Neighbors and Legacies

Messiah Lutheran steps in to help the homeless

It’s hard to write about happy endings in the world of homeless services because homelessness, for most people, is a transitory situation. They had lives before they became homeless and it is the purpose of homeless services to help them towards lives after homelessness. 

We learn that often the traumas and challenges that drive people into homelessness don’t end with a key to a home. As with all of us, some level of success leads to the next set of challenges. Over the last five years, in writing about the homeless and one organization’s attempts to help them, sometimes we’ve rushed to celebrate someone finding housing or getting a job or some other milestone on a path to some stability, only to see some new obstacle or bad decision (which we all make our share of, right?) knock them backwards. 

It’s made us a little gun-shy. We don’t want to be a jinx on the too-often tenuous pathways out of homelessness.

But we do have to celebrate victories of compassion, knowing that they are seldom endings, but that they can be significant steps that help to build a more empathetic and supportive community. 

There’s a little church on a big plot of land in Santa Clara that just took an amazing and brave step to help the homeless. The church is Messiah Lutheran. 

Some may remember it as the site of a contentious meeting last spring at which a surprisingly large number of people showed up to shut down LTD’s proposal to host a few homeless people on a large corner lot that the transit agency isn’t using right now. One longtime Eugene journalist described it as the ugliest meeting he’d ever seen. The bottom line seemed to be “We don’t want those kind of people around here.”

While all that unpleasantness was going on, the congregation at Messiah Lutheran was contemplating the legacy it might leave to the Santa Clara community. There are only about 30 members left and their average age is 76. “With us getting older, our congregation getting smaller, do we want to just fold up and let the property go into houses,” asks congregation president Anita Bjerklund. “And nobody remembers Messiah was here because they don’t remember anything outstanding that Messiah has done to help the community.”

No, they decided, that was not how it was going to go. At a congregational meeting in May, they voted 17-4 to host two homeless people, becoming the first hosts under a pilot program allowing overnight car camping in the River Road-Santa Clara area.  

Working with North Eugene Homeless Advocacy and St. Vincent de Paul, they made arrangements to have two Conestoga Huts from Community Supported Shelters installed behind the church.

Two women who had been homeless now have roofs over their heads, beds to sleep in, doors to lock to keep their stuff and themselves safe — and a compassionate church community to support them.

Bjerklund refers to the two women as the church’s new “neighbors.” And the women have been welcomed by the church’s existing neighbors, too. Soon after they moved in, a neighbor living on the other side of fence draped with a blackberry bush, brought them homemade blackberry cobbler. Another neighbor gave them pruning shears to cut away the thorny branches to get at the choicest berries.

Leaving a legacy is the opposite of an ending. Bjerklund hopes that what they are doing at Messiah Lutheran might open the hearts of more of their Santa Clara neighbors.

The Christian Bible says that loving your neighbor is right up there with loving God as the two most important commandments. Maybe the legacy the brave congregation at Messiah Lutheran is leaving for Santa Clara and for all of us is to broaden the definition of neighbor beyond those who live in proximity to us to include those who seem like strangers, “those kind of people,” who we can bring in to our communities with open hearts and simple kindness.

Guy Maynard is the volunteer editor of the Community Supported Shelters newsletter,