Three Decades of Ministering to the Homeless in Lake Mills, WI

submitted by Erna Kiessling

Lake Mills Moravian Church, Lake Mills, WI

Around thirty years ago the Lake Mills Moravian Church joined together with the Glenwood Moravian Church to provide meals for the men’s homeless shelter in Madison, WI.  By joining together our pair of Moravian Churches make a dinner and a breakfast happen for the guests at the men’s homeless shelter on the 2nd Tuesday of every even numbered month of the year.

It all started when a bunch of Lake Mills Moravians went to a Western District Conference in 1986, called “Faith in Action”.  Gail Poppert returned from the conference wanting to make a difference.  In 1987 Gail went to New York City on a mission trip.  They volunteered/worked at the Moravian Open Door.  Upon returning home, she asked about homelessness in Lake Mills.  At that time, no one knew of any homeless folks in our small town.  Gail had been donating to the Madison homeless shelter through a payroll deduction at her work, so she looked into what was happening in Madison, and learned about the homeless shelter program there.  She requested permission from Pastor Betsy Miller and the Elders. They said, “Go for it!”, not at all sure how long it would last.  Gail gave the initial energy and leadership to the ministry.  She cooked the meals, she brought together what help she could, she made the delivery and serving of the meal happen each time.  It was really ‘her baby’ for a long time – but it slowly grew into our church’s ministry.   We took the second Tuesday of the even numbered months.  A different church/group provides meals on the second Tuesday of the odd numbered months.  When a group or church signs up for a meal/date they are committing to provide the evening meal on that date (the 2nd Tuesday) and the breakfast on the following morning.  The Lake Mills Moravian Church provides the dinner, and the Glenwood Moravian Church provides the breakfast.

After a time, Arden Piper was quite willing to take over the cooking duties from Gail when her work schedule wouldn’t allow her to give the time to this ministry that she felt it deserved.  When he started with this ministry, Arden would make the meal and be a part of the delivery/service team (as Gail had done).  While at the shelter, Arden would find time to mingle with the guests.  He told of finding himself every once in a while sitting on a bunk with one of the guests and hearing about his day/life.  Arden became very motivated to make sure these guys had something good happen to them on the Tuesday evenings when our church was providing the meal at the shelter.  Invariably over the years the delivery team heard how our church’s meal was the best meal of the month.  We were told by more than a few of the night managers that they tried to get scheduled on our Tuesdays so they could enjoy the Moravian meal with their guys.

The owner of some local food stores began donating (or selling at a greatly reduced cost) the meat/main course for the meal, and Arden planned the meal around that.  A sign-up sheet was posted in church, and food stuffs were brought in by various people from our congregation.  It was amazing how many people wanted to bake a cake, donate cans of corn, heads of lettuce, squash, milk, mayo, frozen peas, etc.   The meal was prepared in the church kitchen, and sent to the shelter in time for the evening meal.

Shortly after Gail got things rolling, Pastor Betsy Miller requested an adjustment in the requirements for the seventh and eighth grade confirmation students by adding a community service component.  This could be met by helping deliver and serve the meal at the homeless shelter, volunteer some hours at the local food pantry, or some other service out in the community that was approved by the pastor.  The Elders approved this adjustment, and it has been an integral part of this ministry ever since.  What usually happens is the delivery and serving team is a blend of youth and adults from the church.  The 7th and 8th grade confirmation students often are accompanied by their mentor, a parent, or a grandparent.  The youth seem to bond with other confirmation students and/or with their mentor and/or family member.  Upon returning to Lake Mills there seems to be a deeper connection between all the members of the delivery/serving team.  Thereafter, it is not unusual for many of the youth to wiggle their way onto multiple trips to the shelter.  The good feeling derived from serving others becomes addictive to some people.  Many adults that accompany the youths and participate in the delivery and serving the meal request to be called when a delivery/serving team is in need of extra hands.

Over the years the initial Madison Homeless Shelter has split into three shelters.  The men’s shelter stayed where it all began, at the Grace Episcopal Church next to the Capitol Square.  The women’s shelter moved to some space in the YWCA building further around the Capitol Square.  The family shelter moved into space at the Salvation Army building a few blocks away from the capitol on East Washington Ave.  After the split, the two Moravian churches decided to continue to serve the meal at the men’s shelter.

Arden would pull together several helpers from the congregation and prepare the meal.  Late Tuesday afternoon, around 6 PM, the youth and adults would gather to load the church van with all parts of the meal, pray together, and then head to Madison.  After a time, Betsy turned the organizing of the delivery/serving team over to a lay member of the congregation.  It has evolved to the point where the pastor’s involvement in this ministry is to lead the prayer before the team leaves for Madison, and encourage the discipleship youth to sign-up for this community service event.  So, three decades later, it is still a ministry of the church, and an integral part of the Lake Mills Moravian Church’s DNA.

After many many years of leading the preparation of the meals, due to medical issues, Arden had to turn over those duties to Jack Scheife.  Jack says he really enjoyed working with Arden for a few years, and then when it became necessary for Arden to step away he was quite willing to take over the total leadership role with the meal preparation ministry.  With Jack’s meal preparation leadership our meals were still the best meals of the month at the shelter.  Quite a few years later, when Jack was moving from the area, he handed-off the meal preparation duties to Matt Beckman.  After more than six years of great meals, Matt relegated leadership of the meal prep duties to Donna Hinzmann.  Currently, Donna is assembling a few cooks and getting the meals ready for the team to deliver and serve to the guests at the Madison Men’s Homeless Shelter.

There was a good deal of uncertainty and nervousness as we changed from one head cook to the next, but the meals continued to be some of the best meals the guests at the men’s shelter get each month.  Many in our church family take a good deal of pride in our involvement in this ministry.  A huge aspect of this ministry is the willingness of the church members to sign-up and donate the potatoes, celery, hamburger, beans, milk, carrots, lemonade, squash, cheese, applesauce, cakes, or whatever else might be on the menu.  Each time it’s our turn to serve the homeless, members of our congregation pull together to make this local mission project happen.  They are an essential part of this mission work through their donations of food stuffs.  This ministry does not get money through the church budget.  There is an account that members can donate money towards funding the meal, but the vast majority of the meal is donated by members of our church community and some businesses in the Lake Mills area.  It is a blessing to be a blessing to others in need.

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