Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. ~ Hebrews 13:2
In the fall of 1991 I was an undergraduate student at Georgia State University. I was a student in the health sciences department and I majored in Mental Health and Human Services. To be sure all students received hands-on experience, we were required to complete 3 practicums. And so, approaching time to register for my first practicum, I was introduced to a homeless shelter that was housed at Clifton Presbyterian Church in the Lake Claire neighborhood of Atlanta.
Thirty homeless men found shelter sleeping on mats in the church sanctuary. In the morning a volunteer team prepared breakfast and afterward the men were taken downtown on the church bus driven by another volunteer. In the afternoon the men were picked up and brought back to the church greeted by another volunteer team that prepared dinner. The church offered shelter 365 days a year. On Sunday mornings the mats were taken up and chairs took their place. Church commenced.
And so, what could an undergraduate student do to help? I facilitated a weekly meeting for the men- a community meeting to offer an outlet for them to express whatever needed to be talked about. The shelter was considered an emergency shelter but we did have long term residents as well. Joe Coppage was the inspiration for church members to begin the mission a decade before I arrived. Joe had a chronic mental illness and would not comply with the typical expectations of community mental health and so he sought shelter on neighborhood porches. Finally, neighbors who were members of Clifton decided to start the homeless mission.
In weekly meetings I met men from all walks of life who had fallen into homelessness for varying reasons. I learned from them and I grew. When my practicum was over I moved on to other practicum experiences but I remained at Clifton for another five years as volunteer, paid staff and eventually, an active member of the church community. I wore the hat of food coodinator, organizing volunteers and preparing meals; taking inventory of supplies and interfacing with local community resources such at the Atlanta Food Bank and Atlanta’s Table. In 1996 when Atlanta hosted the Olympics, I helped coordinate efforts to house the men during the day at local suburban churches. In the evening when the men returned to Clifton, gourmet Olympic leftovers were delivered to Clifton’s door. One evening the men feasted on cornish hen.
So what does any of this have to do with my current pursuits? EVERYTHING. The experience helped shape who I was as a mental health professional (and now as a wellness coach and energy healer). I grew in so many ways. My comfort zone was stretched from the very beginning but I remained and I learned the true meaning of hospitality.
The other day I received the Clifton newsletter in the mail. Clifton Presbyterian Church has since closed but the building remains and the mission continues, supported by hundreds of volunteers in the Atlanta community. Now known as Clifton Sanctuary Ministries, homeless men continue to receive hospitality. They not only serve homeless men needing emergency shelter, they also transition men to a house located across the street from the shelter. The men are offered case management, as well as health and vocational services from agencies in the community.
I visited the website and saw many familiar faces; many of the same volunteers still give hospitality to the men on a regular basis. Receiving the newsletter is like going home. Clifton is a place that allowed my compassion and hospitality to grow. My professional roots are at Clifton and I have used those skills throughout my career. But most of all, I learned about grace~ I had many teachers at Clifton from the homeless men themselves to Pastor Currie Burris (now at Silver Spring Presbyterian Church in Silver Spring, MD) to members of the congregation as well as volunteers and professionals I interfaced with in the greater Atlanta community.
Clifton shaped me. It makes sense I would share Clifton with you.
Read an article about Clifton Night Hospitality circa 1993