Homeless in the Yard

*by Irene TenEyck,


Editor’s Note: On September 16 The United Methodist Reporter shared a local news story on the Wesley United Methodist Church’s struggles with their homeless ministry. After talking with the pastor of the church and learning about some of the mischaracterizations of their work in that story, we invited the church to report on the work that they are doing. 

How did a small downtown congregation, Wesley United Methodist Church, in La Crosse Wisconsin get so much attention for a very tiny ministry it is doing, for a very small percentage of the individuals who are called homeless, in that community? That is a very good question and I am not so sure I know the answer. What I do know is a little of the history and perhaps a little of the “why” we are doing this.

It is no secret that the homeless population is growing nationwide and the causes are many: mental illness, alcohol and other drug addictions, loss of jobs, loss of homes, significant health issues, and even choice. In our small community we have also seen the population grow over the past years.

Many congregations are involved in many ministries related to helping the least, the last, the lost, and the voiceless. Our congregation is no different and is involved in a variety of ministries, though it seems like ministry with individuals who are homeless, has been the one that God keeps putting before us.

It is no secret that winters here can be harsh and sometimes the need for shelter in extreme cold is greater than the availability. The winter of 2013-2014, our area had an arctic cold spell with severe temperatures and wind chills below zero for up to 60 hours straight followed by a blizzard a short while later. At the request of both governmental and volunteer organizations, Wesley UMC was up and running in a matter of hours as a supplemental warming center for individuals who were homeless and who could not get into shelters that were full. Many of our church members became active with the operation of the warming center and got to personally know many individuals who were homeless. We quickly became the church known for welcoming this particular segment of the population.


The following summer again, God presented an opportunity to the congregation when first one, then a few more individuals who were homeless came to our church and asked permission to sleep in our Grace Garden. This is our backyard, so to speak, with benches, a picnic table and green space. These individuals were working hard to overcome addictions and wanted a place to sleep at night away from those who were using drugs and alcohol. They had only tarps and sleeping bags, and asked no more of us than to be able to sleep there, rather than the parks where most gathered at night. Our small group of guests- dubbed the “concrete congregation”- would gather in the evenings and was invited into a weekly prayer group led by our pastor and laity. This prayer group was a comfortable place for people to talk about their faith, their lives, their stories and their struggles.

Forward to this past summer. Again, God sent us a few individuals asking if they could sleep in the Grace Space to be able to feel safe and avoid the challenges they are combating on a daily basis, living on the streets; addictions, violence and no rights to be anywhere. The answer, as before, was yes. We have been quietly going about our ministry for well over a year now, so what brought the recent attention and the challenges to the church for this outreach ministry? Sleeping under tarps or just in sleeping bags made them vulnerable to the elements and other dangers. It also made them rather invisible. Society is very uncomfortable with homeless individuals and prefers them to be invisible. These past couple of months we have had anywhere from three to a dozen individuals come to our Grace Space for safety and sanctuary, clearly a miniscule percentage of the homeless population in our community. Many of these individuals have tents and have been invited to use them for their safety and wellbeing. Along with the tents, comes attention. We have posted rules to be able to ensure a safe space for all- no drugs, alcohol or disruptive behavior. Tents are put up just before dusk and taken down and put away by 8am. At that point, they go about their business of the day and return again in the evening. We have several congregation members who check in with our guests to ensure that all is going well with them.

In a recent meeting of the congregation leaders, we were asked to name our values as a congregation. We came up with words like compassion, inclusive, safe loving environment, service to individuals and community, provide refuge, public awareness, “owning” societal problems, along with many others. These values lead us to do work in many areas of need. It just so happens that this very vulnerable and voiceless group of individuals, called the homeless, literally landed on our doorstep, over and over again, and presented themselves as the most immediate need that we have been called, and are blessed, to serve.

We did not set out to provide a shelter, and we are not. We did not set out to open a campground and we have not. We have only offered a safe space, a grace space, a sanctuary, and a small ministry that minutely fills a gap in formal services, where vulnerable individuals who are homeless and want to be safe from some of the perils of sleeping on the streets, can be. We are a small congregation, perhaps 145 members registered and about 45 active members. We have few financial resources but we do what we can and try to answer God’s call to serve when needs are presented to us. We are in the process, as a congregation, to redefine the mission and ministry of our church and it seems that for right now, God keeps pointing us in a particular direction. Perhaps we should be paying attention, and perhaps He means for others to pay attention as well. This all just might be in His plan, and that’s why a small downtown congregation in La Crosse Wisconsin is getting so much attention for a very tiny ministry it is doing, for a very small percentage of the individuals who are called homeless, in that community.

*Irene TenEyck is the chairperson of the committee on Church and Society at the Wesley United Methodist Church in La Crosse, WI

Special Contributor to UMR

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Wisconsin Methodist Church Makes Homelessness About Religious Freedom - Urban Christian NewsPaul W.gerry Recent comment authors
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The central question all need to ask is, “Is this a Ceiling ministry (this action and no more) or a Foundation ministry (this action to start and build from there)? A foundation ministry means that there will be additional resources, organization, and coordination applied to this problem. (Old school Methodism at it’s finest) How spiritually ambitious are the members of Wesley? Time will quickly tell for while the tents are a good start they are not a lasting solution. The Church that represents the Power & Majesty of the Creator, Lord, and Savior of the world can do better than… Read more »

Paul W.
Paul W.

The question really is how Wesley UMC is working to meet their responsibilities to the local government and the neighboring residents and businesses while effectively ministering to the homeless. A few weeks have passed since the original news story — could someone from the church provide an update on progress? I personally felt that the original news reports on the local CBS station and in the La Crosse Tribune were well-written, very informative about the situation, fair, and extremely sympathetic to the outreach of Wesley UMC. Other than taking offense at the camp site being referred to in the articles… Read more »

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