On Tuesday night, I stopped by the Puyallup Nazarene Church for a weekly meeting of the WrapUp Ministry, a campaign to raise congregational awareness of family homelessness and to get church members involved in supporting specific families. “These families don’t have a support network,” said Sheryl Ice, the volunteer who leads the ministry. “In order to break the cycle of generational poverty, you have to build relationships.”

Over the last couple years, Puyallup Nazarene Church has sponsored workshops, “adopted” three elementary schools to support their low-income students with backpacks and school supplies, and partnered with Helping Hand House, a local nonprofit dedicated “to preventing and ending family homelessness.” Helping Hand House provides case management expertise while introducing church volunteers to local families in need. 

 

WrapUp Ministry is about more than taking up collections in the offering plate or signing up church members to serve at the local soup kitchen. It’s about prompting a “huge mind-shift within the congregation,” according to Ice. And as church members come to understand the importance of relationships, it’s about forming meaningful connections with needy families. It’s about beginning to foster that critical support network around homeless or nearly-homeless families that Ice says is so essential. 

“We have a biblical motivation to do this,” said Ice. “We don’t have the resources to give them things, but we have all the resources that Christ has given us to love them.”

The WrapUp Ministry does benefit from the resources of the largest grant-making foundation in America. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is not known for its involvement in faith-based initiatives, but Gates dollars are very much behind this remarkable, innovative faith-based approach to addressing family homelessness. The Puyallup Nazarene ministry is part of a larger regional effort called the Faith and Family Homelessness Project, coordinated through the Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry. Fourteen churches, synagogues, and mosques are involved in the Project. 

Recognizing the need for faith communities to become more proactive in their ministry to homeless or nearly homeless families, the Project envisions “a world where the cycle of family homelessness is broken through the creation of new relationships, platforms and model for successful faith-based advocacy.”

WrapUp’s specific mission is “to engage families at or near homelessness by showing them the love of Christ, regardless of their religious beliefs or backgrounds.” Furthermore, Puyallup Nazarene declares a congregational commitment to “build relationships with families, pray for and with them without expectations, offer mentoring and advice in areas of need, and help the families build lasting connections in the community.”

Ice said that WrapUp Ministry volunteers are not trying to take the place of professional case managers. But through the partnership between Puyallup Nazarene Church and Helping Hand House, volunteers and case managers have discovered a mutual benefit. Case managers take the lead in guiding families toward self-sufficiency while calling on church volunteers to provide critical linkages to the community.

Recently, WrapUp Ministry sponsored a three-hour Poverty Immersion Workshop to give volunteers a sense of what poverty is really like. Through role-playing exercises, participants learned about the challenges of generational poverty and of the abiding feelings of helplessness that confront people outside of a support structure. Above all, said volunteer Keith Brown, participants came face to face with “the issue of shame” associated with poverty. 

WrapUp Ministry got its start at a time when Puyallup congregations were finding real effectiveness in partnership. A growing network of local churches sponsors a shelter program called Freezing Nights—congregations take turns hosting homeless men and women in their buildings during the winter months. The Freezing Nights model is completely dependent on volunteers, and hundreds of church members throughout Puyallup are involved. In addition, as I described in a post last month, a ministry network called the One Another Foundation is raising awareness of various community needs and connecting church members with opportunities to get involved.

Jamie Anderson, who works for Helping Hand House, told me that there are people in strategic positions throughout the community who can be activated to make a difference right where they are. What’s needed is “a shared vision,” said Anderson. The Faith and Family Homelessness Project is timely in part because of the rise of family homelessness, and in part because individual members of faith communities are eager to get involved. They want to do their part to help their neighbors.

For service providers to be effective in the twenty-first century, they must do more than scale up impressive organizations with big budgets and skilled professionals. They must build their network among houses of worship and get volunteers involved at the grassroots level. “You have to start in the church,” said Ice. 

WrapUp has helped members of one church to understand the needs in their community and to get involved in addressing them. In an age when government is doing less to help the poor, ministries like WrapUp, churches like Puyallup Nazarene, organizations like Helping Hand House, coordinating efforts like the Faith and Family Homelessness Project, and philanthropies like the Gates Foundation are stepping up. America needs more of this.