More than five years ago, on a Wednesday morning, Art Figueroa and other members of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in North Hollywood nervously awaited their first guests.
The parishioners of the small, decades-old church had provided a shower room in the rectory for anyone in the surrounding community who needed it. And it was clear that the need was there. By then, Los Angeles was already in the midst of its homelessness crisis, which has only got worse since then.
About a dozen people came to use the shower that day. With just one shower stall, they could only accommodate these men and women, said Figueroa, a longtime member of the Church.
That day on March 2, 2016, marked the start of a drop-in-center program that ran one day a week. Since then, it has gradually evolved into five days a week, with two of the days being held in a neighboring church. They now also have a mobile shower unit on visiting days and offer space for many more people.
In addition to hot breakfast and lunch, they offered electronic charging stations, clothing, toiletries, and case management services. Before the pandemic, they opened one of their rooms as a lounge area for the day. And during the pandemic, the contact point houses COVID-19 test and vaccination clinics.
A nonprofit, NoHo Home Alliance, was eventually formed to run the volunteer and staff-run operation that now includes housing services and an outreach team that began in September.
“The first day went well,” says Figueroa, recalling the beginning of the program. “We all got to know each other a lot better and got to know our guests.”
The program also attracted volunteers who were not members of the Church. Sandy Kiley, now the site manager for the drop-in program, said she came across it on her way to a farmers market. The church hosted a cake sale to help add a Monday drop-in day to the existing Wednesday. Since then she has been volunteering with them.
Lex Roman, a Studio City resident who reached out to the church pastor to start the outreach program, said she was asked to do so after seeing “more people in Studio City” during the pandemic , North Hollywood, took to the streets ”. .
The seeds for the contact point were laid when Pastor Stephanie Jaeger, who was new to the church at the time, familiarized herself with the church’s facilities. When she peeked into the pastor’s room, she found a small bathroom with a shower. It was used for storage. Jaeger said she found signs and crates of beer from a recent Reformation Day event, a Lutheran celebration that happens to coincide with Oktoberfest.
Figueroa shared these early stories about the one-stop shop during the 90s celebrations.
Though remarkable, especially given the size of the Church, the history of the focal point and its growth is only the latest chapter in the Church’s unique history of addressing critical needs in her ward that have not been met elsewhere.
After the Great Depression and World War II, the Church supported people who moved to the eastern San Fernando Valley. In the 1950s and 1960s, the church offered psychological counseling, a language clinic for disabled children, and a recovery group with an artistic focus. Her church then served the North Hollywood youth in the 1970s.
And in addition to being a point of contact, the church is often best known in the local community for its efforts during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. A large red ribbon hanging on the outside of the church that draws attention to AIDS and HIV – an unusual sight in a religious setting – often keeps passers-by on their way. St. Matthew’s then welcomed people to the LGTBQIA + community and cared for people living with HIV / AIDS.
Melanie Ronning, a member of the Church, said one of her earliest memories of St. Matthew was “in the early 1990s when she sat in the pew and read the mission statement that apartment dwellers, singles, single parents and those who were,” read gay, lesbian or bisexual. “
“And since I live next door in the townhouses, it was just as important to read as someone who was really trying to figure out my sexual identity at the time,” she said.
The church also took the initiative about 25 years ago to organize a service for the deaf, at a time when there was no such official service in the country in the Evangelical Lutheran churches. On Sunday, a sign interpreter translated the services into the pews of deaf church members. The day before, during an anniversary celebration for the community, a workshop introducing the history, culture, and signs of American Sign Language attracted participants young and old.
The values of inclusion and social engagement at St. Matthew’s often surprise people, Jaeger said. One joke that stuck with her church is that “St. Matts isn’t your grandmother’s church unless your grandmother was a lesbian. “
However, Jaeger stated that her church strives to achieve the true goals of her religion, which include the appreciation of the human dignity of each individual. The word “salvation” comes from a Greek word meaning healing, she noted, that can be applied to the healing of “wounds” that are both personal and social in nature, including those with “oppression, injustice, or exclusion “Related.
For Sunday services, Jaeger said, they selected a song that invites parishioners to build a “church on human frailty,” a call that aptly reflects the attitudes of the church throughout its 90 years. The song is often used to share a lesson about the definition of the church by its ward, not by the building in which the church is housed.
Jaeger said the call could easily be linked to a debate taking place today in Los Angeles that weighs the value of a sidewalk against the value of community members who are not housed and live on those sidewalks.
Efforts are being made by city guides across Los Angeles to ban life in public right of way through city ordinances such as LA Parish Code 41.18, although the process of providing housing and services to those who need them is still very slow. Meanwhile, mounting tension over how to deal with homelessness threatens to divide the community.
And while emergency shelters continue to open, the angels who use them are struggling to move to permanent shelters due to the lack of affordable housing.
“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 things are broken,” she said. “So God is not in glory, but in the suffering of human experience.”
Bishop Brenda Bos preaches during a service at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church celebrating 90 years as a community-minded church in North Hollywood on Sunday, November 14, 2021. (Photo: Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)
Applied to questions about “justice”, so Jaeger, it arouses “calls to act in solidarity with those who experience suffering, especially under injustice, exclusion, oppression, etc.”.
A church based on the concept of “frailty”, she said, is one in which the church “recognizes that we are imperfect and that our systems are imperfect”.
On Thursday, the Department of Motor Vehicles attended the Church’s NoHo Home Alliance group’s Drop-In Day to replace the IDs that are essential for applying for housing and services but are often lost or stolen when someone lives on the street. The lack of ID is a common but often overlooked problem that hinders efforts by service providers to connect people to homes quickly.
And this weekend, the alliance plans to enlist neighborhood businesses to urge community members to join them in providing services, housing and contacts.
Art Figueroa, who joined the Church 20 years ago, said it was the Church’s focus on service that first attracted him. “One of St. Matt’s greatest strengths is a belief in helping our fellow human beings,” he said. “That was super attractive to me.”
As the church and its members stood up to help their neighbors, Jaeger noted that these efforts also seemed to strengthen their own abilities to survive the troubled times of the pandemic and prevent feelings of alienation from their community.
“You start to build relationships and see people as people,” said Jaeger of the experiences of many church members who were able to deal with their homeless neighbors on a more personal level.
“I think that’s one of the reasons we’re all still standing,” she added. “Because we never stopped (during the pandemic). These volunteers built their lives around coming here to serve. “