More than five years ago, on Wednesday morning, Art Figueroa and other members of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in North Hollywood waited nervously for their first guests.
The parishioners of the small church, built several decades ago, opened a shower room in the pastor’s premises for all who needed it. And it was clear that there was a need for this. At the time, Los Angeles was already in a state of homelessness crisis, which has only worsened since then.
About a dozen people came to the shower that day. According to Figueroa, a longtime church member, just one shower was all they could fit.
That day, March 2, 2016, was the start of the once-a-week drop-in program. Since then, it has gradually expanded to five days a week, and one of the days is spent in a nearby church. They now also have a mobile shower stall available on weekdays and can accommodate a lot more people.
In addition to a hot breakfast and lunch, they offered electronic charging stations, clothing, toiletries, and business management services. Before the pandemic, they opened one of their rooms as a recreation area where people could spend the day. And during a pandemic, COVID-19 testing and vaccination clinics operate in the trust center.
The nonprofit NoHo Home Alliance was eventually formed to manage a volunteer and staff-led operation that now includes housing services and an outreach group that began in September.
“That first day went well,” Figueroa said, recalling the beginning of the program. “We all got to know each other much better and got to know our guests.”
The program also attracted non-church volunteers. Sandy Keely, who is now the manager of the free attendance program, said she stumbled upon this on her way to the farmers’ market. The church ran a bake sale to help fund the addition of Monday to its existing day on Wednesdays. Since then, she has been working with them as a volunteer.
Lex Roman, a Studio City resident who approached the church’s pastor to start an outreach program, said she was encouraged to do so after she saw “more people took to the streets of Studio City, North Hollywood during the pandemic. “. …
The seeds for the drop-in center were sown when Pastor Stephanie Jager, a newcomer to the church at the time, was introduced to the church premises. Looking into the pastor’s room, she found a small bathroom with a shower. It was used for storage. Jager said she found signs and crates of beer at a recent event marking Reformation Day, a Lutheran holiday that coincides with Oktoberfest.
Figueroa recounted these early stories of the drop-in center as he celebrated his 90th birthday last weekend, after a year the church worked to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down personal services.
While this is remarkable, especially given the size of the church, the story of the support center and its growth is just the latest chapter in the church’s unique history of meeting critical needs in their community that have not been met elsewhere.
After the Great Depression and World War II, the church supported people who moved to the eastern part of the San Fernando Valley. In the 1950s and 60s, the church offered psychological counseling, a speech clinic for children with disabilities, and a recovery group specializing in the arts. They then served at the North Hollywood Youth Church in the 1970s.
And beyond the support center, the church was often best known in the local community for its efforts during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. The large red ribbon, symbolizing AIDS and HIV awareness, that hangs on the outside of the church – an unusual sight in a religious setting – often stops passers-by. At the time, St. Matthew’s Church welcomed people into the LGTBQIA + community and took care of people with HIV / AIDS.
Melanie Ronning, a church member, said one of her earliest memories of St Matthew’s Church was “in the early 90s, as she sat on a bench and read a mission statement that included apartment residents, single people, parents – singles and others. gay, lesbian or bisexual. “
“And since I live next door in townhouses, it was very important to read this as someone who was really trying to figure out my sexual identity at the time,” she said.
About 25 years ago, the church also took the initiative to organize a ministry for the deaf, while there was no such official ministry in the country in the Evangelical Lutheran churches. On Sunday, a sign language translator translated services into the pews of deaf church members. The day before, during an anniversary celebration aimed at the community, a workshop held to familiarize people with the history, culture and signs of American Sign Language attracted participants young and old.
According to Jager, the values of inclusiveness and participation in solving community problems at St. Matthew’s Church often surprise people. She noted that one joke that has caught on about their church is that “St. Matt is not your grandmother’s church, unless your grandmother was a lesbian.
But Jager explained that their church aims to achieve the true goals of their religion, which includes respect for the human dignity of every person. She also noted that the word “salvation” comes from the Greek word for healing, which can be applied to healing “wounds” of both personal and public nature, including those associated with “oppression, injustice or marginalization”.
For Sunday services, Jager said, they chose a song that invites parishioners to build “a church on human weakness,” an appeal that accurately reflects the church’s outlook throughout its 90-year existence, often used to share a lesson about defining a church as its people and its community, not the building in which the church is located.
Jager said the call could easily be linked to a debate taking place in Los Angeles today, which compares the value of the sidewalk to the value of other community members who do not have a home and live on those sidewalks.
City leaders across Los Angeles are making efforts to ban public living through city ordinances such as Los Angeles City Code 41.18, despite the still extremely slow process of providing housing and services to all who need them. Meanwhile, rising tensions over how to deal with homelessness threaten to divide Angelenos.
“The Lutheran tradition, in particular, focuses on the fact that if you want to know where God is, God is where there is suffering, where everything breaks,” she said. “So God is not in glory, but in the suffering of human experience.”
When applied to issues related to “justice,” Jager said, it prompts “calls to action in solidarity with those who are suffering, especially those suffering from injustice, marginalization, oppression and so on.”
According to her, a church based on the concept of “weakness” is one in which she “recognizes that we are imperfect and our systems are imperfect.”
On Thursday, the Department of Motor Vehicles took part in an alliance event to help replace identification cards, which are required when applying for housing and services but are often lost or stolen when someone lives on the street. Lack of identification is a common but often overlooked problem that prevents service providers from quickly connecting people to housing.
And this weekend, the Church’s NoHo Home Alliance group plans to draw the attention of local businesses to persuade community members to join them in providing services, housing and outreach.
Art Figueroa, who joined the church 20 years ago, said it was the ministry that drew the church’s attention in the first place. “One of St. Matt’s greatest strengths is the importance placed on faith in helping our fellow human beings,” he said. “It was very appealing to me.”
As the church and its members began to help their neighbors, Jager noted that these efforts also seemed to strengthen their own ability to cope with the difficult times of the pandemic and prevent feelings of alienation from their community.
“You start to build relationships and see people as people,” Jager said of what many church members have gone through who have been able to communicate with their neighbors without a home on a more personal level.
“I think this is one of the reasons we are still standing,” she added. “Because we never stopped (during a pandemic). These volunteers have built their lives on coming here to serve. “