A record-breaking 94.8 inches of snow. A below-average 21.1 degrees Fahrenheit on average (with windchills well below zero). And a shivery 0.75-inch ice blanket on everything.
In Michigan we don’t get hurricanes or tsunamis or even superstorms. But apparently we do get what weather guys call a Polar Vortex. It sounds cold because it is — really, really cold. And there’s a lot of snow too. The 2013-2014 winter held the most snow for Detroit in over 133 years, breaking a record set in 1881 and giving some kind of satisfying consolation to residents for the April 14th snowfall. Yes, you read that right. April.
(Winter 2015 wasn’t great, either.)
I endured most of the cold and snow from inside my house, only venturing out to take my dog for a quick (and I mean quick) walk around the block. But I knew that not everyone living in Lapeer, Michigan, had that kind of luxury. I’d send up a prayer, attempt to stop complaining about the cold and try not to think about it for too long.
While the aforementioned Polar Vortex left its mark on the Mitten this year, it wasn’t too far off for a regular Michigan winter. We get our fair share of snow and cold during the winter months. And it’s bearable. But for the people without houses to stay warm in, well, like I said, I tried not to think about that for too long lest my heart get broken over those seeking protection from the harsh elements.
Seeking Shelter at The Refuge
But twelve years ago, Lapeer County residents Kendra Petty, MaryAnn Nutt and Father Steve Dewey couldn’t shake the thought of unsheltered souls in the dead of winter. They had a vision, settled on a plan and 2002 was the first season for The Refuge to open its doors.
Except it wasn’t its own doors that were opening — it was local churches’ doors.
As a rotating shelter, The Refuge brings churches from around Lapeer County together to house, feed and provide transportation for the homeless throughout the winter months. Here’s how it works: participating churches open their buildings for a week or more at a time where guests are given beds and three meals each day. They are on their own for the day but arrive at the intake site each night around 5:00 p.m. where they are checked in, patted down, tested for alcohol daily and drugs periodically, and prayed with if desired. Then they are transported to the host church for the night where volunteers from that church welcome, feed, visit and share Jesus with them.
Out of more than 100 churches in Lapeer County, 19 have participated, allowing the Refuge to operate for nearly five months during the winter season. Yes, in Michigan winter can last five (or more) months. From November 2013 through March 2014, The Refuge housed and fed more than 50 people throughout Lapeer County.
Jean Metzger serves as site coordinator for Hunters Creek Community Church in Metamora, Michigan. Her story starts eight years ago, when she passed a homeless woman on the road twice in one day before giving her a ride. Moved by the Holy Spirit’s prodding, she has since volunteered for The Refuge in two different churches.
“My failure affected me more than anything,” said Jean. “The Refuge has given me a willingness to serve, to see that there’s a need and to be willing to serve and not just go by it. I think it has blessed me way more than it has touched them. And I love that God does that!”
Here’s the cool thing: not all of the churches who participate in The Refuge are the same kind of church. Host churches include a Presbyterian church, an Anglican church, an Independent Fundamental Church and several non- denominational churches. Their doctrinal statements may not match word for word, but they all come together under one God and a united purpose. The mission statement reads, “The Refuge will equip the congregations of Lapeer County to: 1) provide shelter for the homeless and 2) promote the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The churches don’t have to agree on every single theological issue — like the order of eschatological events, the presence of sign gifts, what Bible version to read or whether or not God can make a rock so big He can’t lift it. We may not worship in the same way or the same place every Sunday, but we can (and should) come together under the same Name — Jesus Christ — to love and serve those who hunger both physically and spiritually.
In Ephesians 4, Paul writes, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in one bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Together for Jesus
My friend Andrea Henderson totally gets this unity thing Paul was talking about. She has volunteered at three different churches for The Refuge — a Presbyterian church and two non-denominational churches.
“I think The Refuge, as a whole, is an amazing ministry for churches to grab a hold of,” said Andrea. “Serving others while showing them the love of Jesus — it’s a win-win!”
Psalm 46:1 is a rally cry for The Refuge. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in times of trouble.”
The Polar Vortex presented enough trouble for one winter, and Michiganders are hoping there won’t be a repeat performance next year. But whatever the weather, instead of dousing the Holy Spirit’s convictions of my short-lived thoughts, I’ll join my friends in the body of Christ to be a part of what God is doing in Lapeer County — no matter what’s on my church sign.