EUGENE, OR (December 31, 2009) – Bitter temperatures that descended on the city led more than 90 people to sleep on cots and pads in the sanctuary of Valley Covenant Church for more than a week earlier this month.
The church is one of six congregations in that community participating in the Egan Warming Center Coalition, which provides shelter whenever the temperature drops below 28 degrees.
The church began sheltering people on December 3, when the temperatures fell below 20 degrees, says Pastor Steve Bilynskyj. Roughly a dozen people came in from the cold that night.
The numbers continued to grow each night, reaching a peak of 90 people at one point as temperatures plunged to 10 degrees. The people slept in the sanctuary, which normally seats between 70 and 80 people during Sunday worship, Bilynskyj says.
The church kept the doors open until December 11, when the temperatures began to rise. Members of the community joined church members to serve the guests, Bilynskyj says.
The center provided a sandwich in the evening, a cot and blankets, a place to watch television – including a key playoff game for the Oregon Ducks – and coffee and a donut in the morning. On the last night, some shelter guests joined the Valley Covenant youth group in decorating the sanctuary’s Christmas tree.
The church had to face several challenges in addition to finding space for the guests, Bilynskyj says. A pipe froze on December 8 and broke in the ceiling of the congregation’s second building, which is three years old and contains youth gathering rooms and offices.
The water damage did not affect the shelter in the sanctuary building, but has severely hampered congregational life during the shelter time and the Christmas holiday, Bilynskyj adds.
The most difficult day was December 11 when shelter volunteers and the congregation removed and stored all the cots, cleaned out the heavily used kitchen, and set up 200 chairs so that a memorial service could take place in the afternoon for a member of the congregation.
Immediately following the service, volunteers took down the chairs so that tables could be set up for a long-planned holiday craft fair the next day. On Saturday evening after the craft fair, the tables came down and the chairs went back up for Sunday worship.
“Through it all a core of dedicated church members smiled, pitched in to help, and praised God for their opportunities to serve the community and each other through a challenging time,” Bilynskyj says.
Valley Covenant’s commitment to the Warming Center continues through March 15, so they are ready to bring the cots back in whenever the thermometer drops to 28 or below, Bilynskyj adds. “Their simple goal is that no one will ever again freeze to death on the streets of their community.”
The Egan Warming Center Coalition is named after Major Thomas Egan, a homeless veteran who died of exposure in cold weather in 2008.