Volunteer Marvin Sullivan of Meridian Street United Methodist Church helps a guest make a pizza. Each family made their own pizzas for their Friday night dinner.

“As people of faith, we are required to serve the least among us.” – Jim McElhinney

INDIANAPOLIS – “I have never been in anything like this,” said Brandon Harris, Sr., 38. “I’ve worked my whole life and have never been in this situation before.”

The “situation” Harris finds himself in is homeless. The single father of two boys, 11 and 12, became homeless when the construction company he worked for went under.

But though he’s homeless, he’s not on the streets. Thanks to the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Indianapolis, an affiliate of the national Family Promise program, he and his boys are guests of a network of congregations that take in homeless families for a week at a time, providing them with safety, shelter, meals and transportation to social service agencies for the parents or grandparents and to school for the children.

The week before Christmas, Harris, his boys and three other families – six adults and seven children in total – spent the week at Meridian Street United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. The United Methodist Church in Indiana is the faith group with the most congregations in the program, providing 11 of the 29 congregations in the Indianapolis Interfaith Hospitality Network.

“As people of faith, we are required to serve the least among us,” said Jim McElhinney, the local IHN program’s executive director. “The law, the prophets and the Gospels are all clear that God cares for those who are most vulnerable. IHN offers a way for congregations to do this in a manner that is accessible to all congregants – the work is done in a safe place: our own house of worship. The fact that the people we serve who are homeless are invited into our own houses (of worship) is not lost on our guests. Our guests feel valued at a time when society as a whole devalues persons.”

Meridian Street’s program coordinator, Marcia Angstadt, said IHN offers something other shelters can’t.

“We have a broad definition of ‘family,’ said Angstadt, who also serves on the board of directors of IHN of Indianapolis/Family Promise. “It doesn’t matter if the parents are married, if they are straight or gay. We look at the needs of the children.” Another benefit of IHN, Angstadt said, is that the guests know that the people at the church are all volunteers, not paid staff.

Hosting rotates weekly among the host congregations in the network from Sunday to Sunday, providing lodging, meals and hospitality. From 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., guests use a local day center where a professional social worker provides case management services. There guests can pursue employment, tend to pre-school children, shower and do laundry. The day care center also provides guests with a mailing address. Many guests are employed during the day, and children attend school.

A host church never serves more than four families at a time. A congregation will host families three or four times a year, for a week.

At Meridian Street UMC, the program is overseen by the Rev. Jen Gibbs, associate pastor.

“We have three team leaders who have empowered other teams to form, who plan throughout the year how to love, welcome and empower families in their time with us,” Gibbs said. “They seek to help ensure that healthy family patterns, food and conversation are a part of every stay and that families feel loved and cared for. This includes welcome signs and a bulletin board of welcome.”

Margaret Figley is a “graduate” of IHN, a 31-year-old single mother of four, who is employed and living in an apartment. One of the things she values about the program is the connections she made, finding a job, finding an apartment and finding a car. The Friday before Christmas she was back at Meridian Street, passing on job leads she has received.

“Everybody is going to need help in their lives,” Figley said, “but you have to work for what you want, you can’t just put your arms out and think someone’s going to give you everything. I worked two jobs while I was in IHN.”

Figley emphasizes that she was a beneficiary of IHN’s policy of putting the needs of the children first. She said when she was homeless she was turned down for transient housing, because she had too many children.

“I’ve been very lucky. I’m very blessed,” she said.

But the blessings don’t all flow to the guests.

“The effects of this ministry in our congregation are powerful,” Gibbs said, “I think a church member said it best this week when she said she walked into fellowship hall, and church members and IHN guests were there eating and playing. She didn’t know who was whom; it was like one family. She was pretty sure she saw the Kingdom of God.”

If your congregation is interested in becoming a host congregation, Jim McElhinney can be reached at 317-261-1562 or jim@familypromiseindyihn.org.

NOTE: Central Indiana United Methodist congregations participating in IHN are: Carmel, Carmel St. Mark’s, Castleton, Fishers, Meridian Street, North, Old Bethel, Southport, The Promise, Wesley and Zionsville.