our empty parsonage as transitional housing for the homeless women and their families, she led us to pray fervently for $10,000 to cover the House’s utility costs for the first year. A few days later, a person asked to meet with her, and handed her $10,000 in cash for the House. (We said that this was a powerful story, didn’t we?) These miraculous acts of God’s faithfulness enable us to follow the Spirit’s lead without knowing exactly where we will end up.
The Shelter Our Sisters (SOS) Hospitality House, which is located in our four-bedroom parsonage, is a ministry of the First Baptist Church of Cranford/Elizabeth, NJ. It was birthed after the church recognized that the demographics of homelessness in NJ have changed: working families who can no longer afford rising housing costs are the new face of homelessness. In a city where the majority of shelters serve men, SOS offers homeless women, including single mothers with young children, transitional housing and a realistic path to obtain permanent housing. Our aim is to empower families to move from dependency to self-sufficiency, spiritually, emotionally, and geographically. Therefore, the SOS ministry requires women to be employed, even part-time, as a means of achieving self-reliance.
Unlike other programs, SOS provides rent-free housing for a period of up to twenty-four months, and mandates that participants place half their income in a savings account, which is used to secure housing at the end of their stay. Applicants are screened by a team of social workers to assess whether the House is the right fit for them. Because a “one size fits all” approach to ministry is counterproductive, in light of the unique circumstances of each family, the church provides a financial coach and a trained counselor to work with families throughout their stay. Our program also involves an assessment process whereby we evaluate our goals, our effectiveness in meeting the needs of homeless families, and identify our strengths and weaknesses.
Although our vision was to provide dignified transitional housing to single women in the wider community, we were forced to confront homelessness within our own congregation. How could we deny housing to our own sisters in Christ and their families, even though their everyday reality did not meet the requirements of our written statements? Consequently, as a nimble church that adapts to ever-changing circumstances in our community, we expanded our mission statement so that we could respond to the actual circumstances in which our members found themselves, as reflected in the following story.
During one Saturday in the summer of 2013, a young man helped unpack a car-load of luggage, and carried it into the Hospitality House. He had just left the house that his family was renting in a neighboring town, because of his family’s inability to manage the rent and deal with a hostile landlord. Our young church member laid claim to his own space by placing his belongings in his own room. He was relieved that the House would allow him and his family to live under the same roof and be within walking distance of the church. Through the church’s assistance, this young man found his first job and his mother secured part-time work. The church continues to journey with them during this period of transition.
The SOS Hospitality House is an important component of a comprehensive ministry of serving the homeless and hungry, which includes a soup kitchen, food pantry, and monthly housing of the homeless during the winter months. Oh, and the ample space in the basement that we mentioned earlier, is used to house a nationally-recognized ministry, Family Promise, which assists homeless families in finding permanent housing. The basement is now equipped with showers, and a washer and dryer, installed by Family Promise. This enables the church to serve as their day site for homeless families. Indeed, one reason for seeking funds for SOS is to enable us to continue to support our current ministries to those who are struggling with food insecurity and homelessness.
This is the story of God’s people at First Baptist of Cranford/Elizabeth, NJ–and we own it! And we work and wait as the Holy Spirit writes the next chapters.