360 West December 2012 : Page 122

Community Service Volunteering for Room In The Inn means doing laundry, cooking and making beds for guests, but also visiting with them. The experience has altered Wendy Larmour’s perspective. 122 December 2012 www.360westmagazine.com

Community Service

Sarah Angle

Cold Nights Warm Hearts

When winter hits hard, churches open their doors to the homeless and offer them more than just a place to spend the night.

Nestled in the plush Park Hill neighborhood of Fort Worth, St. Stephen Presbyterian Church rises into the sky, soaring over houses and trees like the gatekeeper of the city. The church's bell tolls as children play on pristine green lawns and the sun brings color to life in looming stainedglass windows.

But stop by the church any Tuesday night this winter and you'll find a part of the city that isn't so pretty.

At first glance, it just looks like church members are having dinner together. But the mattresses on the floor in the Parish Hall are a clue that these guests are not just here for a good home-cooked meal.

"I was skeptical about going at first," says James Garrett. "But when I found out how nice everyone treated you, I was hooked for life."

Garrett, 59, was born and raised in Fort Worth but found himself living on the streets. He credits the Room In The Inn program for giving h I'm the motivation and courage to change his life.

"When you think everyone is against you, people like this come into your life ... it's really uplifting," says Garrett. "Someone in the world is out there to help you."

Room In The Inn is a national program that provides the homeless with a safe place to sleep, two hot meals and friendly conversation. Participating churches treat them as "guests," inviting them to stay at the church one night a week during summer and winter, the harshest seasons. The program in Fort Worth works with homeless men through 12 churches, and homeless women through two more.

St. Stephen and Broadway Baptist Church were the first churches to join the program when it began here in 2007.

"There was some turmoil in getting it started," says Wendy Larmour, a member of St. Stephen and a passionate volunteer with Room In The Inn. "There's a lot of fear and misconceptions around homeless people."

"The stereotype of the unshaven, dirty, drunk man on the corner is often what most of society still thinks when they hear the term 'homeless,' " explains Jessica Grace, director of client services at Fort Worth Day Resource Center for the Homeless, a nonprofit that provides counseling and assistance to homeless men, women and children in Fort Worth. But in reality, she says, homelessness affects all kinds of people, from women and their children escaping domestic violence, to kids aging out of foster care, to the mentally ill.

Now starting its sixth year at St. Stephen, the program has served more than 1,000 homeless men and, in the process, has opened the minds of its congregation.

"Before we did this, there were a lot of people different from me that I didn't feel a kinship toward," says Larmour. But sitting down to dinner together, talking, playing board games and just listening to these invited guests has changed the way Larmour sees the world.

"I have just lost that sense of strangeness for people that aren't like me ... it's really life-changing," she adds.

One reason Room In The Inn is so successful with both the homeless and its volunteers is that there's no ulterior motive behind the program.

"We are not trying to fix anyone," says Larmour. "We are just trying to meet people, see them, know them and have a relationship with them."

And these relationships can be transformative, explains St. Stephen's pastor, Fritz Ritsch. Church members have moved past their prejudice, he says, and the homeless men who participate feel like they are treated as equals, as friends.

Garrett got off the streets and found a new home this October. He says Room In The Inn relieves some of the daily pressures of life on the streets. "You can be like a normal human being while you're there . When the night is over, you don't want to go back, but you have to."

A van from St. Stephen pulls u p at the Day Resource Center early Tuesday evening and drives the men, and their belongings, to the church. Meanwhile, volunteers are busy cooking and preparing that night's hot meal and setting up 15 mattresses against the walls of the Parish Hall, complete with clean sheets.

Tables and chairs are set up in the large room to seat about 30 people — church volunteers and their invited guests — for dinner. But first, there are snacks. And games. And conversations with friends new and old. Then everyone sits down together, side by side, and volunteers serve the guests family-style. Food is plentiful, and seconds are welcome.

Because peace and quiet is such a commodity for the homeless, sleep is one of the things they enjoy the most.

"In the morning, these men wake up and they have had a good night's sleep for the first time in a long time ... and they don't have to worry if anyone has stolen anything," says Larmour. As an added luxury, "they have time in the bathroom to clean up."

The Room In The Inn program at St. Stephen has become a point of pride for the congregation.

"I've spoken to people who were afraid at first, and now they are simply proud that we are making it work," says Larmour.

Since the program started, St. Stephen has had "zero bad incidences," says Larmour. That means no violence, no stealing and no drugs. There is smoking (outside the church, of course), and that policy has made St. Stephen one of the most popular churches within the program.

One St. Stephen volunteer asked a guest: "Why don't you have a job?" The man responded: "It's not that easy." Just like anybody else, in order to get a job, the homeless have to be able to interview, and that means getting the right (clean) clothes, transportation, identification and dealing with the constant issue of what to do with all their stuff.

"They [the homeless] are facing adversity that I don't even comprehend," admits Larmour. But now, thanks to Room In The Inn, people that couldn't — or wouldn't — even look the homeless in the eyes are beginning to see what life looks like on the other side.

"St. Stephen is known for being a beautiful church with a magnificent building," says the Rev. Ritsch. And now, "it's a beautiful church helping those who aren't so beautiful." 300


Room In The Inn Fourteen churches in Tarrant County participate in Room In The Inn. The program serves 126 people each week, providing beds and two hot meals during winter and summer. To learn more about the program and how you can help, contact Jessica Grace at the Day Resource Center at 817-810-9797, ext. 121 or jgrace@fwdayresourcectr.org.

Read the full article at http://www.bluetoad.com/article/Community+Service/1241449/135775/article.html.

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