“We might be the only form of Jesus some people see.”
Richard and Libby Cody talked about why they volunteered to help staff a community warming center in the Holy Family School Gym in Hannibal during a recent ice storm.
“We just wanted to be there to share the love of God with anyone who walked through the doors needing assistance,” stated the couple, who are both members of Holy Family Parish in Hannibal.
Father Matthew Flatley, pastor of the Hannibal parish and of St. Joseph Parish in Palmyra, noted that Holy Family Church is located near one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the city.
“It was largely this area that was without heat for a few days, during a very cold spell,” he said.
Holy Family parishioner Emily Rose said she was very happy when Fr. Flatley sent out the call for help with the warming station.
“He saw a need and took steps to address it,” she said. “We were able to open our doors to our neighbors and offer them help in their time of need.”
The parishioners who came to help that night “made my heart sing with joy,” she stated.
“None of us were there for recognition; we were there because of our love for God and our fellow man,” she said. “To help one another is what God calls us to do. I am blessed to be part of a faith community that stands up in times of need and asks what we can do to help.”
“We very much appreciated your willingness to help the most vulnerable among us,” Fr. Flatley told the volunteers.
In from the cold
A dangerous dip in temperatures in Pettis County put the Sedalia Community Warming Center on 24-hour status for 13 days in a row in February.
This is the second year the center has been located in the downstairs fellowship hall of the St. Patrick Chapel of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Sedalia.
The Ministerial Alliance relies on volunteers to staff the warming center, which opens whenever the wind chill dips below 15 degrees or precipitation falls while the temperature is 32 degrees or lower.
St. Vincent de Paul parishioners comprised two of the six teams of volunteers this year.
“God is always watching, and these people are down on their luck, and it’s best to treat them right,” stated St. Vincent de Paul parishioner Matt Hageman, one of the volunteers.
He and another parishioner served on the 4 to 7 a.m. shift, when most people at the center were sleeping.
He said the people were mostly courteous and very grateful for any help they received.
A lifelong Sedalia resident, Mr. Hageman never realized how many people there don’t have a permanent place to live.
“You can never understand what some people are going through in a certain moment,” he stated. “Some people are really having problems.”
Seeing their circumstances and hearing some of their stories has made him more grateful for how blessed he has been.
The Sedalia Democrat newspaper reported that the shelter saw up to 22 people a day with the numbers increasing to 30 to 35 during the daylight hours.
Families with children and several couples with pregnancies, along with single individuals stayed at the shelter over those two weeks, the Democrat reported.
Shelter Coordinator Vicki Herrick said the outpouring of volunteers was “beautiful.”
St. Vincent de Paul parishioner Jim Rangitsch served on the midnight to 4 a.m. shift.
“A lot of guests need to spill their hearts out at that time,” he said. “I heard many stories of how people got into the situation they’re in.”
It was eye-opening to learn that most were ordinary people like him, but whose circumstances helped lead them down a dramatically different path.
“A lot of people will say they did it to themselves,” he noted. “And in some cases, that’s true. But in a majority of cases, I would say, society has failed them as individuals at every phase, beginning with the breakdown of the nuclear family.”
Someone without a permanent address and without access to reliable transportation has trouble finding employment, especially if they have a prison record.
“Once you get into that cycle, it’s really hard to get out,” said Mr. Rangitsch. “Then you can’t afford anything. You’re stuck.”
These issues are not going away anytime soon, so people need to make themselves available to listen without judging and help people figure out how to get back on track.
“As Catholics, we need to be about reaching out to people who are in need,” said Mr. Rangitsch, who is discerning a possible call to the diaconate. “We can fall too easily into the routine of going to church every Sunday, receiving the Eucharist and going to Confession without having that open up our eyes and change us. So much needs to be done in our world to help others.”
He believes that for a Christian, volunteering is “where the rubber meets the road.”
“What one person does may be like a drop in the ocean,” he said. “But by listening to somebody and helping them find where to turn for help, you can help that one person see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Mr. Hageman believes an appropriate prayer would be for everybody to have a safe place to stay and food to eat, especially when it’s cold outside.
Things like the warming shelter are ways people can help God answer that prayer.
“This is what mercy looks like,” said Mr. Hageman. “They had a place to go and sleep, away from the bitter cold. And I think they felt safe.”
The Sedalia Warming Center is a ministry of the Sedalia Ministerial Alliance, with member churches throughout the community.
It started about five years ago after two people froze to death during a period of brutally frigid weather.
Sally Lockett, assistant director of the Open Door Service Center in Sedalia, and Open Door board member Kirk Martin wanted to make sure that never happened again.
