Community members in the WARM program decorate the Easter cross with flowers at Springdale Mennonite Church. Courtesy of Alan Shenk

Springdale congregation adapts WARM program

August 12, 2020
by Alan Shenk
Member of Springdale Mennonite Church, Waynesboro, Va.

The apostle Paul comments in II Corinthians 12:10 that “When I am weak, then I am strong.” God’s strength often seems most apparent when we ourselves are weak.

Each year, usually in mid-March, Springdale Mennonite Church, located on the outskirts of Waynesboro, Va., hosts the local overnight homeless shelter WARM (Waynesboro Area Refuge Ministry) for one week. This means providing an evening meal, a breakfast and packed lunches for each day. We also provide overnight staffing and van transportation to and from Waynesboro each evening and morning. A majority of the congregation gets involved through hosting, cooking, cleaning, donating food, etc.

As we anticipated the arrival of guests to our shelter on March 16, we realized that COVID-19 had also arrived in our community. Church services were cancelled on March 15. What were the implications for WARM? The public library, where many of the guests spent their daytime hours, was also forced to close. We couldn’t just leave our 22 guests out on the street. What about the safety of our members? Our well thought-out plans were quickly unraveling.

The decision was made to quarantine the guests at church day and night. Some of our older volunteers wisely decided to stay at home. A few of our teachers and college students stepped in to help out in their place. Other WARM volunteers in the community stepped forward to provide supervision during the day. The churches who had originally committed to hosting the shelter for the following three weeks determined that they were unable to host the shelter. The leadership at Springdale agreed to allow our church building to be home for the shelter for those weeks. Many churches and restaurants stepped forward to provide meals.

Many of the homeless guests recognized the generosity of Springdale and the WARM organization and wanted to give back as they were able. Several guests took over the responsibility of cleaning the church each day. When a load of mulch arrived for the church flower beds, several stepped up to spread the mulch. At least six guests volunteered to help plant onions in the church garden. One older guest who loved the Lord offered to sing a few songs to be incorporated into our Zoom worship services.

Not all was rosy in the camp. Some of the guests dealt with addictions and could not survive 24/7 at the church. They felt compelled to move on. With the virus on the loose, job searching practically came to a standstill. Some of the guests developed friendships, but some guests found each other irritating. In a few extreme cases, guests became disruptive and were asked to leave by WARM staff.

By mid-April federal funding had arrived to provide housing for the guests at a motel in Waynesboro. What began as a routine seven-day event with WARM turned into a four-week adventure that saw Springdale become home to a group of homeless guests. Easter Sunday marked the last day of hosting the shelter at Springdale. How could we celebrate Easter as a congregation at a distance? How could we show appreciation for our guests?

Community members in the WARM program decorate the Easter cross with flowers at Springdale Mennonite Church. Courtesy of Alan Shenk

One Springdale tradition is to take a wooden cross that commemorates the death of Jesus and cover it with fresh flowers on Easter morning, symbolizing the new life that we experience through the resurrection of Jesus. That Sunday, April 12, Springdale celebrated Easter, not in fancy outfits or with decorated Easter baskets, but by having several of our homeless guests, struggling with poor health and addictions, struggling with broken relationships, struggling with an uncertain future, place those flowers on the cross on our behalf as we watched on Zoom. It was both humbling and uplifting to see God present in that moment, bringing hope to us at Springdale and hope to our many homeless friends. May God’s hope and strength sustain us through the continued uncertainty that 2020 brings.

Posted in ,