Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Small Church with a Huge Heart for the Homeless

Recently, I had the chance to interview Pastor Henry Sideropoulos, a friend of Jill's who has a church in our area (Northwest Pasadena) where many of the poor and homeless live.  His church. aptly named Agape (the Greek word for love), moved into our area because of its commitment to help the homeless.

I deeply empathize with Pastor Sideropolis' concern, and am challenged by his question: are we willing to make room in our hearts and in our homes for the poor?

Let me repeat this challenge to each of us: would happen if each of us who has spare rooms  opened up our homes to house the 1200 or so homeless folk living on our streets and help them get back on their feet?
It isn't easy, as this story makes clear. But the alternative is dreadful. Do we really want to live in a city where homeless people die on the steps of our churches, as recently happened here?
I'm grateful to God for Henry and his small church for caring deeply about the homeless,  and for doing what it can to provide them with a place to stay and an opportunity for a new life.

A Small Church with a Huge Heart for the Homeless

By Pastor Henry Sideropoulos, as Told to Jill Shook and Anthony Manousos

 “We are a small church of 90 members with a deep commitment to helping the homeless. We became specifically concerned with the homeless when we relocated to the east side of Pasadena and began to congregate on Colorado Blvd. by the older small motels and hotels.  We hired Ben Donley as Assistant Pastor in 2004 because of his passion for the homeless. In 2006 we moved to Northwest Pasadena and have been worshipping and praying in this area ever since.  Our concern for the poor and the repressed led to our church members and leaders prayer walking around the neighborhood lifting up their needs to God.
“One of the first homeless persons our church helped was a woman named D.W. who was living in a hotel paying $50 a day. She was an OR nurse who got into trouble because of a man who abused her, took her money and destroyed her car and left her pregnant and penniless. She lost her job and became homeless. She sought help at our church and eventually came to live at my home. We helped her move into Beacon housing’s Agape Court and to obtain two part-time secretarial jobs. D.W. became a member of our church. She was able to bring her four kids from Alabama and they are also part of our church and our youth group. We are pleased that we were able to take her out of the dire conditions she was living in and to be able to unite her family. She is “giving back” through her healing ministry.
“This was the first of three families that our church helped in the early days of our homeless ministry. We helped another homeless family of five move to Ohio, and another we helped move to a village in Japan with their family.

“Another homeless man we helped was mugged and had his neck broken while he was staying in a hotel.  He had to wear a cervical crown and brace. We took him in but unfortunately he died when he fell and re-injured himself. We helped to arrange a wonderful funeral for him and his family who were touched by the love and support that was shown to their loved one in the final weeks of his life.
“There was a homeless couple we met in Northwest Pasadena whom we helped get a Section 8 certificate and a place to stay. They began to attend our church and found fellowship and support both in church and in one of our small groups at the home of one of our members.  Unfortunately, they were kicked out of their housing because of the mental issues they suffered from and two members of our church put them up in their own homes for a total of about eight months.  After that we helped them find a place to stay on Washington Blvd. and helped them move in.

“We also helped a mentally ill member of our church to get into Agape Court.
“We became interested in purchasing a property to help the homeless when my daughter Ariadne got a job working for Door of Hope, a transitional home for homeless families. My brother and I felt this was a great time to buy, so we purchased an 8-unit apartment next to our church so we could use some these units for permanent supportive housing. After attending the Homeless and Housing Network for several years, we approached the City Council and they approved $184,000 to renovate our apartments for affordable housing for 30 years. We also wanted to apply for a grant from the Low Income Investment Fund. They were eager to support us because we also had space for a daycare center for children. Then we hit a roadblock when some of the neighbors complained. We were given permission only to do 4 units of permanent supportive housing and that didn’t work for us financially. As s result, we didn’t get the money from the City Council. This plunged us into a financial crisis. Fortunately, our bank reduced our interest rate from 10 ¼ to 7 per cent. We are still struggling financially. If we could obtain a low interest rate much of our financial problems would be diminished.

“Two families now live in our apartments that are on Section 8. One came from Union Station and another from Door of Hope. One of the families—a husband and wife with four kids—have stayed there for three years and are fairly stable, although the husband struggles with a drug problem. The other is a single mom with three kids, one of whom has severe psychiatric problems. We had problems with her because she wasn’t paying her rent. She is now paying rent, but we feel it’s not a good fit.
“Five members of our church work for Door of Hope. Richard Benjamin, our youth pastor, has been the Program Director of Door of Hope for the last year and a half. His brother Adam was recently hired to assist Tim Peters, the director of Door of Hope, and Jessica Spicer and Anne Tan, two of our members, also work with children at Door of Hope. 

“As a result of our personal connection with Door of Hope we now have five formerly homeless families, now residents at Door of Hope, who are currently attending our church, some of whom have become or are becoming members. Some of them are receiving inner healing and one is leading a Bible study.
“We have an agreement with the Door of Hope that we will try to help “graduates” find affordable housing.”

Pastor Sideropoulos wrote up an inspiring message about a homeless man who died on our doorstep.

"This morning a friend of mine texted me that there was a lot of commotion in front of our Agape’s church building, on Washington Blvd.  I got there as soon as I could, to find a number of police officers and police cars, in front of our sanctuary, busy investigating and taking pictures of a homeless man who died, literally on our doorsteps, next to the Fire Riser!

:I found out later from one of our tenants from the apartments next door that he had had trouble with alcohol and had been to Huntington Hospital many times…the doctors could not do anything more for him.
"I am saddened, of course, that another homeless man has died in the streets of our City.

"God’s message is loud and clear: What is everyone of us doing for this frustrating, pernicious, embarrassing problem, that presents itself on our City’s doorstep?!
"What am I doing? What is Agape Christian Church doing? Project Housed is on its way to immediately house the most vulnerable of our homeless. Too late for this man!

 "I don’t know why he chose that spot to sleep off his last night’s food and drink. Is God trying to tell Agape something?
"We are doing our part, of course: He died on our doorstep because we are no longer in East Pasadena, where we’ve been from 1981 to 2006. We are here, in NW Pasadena. We are part of the continuum of care and are providing Permanent Supportive Housing for those who have been fortunate enough to be housed at Door of Hope, Union Station or other transitional housing and shelters.

"We have actually taken the next step…well, let’s give some more credit to God-God orchestrated this- some of our staff and members of Agape have been working and referring previously homeless families to our church! So we have the privilege of having previously homeless families now become
members, ministers and leaders at Agape!

"God for His wonderful works…in spite of our goals!
"But here’s what’s on my heart this morning: I can’t help but believe there is something else we can do. Something that’s simple, loving, Biblical, and organizationally more effective. Something that is right under our noses.

"It’s simply making a decision that we are going to house everyone of the 1200 homeless people that live on our streets and in our shelters occasionally, by making room for them in our hearts and in our homes!
"There, I’ve said it. Is it radical? Is it impossible? Is it dangerous? How many empty bedrooms in our houses? How many back yards are there in Pasadena? How many empty buildings waiting for…?

 "Even more important: When will the Church Of Christ rise up, come out of its silos, join hands and form the unbroken circle of love and compassion that Jesus was known for, when He walked the streets of this earth?”

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