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Shalom Ministries' open door policy adds to church's diversity

The Monday-through-Thursday breakfasts and Monday dinners at Shalom Ministries resumed after a summer break with more than 250 coming to the first dinner on Sept. 24.


Holly Chilinski by the serving line

The new part-time program manager, Holly Chilinski, said she is requesting a grant from the City of Spokane for the program at Central United Methodist Church, 518 W. Third, to supplement church support, individual donations and benefit events.

The Rev. Phil Harrington, pastor at the church for more than a year, said the program’s open-door policy means it draws mostly men. Many have fallen through the cracks of other programs or suffer from mental illness.

While some have come drunk, they are welcome to stay if they are not disruptive.

Holly said about 15 women and about 100 men come to the breakfasts, and last year an average of 200 came to the dinners.

Shalom Ministries started in 1994, providing dinners and a ministry of “dining with dignity.” The program draws ecumenical support in the form of both funds and volunteers from St. Mark’s Lutheran, First Presbyterian, the Cathedral of St. John and other United Methodist churches, as well as Central.

“The volunteer pool in our congregation is dwindling, but other congregations that value the program are sending volunteers,” Phil said. “Anyone can participate.”

At meals, he said, the guests keep order, quelling disruptive behavior of peers, because they want a quiet, safe place to eat.

Because meal guests know Phil is the pastor, their conversations with him often turn to spiritual concerns.

Phil Harrington

“My faith is lifted when guests remember songs they learned in Sunday school. Any time I’m discouraged, I can be uplifted by sharing a meal with Shalom Ministries’ guests. Theologically, I believe that eating together is a sign of the Gospel,” he said.

Holly, who attends St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, said she sees the role of Shalom Ministries as sharing God’s love.

Having been on the verge of homelessness at the age of 16 in Helena, Mont., and working in a shelter there at the age of 18, she came last year to Spokane to work through AmeriCorps VISTA with the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program’s Sack Dinner, started seven years ago. As part of that, she participated in the Feed Spokane Coalition of 30 free meal providers, working together to use excess restaurant food and provide bus vouchers for transportation to programs. Shalom Ministries is one of the partners.

“To me, bringing God’s love means bringing laughter and a nonjudgmental stance for those who come,” she said. “It also means giving people good food to start the day, so they will be strong.

“I believe our faith says that people should be provided for and churches should provide food,” said Holly, who also supports herself by working nights at a Daybreak chemical dependency treatment facility. Her goal is to go to Spokane Community College to begin studies in social work and philosophy.

John Olsen, who is the volunteer cook at Shalom Ministries, offered another insight about the program.

“Every day at the meals I see the face of war—World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the War in Kosovo, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—in the shattered lives of veterans who come,” he said at a recent peace rally.

The Shalom Ministries crowd often carries over into Sunday attendance. People on the streets, drunk or suffering mental illness may drop in for worship. Members accept and welcome them in worship, too, Phil said.

“Rather than ushering the person out of worship, a member may come over and help calm the person down,” he said. “It’s usually a genuine prayer of anguish, not a malicious disturbance. Our open doors add to the diversity and character of the congregation.”
Having open doors also means people of diverse backgrounds gather for worship, or sometimes someone may unexpectedly camp out in the church.

“That says something of the Gospel, too,” he said. “We don’t have to look far for our mission field. Our location makes our mission obvious.”

The location in proximity to Sacred Heart and Deaconess medical centers also means its ministry includes caring for families of people at the hospitals when they come to worship.
From high school years living in Puerto Rico, where his father served for a while as a Wesleyan minister, Phil—who grew up in Michigan—developed a deep interest in the Caribbean, making several trips to Haiti.

He completed a master of divinity degree in 1984 and a master’s degree in religion and the arts in 1986. After serving Mennonite churches in Kansas and Nebraska, he became a United Methodist minister, coming to the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference in 1991 to a United Methodist church in Belfair, Wash., which he served for 11 years.

Before coming to Central UMC, he spent four years at Port Hadlock. The Pacific Northwest Annual Conference’s Volunteers in Mission program has offered Phil the opportunity to resume involvement in the Caribbean with trips to Cuba in 1995, 2000 and 2004. The first two trips involved building projects, and the third was with the Jubilate! Choir. The Methodist Church in Cuba hosted each trip.

Comparing ministry settings, Phil observed that the Cubans have their share of problems with a lack of freedom of expression, but as far as basic needs go, he learned that there are not people falling through the cracks with no place to live and no jobs, as he sees in Spokane.
“Even in 1995, when the island was adjusting to the loss of income from the Soviet Union, and the standard of living had dropped critically, no one was living or dying on the streets. Government programs prevent the dire poverty that strains social services like Shalom Ministries here,” he said.

For information, call 838-1431.