Winter 2021 marks the ninth season that Stroudsburg Wesleyan Church (SWC), Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, has facilitated an emergency winter shelter for people experiencing homelessness. “The Wesleyan Inn,” as the ministry is now known, offers a warm and safe space for up to 40 residents per night.
In the ministry’s early years, guests at the shelter occupied the facility’s gym, sleeping on mats on the floor. To accommodate the growing need, SWC recently completed a building renovation that expanded usable space for guests including showers, common space and full beds.
COVID-19’s broader impact has presented unique challenges, as rising home prices have pressed landlords to sell their properties to earnest home buyers, leaving many renters displaced, unable to secure housing in a market that has left them behind. This economic impact has driven an increase in residents at The Wesleyan Inn.
“We put plexiglass dividers between the beds — and guests can’t eat together if there’s a possible COVID exposure, just to mitigate any spread,” said Rev. Lynda Keefer, SWC co-pastor. The cleaning, interaction and general logistics of The Wesleyan Inn are made possible by shelter managers and around 40 volunteers, each with different gifts and skill sets.
Volunteers check guests in, help them become oriented to their accommodations, while other volunteers remain at SWC overnight with at least one volunteer always staying awake to offer assistance and oversight.
The Wesleyan Inn is a big commitment for SWC — facilities, resources and an up-front investment in zoning regulations and safety protocols — but for their congregation, this is an important investment in discipleship.
“For us, it’s very tangible,” said Rev. Keefer. “When Jesus read from the Torah that good news is preached to the poor, and said, ‘This Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,’ that’s how we see it: Good news should make a difference in the community … not an abstract idea, but meeting people where they are and meeting needs in the name of Jesus.”
Involvement in the church is not required for a stay at The Wesleyan Inn; but Rev. Keefer cited several examples of people whose stay there has helped them find community and involvement in SWC’s congregation.
That involvement is not without moments of awkwardness. Rev Keefer recalled, “Last year one person was intoxicated and shouted out during the Christmas Eve service — not intending to be rude, but just responding to the service — but isn’t that what the church is supposed to be? A hospital for the broken?”
In addition to providing shelter and offering spiritual care, SWC helps guests at The Wesleyan Inn network with other social services nearby, offering connections that help guests find addiction recovery, job training or other community resources.
Beyond providing avenues into community involvement, The Wesleyan Inn has earned SWC a reputation in their community as a safe place for people in transition to come with everyday needs and spiritual concerns. “There are constantly people coming, ‘Hey, can you help me with this? Hey, I need a new coat? Hey, can you pray for me about this?’” mentioned Keefer.
Weathering a pandemic, housing scarcity and the need for enhanced caution to prevent illness, SWC’s ministry has brought fruitful discipleship — not just for their guests but for their church. The Wesleyan Inn offers a glimpse into the best of our Wesleyan heritage: the deeply-rooted conviction that the gospel is good news both for the everyday needs and spiritual well-being of our neighbors.
Rev. Ethan Linder is the pastor of collegians and young adults at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, and contributing editor at The Wesleyan Church’s Education and Clergy Development Division.