Standing outside First Presbyterian Church, San Anselmo, three of us held umbrellas as sheets of rain poured down around us. It was getting dark and the cold weather was not making it any better. On this particular rainy night in March, we expected a packed house of homeless men seeking shelter from the elements, a warm meal and compassion.
“Good evening,” said a tall, lanky man in his late 50s as he stepped off a yellow school bus that brought the men to the church. “It’s good to see all of you again tonight.”
One by one, the men stepped off the bus and carried their belongings into the church. Some of the men had book bags, others only had garbage bags to store their belongings. But as they walked off the bus and into the church hall looking tired from being on the streets all day, they began to engage with volunteers from San Francisco Theological Seminary.
The emergency shelter program is run by the St. Vincent DePaul Society of Marin and is a collaboration of churches and synagogues, which take turns providing a warm place for homeless people to sleep and eat a home-cooked meal. For the past three winters, First Presbyterian Church, San Anselmo, has been hosting an average of 40 men weekly in its Duncan Hall.
On two nights during the winter of 2012, the SFTS community partnered with the church to set up the hall, provide and serve home-cooked meals and wash dishes. But the most important gift SFTS community members gave was being a presence in the lives of these men, and taking time to have fellowship and break bread.
“Being recognized is one of the biggest gifts these men can receive,” said Joy Snyder, the shelter coordinator. Snyder and her colleague, Phyllis Ongaro, have made it their mission to help the men feel at home and offer hospitality by intentionally serving and waiting on the them, restaurant-style.
While this may seem like something simple, it’s the simple things that let the men know that there are people who care about them.
“I heard Joy tell one of the men ‘I’m so glad you guys are with us tonight. This way I know you’re all taken care of,’” said Matthias Peterson-Brandt, a Master of Divinity student. “To me, that is such a Jesus-like sentiment.”
Since First Presbyterian began hosting homeless men, SFTS students have volunteered at the shelter. This year, the seminary community took on the extra responsibility of providing all volunteers on two nights.
“Getting help from non-church members and the SFTS community were two goals of mine,” Snyder said. “It was great to have the seminary community involved in supporting the shelter.”
One of the hopes for the emergency shelter, according to Snyder, is to help eradicate the stereotypical images of homelessness, especially in Marin County where the homeless population is often invisible to most people. According to statistics provided by St. Vincent de Paul Society of Marin, there are 1,770 homeless people in Marin and at least 3,000 others on the verge of homelessness. Aid workers believe the numbers fall far short of reality. For 90 percent of the homeless, their last permanent housing was in Marin. Most live in San Rafael, Novato and Sausalito. More than half are white, three quarters are single, 60 percent are male and 20 percent are children.
“I seized the opportunity to help cook for the men at the shelter because there is a risk of the seminary becoming detached from involvement outside of our studies,” Peterson-Brandt said. “Also, it can be daunting to look for outside volunteer opportunities. So when I got the email looking for volunteers, I knew I had to sign up.”
The homeless men, who were served delicious pasta by the seminary students, weren’t the only ones who were touched by their warm hearts and generosity. SFTS community members were likewise filled with warmth and compassion as they dined and had fellowship with the homeless men.
“Volunteering with the homeless shelter was an enriching experience,” said Darice Balabanis, a SFTS student. “Engaging with the men and women of the faith community to impact those at the shelter was both valuable and rewarding.”