File this one as credit where credit’s due.
Bethlehem Baptist Church, on Tacoma’s East Side, is stepping up.
Again, if we’re being honest.
Dr. Eric Jackson, the church’s pastor, said he hopes to have a homeless shelter up and running from the gymnasium at Bethlehem’s Portland Avenue location sometime this month. The goal is to host homeless families — as many as 15 — until they can find their way to more permanent housing.
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“Particularly as a church, I think … this is what we’re called to do,” Jackson said last week.
It’s exactly what the Tacoma City Council hoped for when it took action last year to make it easier for nonprofits and faith-based organizations to host homeless shelters.
A few months after that vote, though, none had, and I challenged the city to work harder to make good on its pledge to truly make the process more feasible for churches and nonprofits to do this important work.
I also challenged faith-based organizations to answer the call. For a number of years, many had been reluctant to do so because of the the city’s onerous rules and permitting process — which previously seemed expressly written to prevent churches from hosting homeless shelters.
While Jackson credited Tacoma’s human services department with helping his church get ready to host a shelter, the pastor also made clear that, in this instance, the city’s streamlined permitting didn’t have much to do with it.
So, what we have is a case of a church that’s hosted a homeless shelter in the past — making it more prepared than most — wanting to do it again. Which means it still remains to be seen whether the new rules and city’s efforts will prompt local faith-based organizations to open more shelters, thereby increasing the number of shelter beds available in Tacoma.
Homelessness is an area that we have to focus our attention on, because it’s so critical at this time.
Dr. Eric Jackson, pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church
But thank goodness for Bethlehem Baptist.
The church — which has some 600 members, according to Jackson — has worked with the city and several other organizations over the past two years to host temporary overnight shelters. While previous temporary shelters at the church have been operated by the Tacoma Rescue Mission, Jackson said he expects its latest shelter to be operated by the Salvation Army.
Jackson said Bethlehem Baptist hosted just such a shelter for three months in 2016, and for six months in 2017, an effort that ended in June.
The Bethlehem Baptist congregation, Jackson said, has been waiting for an opportunity to continue this work.
“They saw the benefit,” he said. “It’s been tremendous to see the byproduct of what was happening. It’s been a tremendous blessing.”
He points to a few examples of what he’s seen firsthand as evidence of what’s possible when a faith-based organization takes on a challenge like hosting a temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness,
In early 2017, he said, the church hosted five families headed by single fathers.
“Despite the struggle of raising children riddled with PTSD, medical, psychological and physical issues, these single fathers persevered in accepting leadership and responsibility for their children,” Jackson said. “Somehow, they gained the hope and faith to continue struggling, even when homeless.
“The five fathers bonded while in the program. They shared knowledge and resources to help each other.”
One of those fathers, who had recently been given custody of his four children, faced particular challenges, Jackson said. Through the environment Bethlehem Baptist helped cultivate, the pastor believes, he learned valuable parenting skills and is now living with his children in an apartment.
Similarly, Jackson recalls learning that a handful of children staying at the church’s shelter couldn’t read. He put a call out to his congregation and by the next week a number of the church’s members had stepped up and were tutoring the kids.
“The congregation has not needed to be poked and prodded and sold on a good idea,” Jackson said. “They really bought into it early on and became not only supporters of it but advocates for it.”
So will Bethlehem Baptist be the first of many churches to answer the city’s call? It’s simply too early to tell.
Still, the pastor is optimistic that other faith-based organizations will follow the example and pitch in to help ease the city’s homelessness crisis.
“I don’t know necessarily what that looks like for each church, but I know everyone should do something,” he said.
“I think any church — I would hope, anyway — would want to see that they are making a difference.”