I spent Wednesday at my office dealing with heat or more accurately, lack of heat. We were fine at the church. The heat issue were people in town.
One of my other hats is treasurer of the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations, an interfaith organization. Our primary ministry is an emergency fuel fund administered by the local Salvation Army. We provide a one-time grant of 100 gallons of fuel oil to families after they have exhausted other sources of fuel oil. We have this policy because we see ourselves as the end of the line; a way for families to have heat during the gap between when they’ve exhausted their personal resources and other community sources and the end of winter. Because our funding is all by the generosity of people in the community, we may only be able to provide fuel to between 40 and 50 families a season.
I also disburse emergency grants from the congregation’s Fellowship Fund for up to $100 as well as $25 gift cards to a local supermarket. We typically receive this Fellowship offering once a month, which enables us to give away a few hundred dollars each month.
Within the first 45 minutes of my arrival on Wednesday I had at least three calls looking for fuel oil. No exaggeration, it was basically non-stop for 45 minutes and then with some regularity through the balance of the morning. This activity was atypical, but it was not a coincidence that it seemed to be a function of the cold that really hit us earlier in the week.
One source of emergency fuel assistance is LIHEAP , the federal program providing low income families with heating assistance. As the feds don’t hand out funds directly, they use local community action councils. Ours is Berkshire Community Action Council. Another source of emergency fuel oil is Joe’s Oil, which is part of Citizen’s Energy.
LIHEAP provides assistance on a sliding scale based upon need. Joe’s Oil provides a one-time 100-gallon delivery.
The calls came because people had no heat and had no place to turn.
As we replenish our Fellowship Fund on the first Sunday of each month, there was basically nothing in the account. I found out that Berkshire Community Action Council was behind in their processing of emergency fuel requests. One caller told me that they were still processing requests made in September. Joe’s Oil wasn’t taking any applications until December 1 and that delivery would be four to five weeks after approval. And we were not going to release oil for our local program this early in the season.
I was at a loss to do something, even though I understood the situation. The people I spoke to were gracious and understanding, but it didn’t change their situation – they were looking at having no heat for weeks.
After I left the church to tend to other things, I got to thinking that maybe we can find a way to open the church during the day for the general public as a place for them to stay warm. We’ve got some issues, though, beyond the normal building wear and tear and normal security. We rent space to a teen mother’s program, so we we have teenage girls and their babies in the building during the day. Furthermore, we have difficulty shutting off their space from the rest of the building. Still, we have heat when too many people don’t. It seems that with adequate planning we could create a place where people could be comfortably warm. I just wish I thought of this sooner.
Opening the church for this purpose lives out the radical hospitality ethos of the early church. Then, the church made sure everyone of its members were cared for and no one would lack for food. The church right after the Jesus event lived out the alternative vision of God’s realm.
We can reclaim that alternative vision of God’s realm by re-imagining our hospitality. Typically, we think of hospitality for people who visit the church for worship and for groups to choose to rent some of our space. But, this is hospitality that takes the early church ethos and redefines it for today. This extends hospitality to those who truly lack the basics. This is hospitality irrespective of who they are. It’s hospitality truly given out of love for the stranger.