NASHVILLE, Tenn. � — Like many houses of worship in this Bible Belt city, the Hillsboro church building is busiest on Sundays. But this congregation also opens its doors on Saturdays — with daylight waning and the cold setting in — to 12 homeless men.
Along with nearly 20 area Churches of Christ and more than 100 other faith communities, Hillsboro participates every winter in a program called Room in the Inn. During the coldest months, Room in the Inn offers food and housing in churches and synagogues to people who otherwise would shiver in the dark under bridges, in doorways, or huddled for warmth over street grates.
Started in 1985 by a Catholic priest, Room in the Inn is the core outreach of the Campus for Human Development, a nonprofit in downtown Nashville that serves the homeless. Room in the Inn provided 28,499 beds, 12,997 showers and 70,466 meals to homeless guests last year, the organization reports.
At Hillsboro, members arrive around 6 p.m. every Saturday to begin preparations. The volunteers pull mattresses from storage, arrange them side-by-side along the fellowship hall walls and place freshly laundered sheets on each one. Beside each guest’s sheets, volunteers place a clean pair of socks and a ziplock toiletry bag containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, Band-Aids and other personal-care items.
While a member drives the church van downtown to pick up a dozen homeless guests, the evening’s cooks arrive with dinner.
After volunteers serve the meal around 7 p.m., guests bed down for the night or watch sports or a DVD on the fellowship hall TV. Guests bathe after signing a list for their turn in the Hillsboro building’s one shower. Some also wash clothes.
“I just thank God that I have a place to sleep right now and food on the table,” said guest Jerald Sosnowski, who is originally from Michigan and moved to Tennessee to look for work.
Wake-up time Sunday is 5:30 a.m. After eating breakfast and taking a sack lunch, the 12 men return in the church van to the Campus for Human Development central drop-off.
With Room in the Inn lasting several months and requiring volunteers each week, the Hillsboro effort involves about 100 church members, said Beth Chambers, coordinator with fellow member Shane Frazier. The weekly jobs include driving the bus to pick up and deliver guests, cooking dinner, doing laundry and serving as overnight hosts.
The Hillsboro guests like suppers that will stick with them, dishes such as pork roast, chili, “something that’s really hearty,” Frazier said. On a recent weekend, the dinner prepared by Hillsboro member Martha Burton included potato wedges, meat loaf and okra gumbo.
Hillsboro has participated in Room in the Inn since 1994, said Lynn Griffith, one of the original leaders. With no shower facilities available early on, the church rented space at a local agency for inner-city children to house its homeless guests. The congregation moved the program into its own building last year.
Before helping launch Room in the Inn at Hillsboro, Griffith volunteered at other congregations.
He recalled an experience at the Woodson Chapel church, another Room in the Inn participant, during the early years of the Nashville program.
“The first night I ever stayed, it was a dreadfully cold night, and, I remember, ... everybody was very grateful to be inside,” Griffith said. The morning after that “sub-zero” evening, when Griffith took the group back downtown, Room in the Inn’s founder, Charles Strobel, thanked him for helping.
“If we didn’t have this program last night, one or two of these guys would be found dead today under a bridge in a box,” Griffith recalled Strobel saying.
“I went home that morning and picked up the paper, and there was a report of a homeless man being found dead in a box,” Griffith added. Since that experience two decades ago, Room in the Inn has had a “warm spot” in his heart, Griffith said.
Hillsboro member John Mason, who has worked with Room in the Inn seven years, said the homeless people he talks to often report that a series of life difficulties spiraled them to the street. “There’s always some kind of a hard-luck story ... that follows them around. And they’re very willing to share it.”
Chambers sees a lot of drug and alcohol problems. Some guests have jobs but can’t afford housing. Others are out of work.
Rachel Hester, executive director of Room in the Inn in Nashville, emphasized that people are homeless for “multiple layers of reasons.”
Among the causes of homelessness cited by the Campus for Human Development are mental illness, sexual and physical abuse, learning disabilities and a family cycle of poverty.
For Hester, hosting the homeless in congregations is a good use of both physical and spiritual resources.
Houses of worship are empty at night. Churches already have insurance policies that cover visitors.
And most importantly, they know the importance of community.
“Those night-to-night relationships, those conversations around the dinner table ... they build trust,” Hester said. “Room in the Inn is the communion meal.”