By Marv Knox
Founder of Fellowship Southwest
People of faith committed to welcoming refugees and supporting the homeless gathered for information, inspiration and encouragement — lots of encouragement— at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina’s first Hospitality and Housing Summit April 29.
CBFNC sponsored the summit in collaboration with Welcome House Community Network, a ministry it launched with CBF field personnel Kim and Marc Wyatt in 2020. Welcome House provides temporary housing and support for vulnerable people across the state and beyond.
“We’re here so we can be, do, experience and share the welcome of Jesus” with at-risk people seeking a new start in life, CBFNC Executive Coordinator Larry Hovis explained as he kicked off the summit at Trinity Baptist Church in Raleigh.
He called the summit “the culmination of an 11-year process” that began with a meeting in Canada, where the Wyatts resettled refugees for CBF. Their conversation about the influx of refugees helped Hovis see “the societal changes taking place in Canada … starting to take place in North Carolina,” he reported, recalling he prayed, “God, send us someone like Marc and Kim.”
Two years later, the Wyatts relocated in Raleigh. A year after that, they opened the first Welcome House, and Welcome House Community Network launched three years ago, he said.
Hovis cited four goals for the Housing and Hospitality Summit:
- “Celebrate Welcome House Community Network.” It includes more than 40 congregations, a skilled staff and supervision by a CBFNC-elected ministry team.
- “Resource those involved.” Participants included volunteers who help operate Welcome Houses and who can benefit from learning more about their work.
- “Inspire those who are curious.” The summit focused on providing both ministry tools and encouragement for churches thinking about joining the network.
- “Expand our imagination.” Volunteers are needed for other hospitality ministries, such as education and advocacy, as well as welcoming neighbors. And many congregations own under-utilized buildings that could be converted to Welcome Houses.
Throughout the summit, speakers urged participants to lean into the goals Hovis outlined.
When welcoming their neighbors, dig beneath superficial questions and build upon strong relationships, said Daynette Snead Perez, founder of Diaspra, a ministry that guides congregations to build diverse community.
A key is transcending differences, she said, citing the Apostle Paul’s counsel to the Philippian Christians. “Paul was saying we belong together in the Lord. … And the truth is we share common ground in the Lord.”
Building community requires empathy, “the most powerful tool of compassion,” she added. “I challenge us to create this unified world through the words we choose and the actions we take.”
Meeting needs of neighbors often calls for courage, tenacity and faith, reported Pat Byrd, executive director of the Roanoke Chowan Christian Women’s Job Corps. As the organization’s board sought “what to do about this housing problem,” they encountered endless discussions of “problems that may not exist,” she said, adding she continually offered to resolve them.
They reached a breakthrough when an influential deacon in the church spoke up and said: “She’s answered every question anyone raised. Why not try it?”
Byrd urged others considering opening a Welcome House to show resolve:
“Be brave. If God needs you, step up and say, ‘Why not?’ You don’t have to have all the answers. Just take a step of faith.”
Offering hospitality and providing housing demands a blend of two kinds of thinking or approaches to problem-solving, said Bill Stanfield, founder of Metanoia, a community development organization launched by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina.
Citing the work of Columbia University brain scientist Lisa Miller, Stanfield explained the “achieving brain,” focuses on useful information and asks, “What am I going to get out of this?” The “awakened brain” functions from the “deep practice of prayer and spirituality” and asks, “What does this situation have to teach me?”
“Most of the way God works in our lives, God starts with where we are — the achieving brain — but loves us enough to come to our awakened brain,” Stanfield said. While many people tend to start by using their achieving brain, focusing on all the logistical details of accomplishing a task, that is the wrong way to go about hospitality and housing ministry.
“We can build a lot of houses and still miss out on what God has for us,” he said. “The only way to get there is through the confluence (of achieving and awakened). Ask not just, ‘How are we going to do it?’ but … ‘What is God trying to teach us through the people we are coming alongside?’ … You need those relationships to understand what God has for us.”
For many congregations, considering opening a Welcome House involves evaluating how to use church facilities to the best advantage, two speakers emphasized.
Daniel Pryfogle, cofounder of Sympara, a nonprofit that helps communities repurpose underutilized religious properties for the common good, said he consistently asks client congregations two questions: “Why are you here? And how might your property be better used to live into your identity?”
The answer to the second question often involves death — physical and/or emotional, Pryfogle stressed, reminding participants Jesus said a seed must fall to the ground and die to produce many other seeds.
“This fits our theology,” he said. “But, oh, we have a hard time letting go. … We know that death is essential. And what happens on the other side? You know — resurrection.”
In this case, that means “repurposed church properties for the good of the community.” Churches give up their facilities so that they can be used by others — nonprofits or community organizations — to bless the neighborhoods.
Rickey Letson, the CBF’s congregational stewardship officer and author of “Sacred Spaces, Innovative Places,” also urged churches to look at their underutilized property as a resource for continuing ministry.
Research shows the vast majority of congregations’ properties are under-used, he said. “We’re interested in how churches can leverage or monetize their space to generate some level of income to sustain themselves. … How can we leverage our property and facilities to be an asset benefit and not a detriment?”
Letson described a “thriving” congregation of about 20 members whose ministry multiplied when it gave its property to a local nonprofit while carving out an agreement to remain in its former building.
“Churches often have some of the best space in town,” he said, noting agreements for creative use of church space can be mutually beneficial for the congregations, nonprofits and residents of the community.
Congregations are key to welcoming vulnerable newcomers, noted Scott Phillips, the North Carolina state refugee coordinator.
“Housing is the #1 issue of resettlement,” Phillips said. “But the second is hospitality; that’s where the meat is. It’s opening up that pathway to welcome.”
While resettlement agencies offer technical and logistical assistance, such as providing housing and help with finding jobs and placing children in school, churches “connect to a passion for welcome.”
“Make sure people who are seeking opportunity, who are seeking hope are given that chance,” he urged.
While most of the 210 participants are members of CBF churches, some who attended the summit represented other congregations.
Donna and Tom Wolcott, members of Highland United Methodist Church in Raleigh, are housing two Ukrainian refugees — a mother and daughter — in their home. They attended the summit looking for both information and encouragement, and they received a distinguished service award during the gathering.
“Our approach to this summit is: What can we do to be useful?” he said. “We’re not professional refugee advocates. With the increase in need for refugee housing, this is something we could and should do, and that’s how we got involved.”
“We’re looking for encouragement,” she added. “We’re in the long haul now. We’re in the place where we need to have heart-to-heart talks with the people who live with us. They’re isolating. … This is something we hadn’t anticipated. We have to have a plan, a different routine.”
Maxine Smith, who worships at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, said attending the summit was the natural thing to do. The congregation began exploring the possibility of sponsoring a refugee family in 2021 and received an Afghan family in 2022.
“Because we knew nothing about how to sponsor a family, I started asking around” and discovered the Wyatts through a group from the Unitarian Fellowship who work with refugees, Smith said. “They’re the ones who taught us what to do.”
At the summit, she was learning more to prepare for Temple Beth Or’s next family, who will arrive in June.
In closing, Hovis issued a three-fold challenge to guide participants to carry the Welcome House movement forward.
“As you leave here today, think about something you heard today that interests you and commit to learn more about it,” he said. “Recall a person you met who interests you and get to know that person better. And then think of one action you’ve been inspired to take and go out and do it.”