When the Rev. Jacob Hawes steps in front of his congregation on Thursday evenings, it’s OK to giggle in church. It’s also OK to run, to jump, to shout, and — when the choreography really isn’t speaking to you — to bust your own spontaneous move.
The Rev. Hawes and his team of volunteers will dance right along with you.
The high-energy hour that the pastor leads each week at Family House — one of the largest emergency family shelters in the state — doesn’t fit the traditional idea of “church.” His congregation, so to speak, ranges in age from roughly 2 to 12. Church feels more like a structured play time to them, with the pastor and his volunteers sharing simple Christian-based messages throughout a fun-filled hour.
“Jesus loves you!” a volunteer, Joyce Smoot, might remind 4-year-old Edelle Goodman as she traces the girl’s hand in pink playground chalk.
Deb Morgan recently used a storybook to introduce the Holy Spirit to a handful of children who were old enough to appreciate the stations volunteers set up. On the same day, Ionne Simmons fielded an unprompted question at the craft table about why Christians anoint with oil.
Family House Church, which is organized through Co.Mission Toledo and which is not an extension of any individual congregation, launched at the shelter in late March. In inviting children to a daycare-style room at the shelter each Thursday, it both meets a critical need for children’s programming at the shelter, where children outnumber parents by a slim majority, and offers a spiritual outlet in a secular environment.
Family House, a nonprofit, is not religiously affiliated. But the shelter recognizes that, for some families in crisis, faith can be a needed source of hope and strength, Executive Director Renee Palacios said. The church, as an optional form of faith-based programming, is a way to support these families.
“Having hope and faith is just as important to some people as learning about budgeting and finances,” Mrs. Palacios said. “If we don’t have hope, how do we get up tomorrow? If we don’t have faith that things are going to get better, how does that affect our motivation?”
“For some people, it’s Christ that brings those things,” she said.
“I think people are made up of your physical needs and your emotional needs, but I think that some people have spiritual needs,” she continued. “Just because we’re secular, doesn’t mean that we can’t offer faith-based programming in a comfortable setting with our kids and families together.”
Pastor Jacob Hawes, left, talks with Kenneth Roach, 12, during weekly children's church service at Family House.
Family House Church grew out of conversation last fall between Mrs. Palacios and The Rev. Hawes, whom she knew as a one-time board member at Family House. The Rev. Hawes is the director of Co.Mission Toledo, an organization supported by the Northwestern Ohio District Church of the Nazarene that aims to “plant” churches in the Toledo area.
Family House Church itself is not tied to the Church of the Nazarene, although the broad Christian themes that volunteers work into activities fall in line with the denomination’s beliefs. That the shelter church be independent of any individual congregation or denomination was a key factor in Mrs. Palacios’ consideration of the proposal.
(Family House is open to incorporating faith-based programming reflecting other religious traditions as well, Mrs. Palacios said, but no representatives have yet approached her with proposals similar to Co.Mission Toledo’s.)
Co.Mission Toledo aims to establish churches that reflect their individual communities, rather than dropping in with a “cookie cutter” model, the Rev. Hawes said. That means first connecting with that community and listening to what individuals identify as their needs.
At Family House, children emerged as a natural audience in early conversations. Mrs. Palacios said the average age for a homeless child is 4, and, at Family House, 65 of the 115 people staying at the shelter this month were children.
“One of the things we talked about ... is that the kids are just sitting in the house and there’s not a lot of programming for them,” Pastor Hawes said. “The goal is to start to give the kids something productive to do and give their parents a break.”
That’s a welcome opportunity to mothers like Lynlee Arens, whose daughter, Jerzie, recently sang, danced, and crafted her way through an evening at Family House Church. Ms. Arens, who isn’t religious herself but said she’s comfortable with the faith-based message her daughter receives, said she wished the 13-year-old could attend more often than once a week.
“It beats being cooped up in that room,” she said.
Rayvina Munn, a mother who described herself as religious, spoke similarly. She said 7-year-old Devine, 5-year-old Devin, Jr., and 3-year-old De’Varion were excited to go — Devin, in particular, after catching wind of a playground behind the onsite room where church volunteers corral their young participants.
Devine and Devin spent part of their evening folding, decorating, and showing off the bookmarks that Ms. Simmons taught them how to make. She suggested the jeweled and google-eyed masterpieces could mark a page in a Bible.
Co.Mission Toledo is expanding its programming this summer with a “fun day” each Tuesday between 1 and 3 p.m. It will be another opportunity for the children to build relationships with volunteers, who sign on through Co.Mission Toledo or through area churches.
Co.Mission Toledo is also bringing on a part-time employee to support the program at Family House. Maliesha Gillespie will be available to connect with adult residents and staff members who seek her out outside of the designated church hours, too.
While Family House Church — for now — is geared toward children, Mrs. Palacios said its influence could extend further within the shelter. The youngsters, who tend to be particularly receptive to a faith-based message, might relay those ideas to their parents.
“Sometimes when you’re in crisis, you lose focus on your faith,” she said. “And so if we pour into these kiddos, if we bring them into the faith and they feel good and positive and supported and loved, we’re hoping that that spills into Mom and Dad.”
“We hope that we take those songs and those messages and talk to Mom and Dad about it,” she said. “And Mom and Dad — if it resonates with them, great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine too.”
Contact Nicki Gorny at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6133.
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