They worked with churches and local organizations to find a location and volunteers for an emergency shelter.
St. Vincent de Paul parishioner JoAnn Martin, director of the Pettis County Health Center, provided “cots and encouragement.”
The warming center migrated to several locations before landing at St. Patrick two years ago, a few months after Father Joseph Corel and Father David Veit arrived as pastors in solidum.
Their predecessor, Precious Blood Father Mark Miller, had helped establish what is now the Open Door Service Center in 1986 as a food pantry in the fellowship hall of St. Patrick Chapel — where the warming center is now located.
Open Door is now a separate nonprofit organization. Students at Sacred Heart School regularly help with the Community Kitchen, although volunteers for the winter shelter must be 18 or older.
Mrs. Martin’s husband, Deacon Turf Martin, and Fr. Corel helped recruit volunteers for the warming center from the parish and Knights of Columbus Council 831.
“We’re holding down the fort through the grace of God,” said Fr. Corel, who also spent many hours helping organize the fellowship hall.
Military cots came from the American Red Cross, with bedding from several other sources.
A local hotel provided laundry services for the bedding.
The Open Door Community Kitchen and local churches provided hot meals.
Kirk Martin, a member of the First United Methodist Church of Sedalia, invited people from the warming center to the congregation’s Celebration Center so they could have a shower.
In response to an article in the local newspaper, 40 volunteers stepped forward to keep the center open all day throughout the 13-day and 15-night arctic cold snap.
“Overall, it was pretty amazing to find 40 people who were comfortable to come out during a pandemic, and be in a space with people they didn’t know for extended periods of time,” said Mrs. Martin. “The community really pulled together to meet a serious need.”
“It truly has been an amazing, ecumenical, very visible demonstration of charity and mercy,” Deacon Martin stated.
St. Vincent de Paul parishioner Bill Turner, immediate past president of the Open Door Board of Directors, has been a powerful driving force for the Community Kitchen.
He’s now working with the Ministerial Alliance, its member congregations and Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri to develop an all-year shelter and one-stop resource center for people in Sedalia who are homeless.
It will be called the Mercy Rest Stop.
“The idea is for people to be able to come to get all the services they need in one location that’s close to them,” said Deacon Martin.
God has blessed Miriam Hankins with being comfortable in the company of people who are on the margins of society.
“I’ve felt called to this sort of thing for most of my adult life,” said Mrs. Hankins, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Columbia. “It’s just something I’ve always done.”
Each winter, volunteers from several Columbia congregations help staff the Room at the Inn (RATI) overnight emergency winter shelter.
Mrs. Hankins has volunteered there for several years.
“I consider it a gift to be able to do that,” she said.
RATI operated in two locations this winter, in a way that cut down on COVID risks for the volunteers.
Mrs. Hankins served on the 9 to 11 p.m. shifts.
She said that while most of the shelter’s clients are pleasant, being truly welcoming to everyone requires an understanding heart.
“You have to have an openness within yourself,” she said. “I think you just learn that as you get older.”
She lamented the lack of stability that prevents many people from finding jobs and holding onto them.
“Sometimes, they’re too wasted mentally,” she said. “I don’t know what you do for someone like that.”
Nonetheless, she’s never afraid to be at the shelter.
“I don’t think about it much, to tell you the truth,” she said. “After a while, you recognize the faces. I have a name tag on and people call me by my name.”
She’s happy to be part of a downtown parish that cooperates with some of the larger congregations in the area to help people in need.
“We’re a small parish, but I think we’re still a very important niche in the social services in Columbia,” she stated.
She’s noticed that it’s often the members of the various congregations who get things started.
“It’s amazing — the tough issues they are not afraid to tackle,” she said. “I feel a resonance with them, being in that community.”
St. Thomas More Newman Center parishioner Mary Tribble volunteered frequently at Room at the Inn this winter.
A recently retired nurse, she has been helping homeless people for a long time.
“There’s so much need, and right now with COVID, there’s so few volunteers,” she noted.
She realizes that access to emotional and behavioral services is crucial to breaking the homeless cycle for many people.
“We’re talking about people who are really struggling, and there are so few opportunities for them to get help,” she said. “With some people, you wonder how they get through the day.”
She calls on God to help her whenever she encounters someone who’s acting out or having a hard time.
“You do sometimes just stop and say, ‘God, please help me see You in this person,’” she said.
She said many people who are homeless and in need are not comfortable seeking help.
“You never understand mental illness, and just be thankful that you don’t have to,” she added.
She offered a tip for people who feel drawn toward ministering to people who are homeless: “Just let God lead you. You won’t regret it if you take that step.”