By Fr. John Shimchick
The Covenant House Sleep Out – Student Edition
Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross
What’s it like to feel or not feel safe? What do you do when you’ve been led to believe that you’re not capable or are worthless? What’s it like to be uncertain about your daily meals, where you’ll wash up, where you’ll sleep at night, and most other things in your life?
These are among the questions raised during the Covenant House Sleep Outheld between Friday, April 28 and Saturday, April 29 at the Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross, Medford, NJ. The Sleep Out — the first of its kind in Burlington County (southern New Jersey) — brought together fifteen kids (ages 12-17) from the Holy Cross parish and other faith communities, supported by adult chaperones. They spent the night within cardboard boxes and their sleeping bags on the parish’s parking lot, away from the comfort of their homes, experiencing something of the uncertainty and discomfort of life on the street. While raising funds to benefit the efforts of Covenant House in Camden, NJ, they learned about the plight of homeless young people — not the kids thousands of miles away or on TV — but the kids just a few miles away, who slip by unnoticed.
Presentations were offered by parishioner and Sleep Out Coordinator, Phyllis Pritchard, pastor, Fr. John Shimchick, Sergeant Robert Zane from the Medford Police Department, Patricia Piserchia, Homeless Liaison for the Lenape School District, Mandi Cruz, Covenant House staff member, and Lakeisha who shared her story and affirmed the help she received from Covenant House. The children then broke into groups and discussed their impressions of what they had heard. They organized these impressions into posters and letters that they imagined could be shared with homeless youth.
Fr. John shared with them the opening moments of the Orthodox Paschal service and how the light from a single candle is taken, shared with the whole community, and then brought out into the darkness of night. He reminded the group of children and adults that they likewise were preparing to go into the darkness. Part of the hopes for this evening would be that they would receive the light and would share it with one another. Being prepared and called to go out and spread the light of Christ with all we meet is the primary experience of Pascha and of the Christian life. The students all would re-enact this opportunity by going out together to the parish’s Biblical garden where Fr. John once again lit the triple-candle cross from a single light and shared it with the assembled group.
A Prayer for the Homeless was then read:
Hear our prayer today for all women and men, boys and girls who are homeless today.
For those sleeping under bridges, on park benches, in doorways or bus stations.
For those who can only find shelter for the night, but must wander in the daytime.
For families broken because they could not afford to pay the rent.
For those who have no relatives or friends who can take them in.
For those who have no place to keep possessions that remind them who they are.
For those who are afraid and hopeless.
For those who have been betrayed by our social safety net.
For all these people, we pray that you will provide shelter, security, and hope.
We pray for those of us with warm houses and comfortable beds that we not be lulled into complacency and forgetfulness. Jesus, help us to see your face in the eyes of every homeless person we meet so that we may be empowered through word and deed, and through the political means we have, to bring justice and peace to those who are homeless.
The group gathered back within the church for evening prayer, a congregational reading of Scripture (Psalm 139), and a final prayer and petition which included their own specific intents.
Then they went out to their boxes and many fell asleep, while the chaperones remained awake. Everything was fine until around 2 AM, when thunder, lightning, and rain disrupted the calm and added a significant level of drama and uncertainty (something which can often happen in life on the street). Some of the children immediately woke up and understood what was going on, but several were stunned by the suddenness and confusion. The children and their sleeping bags were brought into the church vestibule where they spent the rest of the evening, their box community collapsing in the chaos.
Around 7 AM, everyone was brought together for a simple breakfast and a sharing of their impressions, summarized in a few words: discomfort, restless, painful, stay strong, don’t give up, being safe. A few, remembering Lakeisha’s comments about how uncomfortable life in shelters can be, noted that coming together into the vestibule was even more difficult than being on the street.
In the end over $13,000.00 was raised. The Committee was very proud of the children’s efforts and grateful for the Holy Cross parish support which included St. Helena’s Guild, part of the profits from a recent fundraiser — the Fantasy Auction, a donation from the Medford Police Department, and other sponsors. The event received strong support from the Lenape School District and the Medford Police force (of special note were the efforts of Sergeant Robert Zane). Connections were also established with local faith communities that we would like to further develop.
The final Sleep Out goal would be that the personal experience of learning more about the plight of youth their own age — of understanding more about “what it’s like” — will develop a greater sensitivity within the participants and guide their own willingness to be vehicles of light and hope for others.
For more information and photos about this event, please visit: www.holycrossmedford.org
For more information about Covenant House, please visit: www.covenanthouse.org
To learn more about the Sleep Out: Student Edition, please visit: www.studentsleepout.org
Fr. John Shimchick is pastor of the Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross in Medford, NJ and editor of “Jacob’s Well”, the journal for the OCA Archdiocese of New York-New Jersey.