Looking out for neighbors in need this winter season

It was our first big snowstorm as coordinator of the Fredericksburg churches’ homeless ministry. Naively, we assumed that friends in need would be anxiously awaiting when the doors to the fellowship hall opened, offering round-the-clock shelter until the blizzard passed. With the weatherman calling for close to two feet of snow, most people barely wanted to leave their own homes. Much less, could they imagine managing without one.

When the flakes started falling, anxieties rose with each accumulated inch. Not even half of the people we expected to seek the safety and warmth of our pop-up shelter had made it in. Did they not know we were open? Were they stuck somewhere? Was it a transportation issue?

The Micah team started making calls and eventually set out to the 4x4 of a few volunteers to good use.

When they found the crew they were looking for, the snow was up to their knees and the path to and from the campsite could barely be deciphered.

Our street friends, however, were much more concerned with making sure the latest arctic blast didn’t claim what little hope they had left in the world.

The good news is the team made it back to their cars that afternoon and would live to see our homeless friends through far too many future snow storms.

The bad news: We learned that day about the humanity that dissipates and the survivalism that rises, when humans have no other option than making their home in the woods.

You don’t come inside when the only thing between a blizzard and all your worldly belongings are a couple of metal poles and square of canvas.

You stay behind with your campmates, hunker down, and take turns beating the snow off the tent while the other takes a nap.

Only when the snow stops after 36 hours and almost two feet, do you call the very worried Micah team to come get you.

While helping people meet basic needs and, frankly, survive, is not the favorite outcomes-based story, it is this moment in the snow that reminds me of how very important it is to come alongside our neighbors in need with the simplest of help. With that sentiment, it is fair to say that the hearts of our homeless friends have been literally warmed by the people who have joined us in this mission.

It is seen in the faces of joyful volunteers who show up every winter to make beds, drive buses, pour coffee and watch football with those who would otherwise be outside on the winter’s frigid nights. It is the hope that is found in the face of the tent and sleeping bag recipient when they realize not having a home doesn’t mean they can’t have some form of protection from the elements. It is the relief in the bodies of those who benefit from warm hats, gloves and sturdy jackets.

Sometimes the mission of keeping people from freezing to death is purely enough as our collaboration of churches works toward a just, kind and humble community where all neighbors belong, participate, meet each other’s needs and engage in meaningful relationship. Meeting people where they are and in their darkest place of struggle is, of course, where such possibilities begin.

Meghann Cotter is executive director of Micah Ecumenical Ministries, a faith-based nonprofit that offers holistic care to the Fredericksburg’s street homeless.

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