Welcome a Stranger, Welcome Jesus

August 27, 2010

Rev. Sheila Fiorella
New Day United Methodist Church

He walked into the Mansfield Activities Center where we were meeting early one Sunday night. He stood about 6 feet tall with two boys at his side: an 8th grader named George and a 4th grader named Allen I would soon learn. My new friend Peter said he had been driving by and seen our signs outside and finally decided to come in and check us out. He lived in an apartment with his sons not far from the center. I told Peter that worship wasn’t for another hour but he was welcome to stay and wait. We had cookies and drinks and conversation from the set-up team to offer. He said they would go home and change their clothes. I said that wasn’t necessary and pointed down at the jeans I was wearing. Peter went home and changed anyway. I stayed and prayed that I would see them all again at 6 p.m.
They were true to their word. Peter, George, and Allen came back that same night and worshiped with us. It was the last Sunday in November, 2009.  “What did you notice first, “the first time guest survey asked him. “A warm welcoming reception, a happy convivial atmosphere and playful children.” “What did you like best?” “A peaceful serenity.” “What was your overall impression?” “ A feeling of being with good people I would like to become a part of.” How can we pray for you? “To settle down peacefully in America, to grow in the land Spiritually and to learn from good friends I have met.”
 
They returned for a 2nd visit the following week. Peter filled out one more online survey. “What most influenced your decision to attend New Day a second time?” “Upliftment of a depressed spirit influenced my decision to attend New Day for the second time.” “What was most memorable about your first or second time at New Day?” “A memorable feeling of wanting to come back again and again and again.” “Would you feel comfortable inviting your friends to attend New Day with you? Why?” Yes, I would like them to because of our new and touching experience. “How could we improve your experience?” “By helping me to integrate and learn more of God things.” “Would you be interested in learning more about small groups or serving on Sunday?” “ Yes, indeed.”
 
Peter soon became very involved in our new church start. He and the boys would come early to set up chairs and tables. He started becoming very close to a couple of our members; in particular Hal and my husband Russ. At the same time he was struggling with unemployment, separation from his current wife, and just trying to put food on the table and provide a stable home life. (His first wife died giving birth to Allen in Africa where they are from.) We offered Peter whatever support we could. He didn’t ask for it; we gave it freely, willingly, and without any strings attached. Blankets (they were all sleeping in one bed to stay warm since they couldn’t afford to pay for the heat), food, gift cards, gas, and rent assistance were the tangible things we gave as a church and as individuals. But the most important thing we gave to Peter was unconditional, nonjudgmental LOVE. And Peter, George, and Allen gave the same to us in return.
 
In January 2010, we hooked Peter up with Justice for Our Neighbors (they offer free legal advice and assistance to immigrants) and they are continuing to help him get his life back in order. By February Peter and the boys were evicted from their apartment. It broke my heart. Hal had done some research on the Arlington Life Shelter and went with Peter to help get him a place to stay. Peter is a quiet, humble man. Thanks to Hal speaking up that Peter had two sons, they moved him to the front of the line and secured a place for them.  I had never worked much with homelessness. I had been too “busy” sitting in an office over the years. OK, true confessions: I hadn’t been close to ANYONE who had been homeless to tell you the truth. And now I couldn’t imagine this family, especially the children, living in “transitional housing.” What could I do to change things? To make a difference? I had made phone calls and it was determined that this was the best thing at the time. Peter would learn skills. They would help him find a job. They would eventually help him get an apartment. This could be a good, God-thing. “I guess so,” I supposed, but I still didn’t have a good feeling about it. 
 
Peter, George, and Allen moved into the Life Shelter and Hal and his wife Sandy stored their belongings in their garage, awaiting the time when they would have a place of their own once more. We donated whatever food had been in their home to who else? The Arlington Life Shelter. They had taken in our friend and we wanted to support them in their efforts as well. The family’s attendance at worship was more erratic since they had to get special permission to stay out that late on Sunday nights. Plus it took gas money to commute from North/Central Arlington to South Mansfield, and Peter didn’t want to impose. We kept communicating through voicemail (he had to have a phone since he was looking for a job) and email (he checked it periodically from the library). George and Allen were able to stay in their Mansfield schools thanks to a joint bussing partnership between the Arlington and Mansfield ISD’s. What a blessing! Uprooted from their home, at least they wouldn’t be uprooted from their schools, too.
 
We celebrated when Peter got a job working nights at DFW Airport (and worried about the boys staying in the shelter without him at night). We offered to have them spend nights with my family and other New Day families, but Peter decided they would be OK. I probably didn’t keep up with them as much as I should have, but I think they knew we were there for him. At least I hope so.  He still knew GOD was there for him, although it would be easy to see how he could lose hope.
 
Peter remains one of the most faithful persons I have ever met. I honestly do not know how I would have handled myself in these circumstances. I know there were low times for him. Just this past week he wrote to me, saying, “As of now am waiting upon the hand of the Lord to see me out of this poverty level and place me on a different category of life for that is the only way I will regain respect from the society. There’s nothing as bad as being homeless; I have experiences. Anyway I will talk later about all these.”
 
I honestly don’t think there’s anyone I respect more right now than Peter, George, and Allen. God is at work in his life and in the lives of his boys. God will see him through to even greater blessings. I am confident of that! And God’s hand is upon a fledgling, new church start, made up of a hodgepodge of persons who were formerly “unchurched.” The “real” people (a compliment by a first time guest this week) of New Day UMC are learning what it means to be the church. Although our new leased building and band have brought about a lot of momentum and enthusiasm among our young church, I know it is the work of the Spirit within and through God’s people that enables us to “engage, energize, and empower lives with God’s forgiving love” (New Day’s mission).
 
What does the future hold for Peter, George, and Allen? “I made an application for an apartment last week, paid the Deposit and later they gave me the contract questionnaire to hand it over to the Arlington Housing Authority for their further necessary action. Hence awaiting to hear from them. They have very nice apartments which I believe will pass housing inspection. “ The boys will live in Arlington but be permitted to attend school in Mansfield. New Day is committed to helping them move; offering food, supplies, and furniture (even from a first time worship guest), and most of all, continuing to offer unconditional, nonjudgmental LOVE and receiving it in return.
 
For more questions or to help support people like Peter and new ministries to reach out with God’s love, contact Rev. Sheila Fiorella, New Day United Methodist Church, 1475 Heritage Parkway, Suite 309, Mansfield, TX 76063 817.225.2277 www.ndumc.com @newdayumc (on Facebook and Twitter). Be our guest and come see what your church share dollars to Central Texas Conference’s Church Growth & Development are accomplishing! Will you join me in spreading the news? Together, let’s get the word out.
 
“I bless God every chance I get; my lungs expand with his praise. I live and breathe God; if things aren't going well, hear this and be happy: Join me in spreading the news; together let's get the word out.”
 
“God met me more than halfway; he freed me from my anxious fears. Look at him; give him your warmest smile. Never hide your feelings from him. When I was desperate, I called out, and God got me out of a tight spot. God's angel sets up a circle of protection around us while we pray.”

“Open your mouth and taste, open your eyes and see— how good God is. Blessed are you who run to him.” Psalm 34:1-8