Polar Vortex Creates an Opportunity for a Church to Serve the Homeless

By Brett Hetherington*

What does a church that loves look like?

That is a question that the leadership of Lakewood United Methodist Church (North Coast District) is walking through with the congregation this year. In fact, the current sermon series at Lakewood UMC is entitled “Our Purpose is Love.” During the Rev. Laura Jaissle’s sermon on a recent Sunday she felt God nudging her about how best to live this purpose in their community. From that inspiration, came the thought of opening the doors of the church to serve as a warming center during the brutally-cold days of the late-January Polar Vortex.

“Our sermon series is called ‘Our Purpose is Love,’ so I had to ask myself, what does a church look like that loves?” Jaissle shared. She went on to elaborate, “I felt like it would have been selfish not to use the resources God has given us.”

Lakewood UMC already is utilizing it’s building for many other purposes. In fact, nearly 1,200 people make use of the various recovery programs the church offers. The church also provides regular community meals. In Lakewood many people know the church as being a beacon of love in the community. But the church strives to do more.

Lead Pastor the Rev. Dan Bryant handled getting clearances from the various government agencies that need to approve a space for such a purpose. He arranged for the Red Cross to provide cots to sleep on. When asked about opening the church doors wide, he gestured to a sign hanging in the church hallway that boldly displays Hebrews 13.2: “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it.”

Bryant shared that the church is walking through what it means to live into the covenant of being United Methodists in discipleship. To Know, To Love and To Serve God is key in the ministry philosophy of the church.

That philosophy is even being communicated to the community in such a way that it is infectious. Many of the volunteers helping out during this frigid weather do not attend Lakewood UMC for services. Some do not attend any church at all. One volunteer shared that he had seen a message on a community Facebook page and reached out to volunteer his time to serve. The police department checks in with the volunteers regularly, and even is expected to bring people in to the shelter if they find those who need warmth.

Almost every resource that is being used to care for those who are making use of the warming center has been donated. Every meal that is served comes from the generosity of others. There are tables piled with warm weather clothing to be given away to those who need it. Many who are staying in the church building normally sleep in their cars, and simply needed to avoid the cold. One such guest was shocked at the generosity of the people of the church when they offered to take him to his car that needed to be moved, fill the tire with air, pay to replace the faulty valve stem, put gas in the empty tank, and bring him back to park the car in the church parking lot. The man was so touched by the church’s generosity that he even volunteered to serve in the kitchen.

This event has opened the eyes of the leadership of Lakewood United Methodist Church. They want to be ready for next time and are looking into becoming certified as an official warming center. There are plans being made to have shower facilities installed (currently they have arrangements to transport individuals to a facility with showers should they want or need to avail themselves). Lakewood UMC wants to continue to be a beacon of God’s love in their community.

Jaissle put it best when she asked “What does it mean to be the church? Because if the church can’t do this, there is a problem in our world.”

If you have a story of how God is using your local church in your community, please contact me at bhetherington@eocumc.com. The East Ohio Conference Communications team wants to tell your story.

*Brett Hetherington is the Communications Specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.