Rhonda Galbraith knew she wanted her church to serve as an emergency cold weather shelter for homeless women. But there was a catch: the church she pastors, Grace United Methodist Church in Springfield, was located near a school. And she knew that would make things delicate.
"But we made an appeal to Planning and Zoning and City Council three years ago. And we have a working relationship with the school across the street from us, and they gave us their blessing," Galbraith said.
Now, on nights when the temperature is expected to reach 32 degrees, her church doors swing open wide—even if there’s a church service the next morning.
"It's no different than a regular business day because the the women are all up and gone by 7:00 a.m. and they are given bus passes to get them to Veterans Coming Home for breakfast," Galbraith said, referring to a drop-in center downtown.
Both Galbraith and Karen Mizell, pastor at East Sunshine Church of Christ, which operates another crisis cold weather shelter for men, made an appeal to other churches and the public in November: Springfield desperately needs more buildings and volunteers to help shelter the homeless from the winter cold.
Because of social distancing, the emergency cold weather shelters have had to reduce their capacity by half. In addition, the volunteer pool operating the shelters has thinned dramatically. See our reporting on that here.
"I am more than willing to talk with anyone from another congregation to share with our experience and how we could walk alongside to make the opening of another shelter easier for them," Mizell said.
But so far, those volunteers have not emerged. Many of the people who have traditionally volunteered are retirees—a demographic particularly susceptible to COVID-19 complications.
In a letter submitted to Springfield’s city leaders late last month, a new, NAACP task force studying Springfield's homeless asked that unsheltered residents be allowed to sleep undisturbed in tents or under tarps through the winter.
That task force includes multiple pastors. A portion of their letter reads, "out of the more than 400 churches in the city of Springfield, less than ten have been willing to offer their spaces as cold-weather shelter locations."
There are more than 200 unsheltered residents in Springfield, according to the city's most recent, federally mandated, point-in-time count, which occurred in January of this year.
Since the men's cold weather shelter in particular is expected to reach capacity soon, many homeless men are worried they might not survive the winter outdoors.
"Every religious person should be asking, 'What are we doing? What are we doing?' Not, 'Who are we praying for,' and not, 'what are we hoping happens,'" said Katie Kring, an advocate who sits on the NAACP task force.
Kring says she’s disappointed that Springfield has not seen a stronger volunteer response to the call for help during the pandemic.
What can churches do to help?
Churches interested in helping address the cold weather shelter shortage in Springfield can find out more at www.cpozarks.org/coldweather.
As the founder of the Springfield Street Choir, Kring says she often sees churches donate what they think the homeless might need rather than listening to the people in the trenches on what the actual needs are—like volunteers and building space.
"There are some churches that have a lot of resources and there are some churches that have limited resources. And I go to church that is both small and full of old people who don't have a ton of energy for major projects," Kring said.
Kring suggests smaller churches can partner with larger congregations to achieve more. And while faith groups often think of community service in terms of donations, Kring says there’s an equally important way they can create change in the community.
"The churches have a voice. And they have moral authority if they choose to use it and claim it. If every church-going person in Springfield, which is, you know, most of the people in Springfield, used their political power with the city to say, 'As Christian people, the suffering of our neighbors offends us. And we do not accept it. We demand of our city that we do better.' If the churches said that, we would not be having this conversation," Kring said.
In Springfield, there’s a large coalition of churches that is very active in serving the needs of the vulnerable: the Council of Churches of the Ozarks has at least nine outreach programs that serve children, seniors and families in need. One of those programs is a large food pantry, Crosslines.
We asked for her thoughts on the critique that Springfield churches aren’t doing enough to shelter local homeless residents, Council of Churches spokeswoman Christina Cook said she can't speak on behalf of individual churches’ budgets or priorities. But collectively, she said, churches are already playing a critical role in sheltering the homeless: Council of Churches operates the year-round women’s overnight shelter in Springfield, Safe to Sleep.