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Laurel Winter Shelter season set to begin

Laurel Winter Shelter season set to begin
(Jen Rynda, Patuxent Publishing)

At St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Laurel, the congregation has recently replaced scripture during their Bible study.

Instead of studying Old and New Testament passages, congregation members have shifted their focus to "Not Just a One-Night Stand: Ministry with the Homeless," by John Flowers and Karen Vannoy, which explores different ministries for homeless men and women.

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St. Mark's is one of about 20 Laurel-area faith organizations that is in the midst of preparing to host Laurel Winter Shelter, a shelter for the homeless that rotates on a weekly basis at area congregations.

Now with a better understanding of problems facing today's homeless men and women, St. Mark's shelter coordinator Charles Gregg said church volunteers are ready to greet their guests and ask "What can we do to help you?"

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"God has truly blessed us as a family," he said. "One of the things you have to do in life is you can't take, take, take. There comes a point in your life where you have to give back. Part of that is not only a giving standpoint, but we all have a Christian responsibility to help those of less fortune."

The Laurel Winter Shelter will open Nov. 30 with First Baptist Church of Laurel serving as the first host.

The tradition of Laurel's religious community providing a temporary reprieve from the cold for the homeless started in the early 1990s, according to Elden Carnahan, an organizer who handles the two-week operation at Laurel Presbyterian Church

The Laurel Winter Shelter — previously known as Winter Haven — involves a community church or synagogue opening its doors each night to at times 40 homeless men and women in Laurel.

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Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services screens all guests of the shelter and visits shelters every Monday to speak with guests and attempt to connect them with area services for help.

Dependent upon the size of the host church, one location may house the men and another will provide shelter for women, although sometimes one congregation will host both men and women.

Annually, more than 100 men and women will stay with the shelter for at least one night, according to Linda Bergofsky, of the Oseh Shalom Congregation — the only synagogue in Laurel.

The Laurel Winter Shelter runs completely on donations and the time of its volunteers.

This year, participating congregations were able to raise enough funds to purchase cots for its guests instead of simply providing them with a mat to sleep on.

"Everybody is always very excited and willing to help out. It's an effort that brings everyone together," Bergofsky said. "We have multiple generations, grandparents and their grandchildren, who volunteer. It's a very energizing and exciting time."

While the Laurel Winter Shelter has scheduled locations through February, Bergofsky stressed that the organization is still looking for congregations to house the men in March.

This year, congregations in Fulton and Beltsville are participating; Bergofsky said that it's not just the city, but the greater Laurel area volunteering their time.

Due to the number of volunteers and volunteer hours it takes to host the shelter for a week, Bergofsky said organizers are hoping new congregations will step up.

At Laurel Presbyterian for example, Carnahan said it takes about 60 to 70 volunteers from the church and its companion Spanish church to operate a women's shelter that typically accommodates four to eight women for two weeks.

"The amount of people we need is the same whether you have four people [staying overnight] or 20," he said.

Carnahan acknowledged that operating a shelter for two weeks is a major commitment, but said finding volunteers at Laurel Presbyterian isn't a difficult task.

"When the weather is bad, it really drives home the point that things could be much worse than shoveling your sidewalk once or twice," he said.

For more information or to volunteer with the Laurel Winter Shelter. contact the LARS office at 301-776-0442.

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