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Lost package leads to unseen ‘miracle gift’ that inspires vision for shelter


As a result of losing a package from a Japanese tea shop in Claremont, Calif., the Rev. Maggie McNett thought she gained a $1 million gift to set up an endowment for the Okanogan United Methodist Church to use in sheltering homeless people.

Maggie McNett

Maggie McNett and a shelter visitor

Although the promised funds have not yet come, her excitement telling people of the miracle gift raised awareness of needs and stirred others in the community to dream. 

The second week of July, while studying at Claremont School of Theology, Maggie had walked to the nearby village and purchased some tea and wasabi bowls as gifts for family. She called a cab and waited an hour on a bench.  When the cab came, she hurried to catch it and left the package.  It was gone when the cab drove around the block to pick it up.

Two days later, the man who found the package left a note on the campus bulletin board, saying he wanted to return it.  She called, and he brought the package to the college, offering to take her to the village.  She joined him and his friends at a coffee shop for conversation. The next evening, she joined them again and they had a lively discussion of philosophical, social, economic and political issues.

When they said there was no homeless shelter in Claremont, Maggie said she had opened empty Sunday school rooms to homeless people and had to turn people away on a regular basis. 

Shelter residents are a cross section of young people out of work or working part time, people waiting for social security and people needing temporary shelter while passing through town, she said. 

The next evening, the man offered to assist in funding the shelter by establishing a million-dollar foundation and using profits to help the shelter.
When she returned to Okanogan, she shared the story, heartened by the generous offer.

The idea of some of Maggie’s friends, who want to build an eco-village with people living off the grid, using solar energy, recycling, doing organic gardening and sharing tasks in a self-sustaining community, meshed with her desire to build a village for homeless people.  It seemed funds would soon be available for a collaborative effort.  She believes the eco-village would provide a long-term solution.

During the fall, Maggie set up an account under the church’s nonprofit status and sent the information to the benefactor, who has moved twice.  She lost contact with him.

Whether those funds ever come, Maggie believes God is still at work. 
The man set in motion dreams in a small community, a persistent pastor and friends who hope to build a homeless shelter.

“Homeless shelters often bring people in, feed them and send them out the next day, rather than giving people a place to stay a bit while they sort out their lives,” she said, turning to tell about the shelter she and her parishioners are determined to continue despite obstacles.

The church received a grant from the United Methodist Church to put in new bathrooms and a shower. In the summer, some old pipes broke and had to be replaced.  A unit in the oil furnace failed in the fall and had to be replaced, too.  The bills are slowly being paid.

About the same time, the Tonasket United Church of Christ’s sewing group brought 16 quilts. 

The shelter residents cook and clean up after themselves.  They do yard and janitorial work for the church.  There is no paid staff, so when someone new comes, those in the shelter tell the newcomer about nearby agencies, the food bank across the street, the clinic and dentist two blocks away, where to apply for GAU or look for jobs.

At some points last winter, up to 18 people were sheltered there. 

One woman came on a freezing night.  Maggie knew she was on drugs and in trouble with the law.  She had been sleeping in her truck and had first stages of frostbite on her hands and feet.  Maggie gave her a place to sleep.

“Half of the residents eventually find their own apartments and jobs, or begin to receive SSI,” Maggie said.

One woman, who had a car, a driver’s license and insurance, drove other residents to their various appointments, which Maggie usually has done.

Both the city and the United Methodist district superintendent urged Maggie to limit the number of people sheltered to eight, but normal occupancy is 10.  The average stay is four months, but the shelter does take in people for overnight, especially in the winter.

At the request of the city, the church has applied for a conditional use permit.
There are rules, but the city and superintendent want tighter rules.  The rules are: Shelter residents are to keep clean.  They may not smoke, drink or use drugs.  They must watch their conduct:  They are living in a church.  They must also be looking for a job or applying for assistance.  Residents share the cost of a phone.

“There is much poverty, drugs, spousal abuse and joblessness in this area,” said Maggie.

The congregation, which has 10 tithing units and 20 in worship on Sundays, integrates with shelter residents, eating lunch with them after church. 

The homeless feel at home, and some attend worship and Bible studies, Maggie said.  Five were baptized and became members in January 2004.

Other area pastors help lead Bible studies, so they share in the ministry.

“One woman, who had been addicted to cocaine when she came to the shelter, is now off cocaine and reaching out to God.  She is a strong witness to others.  The shelter answered her prayers for housing and comfort.  She was baptized and is active in the congregation,” Maggie said.
Her story is common. 

When new people come to     the shelter, Maggie tells them: “You prayed, ‘Oh my God, what can I do? I have nothing and no place to stay,’ and now God answered your prayers.”

With that, she expects responsibility and community:  “They are family when they are here,” she said.

As part of the thinking about an eco-village, Maggie envisions housing 20 homeless people and having them help with the construction, landscaping and maintenance. 

Knowing that homeless people have skills, she asks what they did before they becamehomeless. 

Current shelter residents include an accountant, a contractor, an artist and a cartoonist. 

Alcohol, drugs, mental breakdowns and economic hardships led them to set aside their talents, said Maggie, who seeks to reawaken those talents and put them back into use.

In planning for the endowment and applying for grants, the program has been established under the name Okanogan United Methodist Sanctuary Program.

Without the funds that seemed like a dream, Maggie has begun the usual route nonprofits take to seek funds.  During November, she began preparing three grant requests.

More people in the community and the wider church are now aware of the efforts of the congregation in the “Old Rock Church”—built in 1909 of cobblestones—to shelter those living in the community and those passing through.

With food cards, the food bank and the generosity of the local farmers’ market, residents are fed.  There are so many donations of clothing that Maggie sends much on to other organizations.

Cash donations help provide personal items, cleaning products and other needs. The shelter also uses donations to help defray the costs of heating, electricity and garbage disposal.  

“We go on faith,” Maggie said.  “The Lord provides.  We receive no government funds."

For information, call 422-2910.

Maggie is no longer serving at Okanogan



Copyright © January 2005
- The Fig Tree