Sermon given at Congregation Bet Ha’am

by Sara Ewing-Merrilll

It truly is an honor to be here with you tonight. I am privileged to be here amongst you, my Jewish brothers and sisters.

The reason that I am here today is to share with you my passion for a cause of justice and compassion which I believe that we, as an interfaith community, can work on together to make a difference.
In January of this year, Portland city officials reached out to the faith community for help with the increasing crisis of homeless families. They told us that the crisis we had known are coming was now taking place. The city made a decision to limit the number of overflow hotels last August, and now in January up to three families were sitting up in chairs in the General Assistance Lobby, without cots, without sleeping pads, without any place for children to sleep except sitting up in a chair. All of these families were newly arrived immigrants coming to the US to seek asylum, escaping trauma. This broke my heart.
I began investigating this situation and learning about the Family Shelter, about the overflow motel, The Maine Motel, just down the street from here, and the large number of families finding floors and couches to sleep on and sometimes splitting up between the apartments of two friends who were wiling to take them in for the night. Many immigrant families are taken in temporarily by others from their home countries, but the resources to help one another in this time of crisis, are limited. Most people within the immigrant community are just beginning to get established and find their footing.
As I assessed this situation I remembered a national organization that I had heard of and witnessed in action at my uncle’s church in Durham, North Carolina, more than 20 years ago.
That organization is Family Promise, formerly known as the Interfaith Hospitality Network. This organization has developed a religious community-based approach to offering caring assistance to homeless families over the past 30 years, in 42 states, and now in 200 affiliates, although none in Maine as yet.
The Family Promise program provides shelter, meals and support for families experiencing homelessness by using existing community resources. Houses of worship serve as overnight lodging, congregations provide volunteers, social service agencies, such as the City Family Shelter, help with screening and referrals, and existing organizations can offer day center facilities.
These resources are already in our community, they just have to be coordinated in an effort to put them to use, for the sake of families who find themselves homeless.
In a Family Promise affiliate, up to five families (made up of up to 14 individuals) stay overnight in churches, synagogues, mosques, or other facilities; volunteers from inside and outside those communities partner to provide meals, homework help for children, and companionship for the guests.
Each Family Promise affiliate has their own day center where affiliate staff work with families to establish sustainable housing, education opportunities, jobs, and childcare.
Each Family Promise affiliate involves at least 13 host congregations, at least as many supporting faith communities and organizations, and an average of 1000 volunteers. One of the things that really excites me about this model that is that it fosters partnerships between different faith communities, and organizations. Family Promise provides a way to facilitate community-wide social responsibility as well as community-wide relationships.
This is the work of faith communities to partner with each other to walk in the way of justice and compassion and hospitality.
On March 31, more than 90 people from the Portland area came together to learn about the Family Promise Program. Those 90 people represented 25 Churches, 1 Synagogue (Bet Ha’am), 1 Mosque, and 7 community organizations. There was palpable enthusiasm at this meeting.
A dedicated group of volunteers from these communities has begun the work to create Greater Portland Family Promise. We have two congregations already committed to sharing their space for a week at a time, four times a year. Many other initial pieces are falling in place thanks to the dedicated work of volunteers from these communities.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with several gifted leaders from your community in this effort and to be able to say that this work has already expanded the horizons of my community to include relationships with Jews, Muslims, Baha’is, and leaders in the East African Immigrant Community. That is a beautiful thing in and of itself.
One of the stories of your faith that was shared tonight, the story of being strangers in a strange land, reminds us all, that the work of welcoming the stranger is the work of faith, it is the work of justice, it is the work of hospitality, to which we are called. I hope that the message from this story is something I live, and that you live, and that we might have an opportunity to live it together.
Amen.

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