Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Sermon on Jeremiah 18:1-11, Mt. Lebanon UMC

Jeremiah 18:1-11
Sermon, Mt. Lebanon UMC, September 8th, 2013
Carolyn Gordon, Family Promise NNCC

First and foremost, thank you for this opportunity.  Mt. Lebanon is a beloved faith community within the Family Promise congregational network. I feel very blessed to be able to share with you all here today.  Jeremiah chapter 18 speaks to me about transformations and I would like to talk about this today.  Family Promise is all about transformations, not only of the families we serve but of ourselves because of the experience helping others.  We strengthen the lives of those we serve, just as the potter strengthened his clay into a vessel.  In turn, we build and strengthen ourselves and our entire community to which we all belong.

Family Promise, as I hope most of you know, helps families with children who are temporarily homeless move on to lasting independence.  Unfortunately, the common denominator of why families seek out Family Promise is that they all experienced an undesirable transformation- a series of unfortunate events.  There may have been illness, loss of an income, divorce, death, a fire or some other catastrophic event that is bound to shake anyone up and crack part of the clay foundation.  Psalm 139, verses 14-16 reminds us that we are all God’s children and wonderfully made in His eyes.  It says “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.  My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth”.  This passage reminds us that we are all perfect and that the only time we should look down upon another is when we are extending our hand to lift them up. 

Our families at Family Promise go through a transformation, a metamorphosis, and it is such a privilege that we all can bear witness.  I remind the parents that a breakdown and a breakthrough often look exactly the same when it is happening.   Just the like the potter saw his clay was spoiled, sometimes we need to rework and remold our lives, our behaviors, and choices.  It can often seem messy at first, many pieces scattered about and we may not have the faith that it will all come together as a perfect picture.  Our families come to us with an assortment of pieces, fragments of who they once were, pieces of dreams they still cling to and the struggles they currently face.  The families lay these pieces, these burdens, before Family Promise.  Even if they do not have hope, they do not have faith, they do not see the light at the end of the tunnel, we can.  As a faith-based community, we can believe in their abilities, we can share our hope and faith.  We can provide the reassurance that it will work out.

One of my favorite quotes is, “a burden shared is cut in half, and a joy shared is doubled”.  This is the crux of the Family Promise model!  During the day, our families work with staff on their personal goals and plans.  They start reworking the clay that is already perfect in essence but may need some modifications.   With staff support, the parents seek or maintain employment, work on budgeting, ensure children are on track with school and doctors’ appointments.  At night, the families relax in the most-homelike environment possible directly in houses of worship.  Mt. Lebanon is the support congregation to Aldersgate UMC.  Aldersgate directly houses 4 homeless families in converted classrooms, 3-4 times a year.  This is one of fifteen host congregations that rotate on a weekly basis.  We collectively ease the burdens of our neighbor and when a mom is able to secure a job, a dad earns a trade certificate, a child has a great football game; we share in the celebration.

When hosting, you may bear witness to different points of a families’ transformation.  You may meet a family who just joined the Family Promise network and are skeptical at best as to what this “interfaith hospitality network” is.  They may be fearful of judgment, may have negative stereotypes of what a “homeless shelter is”, feel guilty, or worst yet, feel like God and the community does not love them.  We begin to peel away the layers, fix chips on the pot where it may still be good and help the family rework their lives into what God truly intends for them. 

You may meet families toward the end of their time at Family Promise.  This may take on a few different variations.  We may see families full of joy of what has been accomplished, securing of a vehicle for reliable transportation to their new full-time job, they are ready and anxious to move out to their apartment or which they have already signed their lease and they are thankful for the support that Family Promise was able to provide. Alternatively, families may have all the pieces in place but return to some of the feelings with which they entered Family Promise: fear, what if something goes wrong again? Anxiety, I have gotten used to survival mode and things not working out, when will the other shoe drop? Do I really deserve all of this?  And finally, families may leave Family Promise during their transformation.  The families are only with us but a few months and transformations can take time.  We may be only a snapshot in time and be but a seed planted in their journey.  They may not leave with all the necessities in place such as housing and employment but they are further along in their journey than when they came to us. 

Because time takes time, Family Promise continues to be a resource for families well after they graduate and leave the rotational network.  Many shelter programs stick with “placements” or “exits” to permanent housing but for us, that is not enough.  We want to ensure “lasting independence” as our mission statement says.  We want to ensure 6 months out, a year out, that family is still on their feet.  Needs change over time and it may be just a call to tell us their son got all A’s this marking period.  It may be a call to us from a mom that her sister suddenly and tragically passed away and she didn’t know who else she could share the news with.  It may be that a car broken down, or school supplies are needed.  Families call too to refer a family in need, donate items and clothing back to other families at FP.  Families come back to volunteer and mentor. Again, a burden shared is cut in half and joys shared are doubled.

We need to also remember to provide people the grace and time to transform.  I’m sure we have all been guilty of thinking a coworker will never learn, or a boyfriend of a loved one is no good, or we write-off our own gifts and talents saying I’ll never be in shape, I stink at math, I wish I was a better parent, partner, colleague…  Jeremiah, chapter 18 reminds us that God believes in the ability to transform.  God provides grace and God allows for 2nd, 3rd or even 4th chances.  It was stated that if an entire nation were to turn from its evil ways, disaster will not come.  Entire nations have the ability to restart and shift their direction!  We should remember to provide grace to all of our neighbors transforming into the best versions of themselves in God’s time, not ours.

