Bethel Community Church and the Traveling Shelter: A Small Congregation Helping the Homeless in a Big Way

Bethel Community Church and the Traveling Shelter: A Small Congregation Helping the Homeless in a Big Way

Bethel Community Church is a congregation of 25 people located in Seymour, Indiana. With a desire to help their homeless population, this small congregation sprang into action in a big way. Read to learn more about Bethel Community and their traveling homeless shelter supported by the Center for Congregations Community Ministry Grant.

Bethel Community Church, located in Seymour, Indiana, is a small congregation with a big heart. As a church of 25 members, Bethel Community was searching for ways to serve and connect with their community when they heard of a story that would change everything.

“A few years ago, our church had heard of someone who had frozen to death while living on the streets of Seymour,” says Sondra Gentry, pastor of Bethel Community. “We did not have a homeless shelter in Seymour at the time and we felt it was time to make a change.”

Sondra organized a luncheon with community leaders to discuss homelessness within their city. As they met to brainstorm and organize solutions, Sondra learned of the Community Ministry Grant provided by the Center for Congregations. After applying for and receiving the grant, Bethel Community set out on a mission to learn more about their community’s needs and what gifts their congregation could bring to the table.

“This grant set us on quite the journey,” says Sondra. “We began going door to door, talking with other churches and community members about the homeless population. We learned a lot and made friends we hadn’t known before. It was an excellent opportunity to be a part of the community, rather than just a building within the community.”

A Church Community Comes Together

Before long, Bethel Community realized there was a dire need for a homeless shelter in Seymour, complete with resources and support. As a church of 25 located in an old building with limited space, Bethel Community was unsure of how they could accomplish such a big dream all by themselves. Fortunately, the church community was behind them.

“It turned out that lots of other churches were willing to support our vision,” says Sondra. “So, we established a winter-time homeless shelter that moved to a different church each week. During that first year, we had 11 churches and community agencies supporting it as both hosts and donors.”

The traveling homeless shelter served more than 300 people within its first year, and received a car from a community donor. Now, the shelter was able to transport the shelter residents wherever they needed to go. As Bethel Community began to see the impact of its service, the congregation realized they could do even more than provide the homeless with a place to eat and rest their head at night— they could help people get back on their feet.

“Our motto is: ‘A hand up, not a hand-out,’” says Sondra. “We’re not really interested in just housing the homeless because its cold out. We want their lives to be permanently better because they came through.”

With the help of another church, Bethel Community established a daytime shelter so the homeless had a safe place to go during the day. And as the shelter grew, so did its resources. Thanks to community donations, Bethel Community was able to offer educational opportunities, sending homeless individuals back to school for their high school diplomas. In just a short amount of time, Bethel Community saw lives changed and families healed.

“In the shelter’s first year, we baptized 11 people and got to see family members reconnect,” says Sondra. “Sometimes families and their homeless loved ones give up on each other because there’s not enough face-to-face support. We got to talk with many families and help guide them through the healing process.”

The Seymour community showed the traveling shelter a great deal of support, especially during COVID-19 as the shelter tried to find creative ways to keep the homeless safe during the pandemic.

“A number of homeless people were afraid to come into the shelter. They thought they’d be safer out in the weather,” says Sondra. “Then, a person in Indianapolis built individual plexiglass cubicles for our shelter so each person could have their own area. And every week we transported those to the next church using a big box truck.” 

While the traveling homeless shelter is only open during the winter, Sondra gets phone calls all year regarding the shelter and its resources. The community continues to donate, and today, the shelter now offers counseling, mentoring, and financial education.

“Thanks to community support, we’ve helped several people buy cars, purchase property, and find homes,” says Sondra. “There are even a few people who began as visitors to our shelter who now help us as volunteers.”

Embracing the Future

This year, an exciting development occurred when the city of Seymour established a new shelter, complete with resources and greater capacity. Bethel Community sees the new shelter as a promising sign of progress within the city.

“I’m so glad to see a new shelter in Seymour because it provides even more help for the homeless,” says Sondra. “However, we are still committed to supporting. Our board will be meeting within the next few months to discuss how we can continue to help the homeless through educational opportunities, transitional housing, and permanent housing.”

Bethel Community is grateful for the opportunity to have worked with the Center of Congregations through their Community Ministry Grant. Sondra describes the process as life changing.

“We’re a black church that sits in a white community,” says Sondra. “This grant project truly allowed us to build connections with the churches who participated. It opened up our souls and made us feel more a part of the Christian community as a family. It changed us as Christians.”

Bethel Community is excited to embrace the future with its newfound community as they continue to serve the homeless population of Seymour. 

“When hope rises, people look for a way to help. And if you provide a vehicle for change, people will help you do that, “says Sondra. “Thanks to the Community Ministry Grant, we’ve got churches and community agencies working together­— people from all around the community who you wouldn’t have thought to ask, but when they heard the call, they supported.”