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Church Helps Members See What It’s Like to Be ‘Homeless for a Night’

good shepherd catholic church

Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Alexandria, Virginia, is tackling the problem of homelessness by taking donations, but also in another, unique way: by having its members camp in makeshift shelters overnight so they can experience homelessness for themselves.

“Those who camp out literally feel the pain of a cold and damp dark night,” said Father Thomas Ferguson, pastor of Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Alexandria. “And parishioners who see the camp on the way into church are moved to be ever more generous in providing food, clothing and shelter for those who are homeless in our community.” 

Good Shepherd Catholic Church Tackles Homelessness

On Saturday, November 23rd, the members of Good Shepherd, as well as people from other local parishes, spent the night in shelters made of cardboard boxes and tarps. This is the seventh time the church has held its annual Homeless for a Night Campout, the purpose of which is to raise awareness of the needs of the homeless population. Said Ferguson, “The annual ‘Homeless for a Night Campout’ gives all parishioners, and especially our youth, an opportunity to be in solidarity with people who are homeless.”

Participants began constructing their shelters around 2 p.m. and were not allowed to use hammers, nails, power tools, or any electronics as they prepared for a cold and rainy evening. A local facility for the homeless called Christ House gave a presentation, and volunteers with the church and Christ House served the participants a meal.

Families and teens all took part in the event, and Susan Grunder, director of social ministry at the church, joined Ferguson in emphasizing the value of the event for young people: “We have teens from our parish and from other parishes coming here to spend the night outside to raise awareness of the plight of our homeless brothers and sisters.” 

In addition to educating parishioners, Good Shepherd took donations of socks and fresh apples and oranges. The socks will go to Rising Hope Methodist Church, a local church that has quite a few ministries to those living in poverty. These ministries include a soup kitchen, a Christmas Shoppe for low-income families, and job readiness classes. The socks Good Shepherd has collected will go to Rising Hope’s emergency hypothermia shelter, which has 25 beds and is open from December to March. 

By collecting fresh fruit, Good Shepherd has an eye on a common need of people with low or unstable incomes. Limited money, unstable housing, substance abuse issues and lack of knowledge about nutrition are all challenges people who are homeless frequently face that prevent them from getting fresh, nutritious food. Those who do not have fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet are at risk of having a vitamin C deficiency, leading to scurvy, a disease commonly associated with sailors centuries ago who did not have fresh fruits while at sea. Symptoms of scurvy include bleeding gums and wounds that do not heal well. 

The fresh fruit Good Shepherd has collected will go to the Catholic Charities St. Lucy Project, which partners with local parishes and food pantries. The fruit will also go to the Missionaries of Charity (the order of nuns that Mother Theresa founded). 

Camping out overnight, said Ferguson, is about more than helping people understand the physical discomfort of being homeless. The church also wants its parishioners to be empathetic to “some of the emotional suffering of loneliness and isolation when you’re homeless…[Homeless people are] individuals too.”

You can go here to see data on homelessness in your state.

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Jessica Mouser is a writer for churchleaders.com. She has always had a passion for the written word and has been writing professionally for the past two years. She especially enjoys evaluating how various beliefs play out within culture. When Jessica isn't writing, she enjoys playing the piano, reading, and spending time with her friends and family.