I would like to share with you some transformations we have helped to create.  One example that truly demonstrates the impact of Family Promise is that of a mom and two sons currently in our network.  The family went through an unfortunate family separation.  Prior to entering the Family Promise NNCC, the mom and boys were living in a motel.  The family had sold off all possessions to try to keep a roof over their head and the mom was struggling to secure employment (she is a trained RN) because her housing situation was precarious at best and she had no means of transportation.  Family Promise was able to cover her background check of $69 and our Case Manager drove her to Dover to get this completed so she could begin a full-time position with a state hospital.  The timing also worked out so that the family received a donated vehicle from a volunteer from one of our host congregations.  Now, the mom has gainful employment, reliable transportation and is looking forward to securing her own housing.  With a little bit of creativity, time and a small amount of direct financial support, Family Promise was able provide hope and a stable foundation on which to build.

Two months ago, we expanded our staff of 2 to 3, adding on a full-time case manager.  With this added resource, we have expanded how many families we can serve at any given time.  Last year alone, we had over 600 calls from families seeking help.  We refuse to end any phone call with someone in need with “sorry, we are full”.  We now help on average 30-35 families at any given time, even when our network is full.  An example follows:  a married couple with two children reached out to Family Promise NNCC, as they were behind in their rent and eviction was imminent.  The family had been in this apartment for approximately two years, paying rent on time and doing well.  A few months ago, both parents were laid off (worked for the same company).  Family Promise NNCC helped the dad secure full-time employment by covering the cost of the background check and a gas card to get him to work until he received his first paycheck.  Working with our congregations, we provided the family a grant toward their back rent.  Just this past week, mom secured employment as well.  We are confident this family will get through this tough period and we can prevent them from becoming homelessness and needing to enter the homelessness system altogether. In an email from the mom, “amazing things seem to be looking up.  Please keep us in prayer.  We are so grateful for your support and couldn’t get through this without the help”.

Another example of the miracle’s we create: Ebony’s family came to Family Promise NNCC frustrated, exhausted and separated between different shelters.  Both parents had work history but because of their son’s illness, they missed too many days and were laid off.  The lack of employment had led to the loss of housing.  During their time in our rotational network, they gained employment, secured childcare for their children, maintained critical doctor appointments for their son and signed a lease to move into a 2 bedroom apartment in the town they wanted to be, close to extended family.  The family took advantage of all resources available to them: workshops, parenting support, rides by volunteers, donated dental work and clothing.  After only 90 days in the network, volunteers were helping to carry furniture up to their new second-story apartment!  Dad got his driver’s license back and was the proud recipient of a donated car.  After signing the paperwork, a volunteer asked John, “what is your plan with the car tonight?”  John, overwhelmed with the blessings his family had received including the vehicle, answered back, “I am going to sit in the back seat and cry.”   Besides gaining employment and housing, this family got back their faith and hope.  John began to attend a men’s group in one of our host congregations.  Because of the hospitality and hope we provide, where there was once discouragement and disappointment, there is now happiness and excitement for the future. 

How amazing it is to be part of these transformations!  These are only a few examples.  I would love to share them all but we have served over 50 families this year alone and over 80% of our families go on to achieve housing stability.  This is almost 4x’s the average success rate of a typical family shelter in Delaware.  And we do this all at a fraction of the cost, because we leverage the gifts and talents of the faith community and empower volunteers to take part in helping our neighbors.  None of these success stories would be possible, had it not been for congregations to open their doors, provide meals, offer financial gifts to cover the costs of background checks, offer time to be a mentor or a tutor, donate items such as a car or clothing.

Each and every one of you has the opportunity share God’s love with our neighbors who are experiencing temporary homelessness.  Family Promise always has opportunities to share your wealth- whether it be time, financial resources or item donations.  The hosting week at Aldersgate is coming up, starting Sunday, September 29th.   There are plenty of ways to support this week.  We will be hosting our free fundraising breakfast in October and I would welcome the chance to share more information on that for any who are interested.

One quick story and I will end.  We had our quarterly coordinator’s meeting last week where the volunteer coordinators of the 30 congregations involved get together to reflect on our successes, hear about graduates and other network updates and share tips amongst each other.  One of the volunteers whose church had just finished hosting shared a story with us.  She put out individual mints on each individual’s pillow.  Two children came out their room the first evening, squealing for joy because they received candy!  The volunteer just thought she had leftover mints and placing one on each pillow would add to the hospitality her church was providing.  Little did she know that one simple gesture would stick with the children for days to come.  This not only reflected positively on the church hosting but on Family Promise as a whole and left the children with the gentle reminder that there are people who love them unconditionally and there are people who will take an extra second to show God’s love.  Never underestimate the power you have to take part in someone else’s transformation and bring them closer to God’s love and the perfect individual, the perfect clay vessel that we are all meant to be.

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