A church that is home to the homeless
Pastor Richard Berry lives the motto 'faith without works is dead'
SKOWHEGAN, MAINE — It's easy to miss the Trinity Evangelical Free Church, set back as it is on a side road in this mill town in central Maine. Nothing would seem to distinguish it from a thousand churches like it across the state.
The same might be said of Trinity's pastor, Richard Berry, a woodsman-turned-preacher who umpires softball in his spare time. When Berry scraped together money to attend college after his brother-in-law was killed by a drunken driver, he imagined neither fame nor notoriety in his future. Now he has both.
Since September 2008, Trinity has been operating as a homeless shelter – the only one, it turns out, in a county tied for second place as the poorest in the state. Twenty-three men live at the church in former Sunday school classrooms next to the sanctuary where services are held. The criteria for entrance? "You're homeless, and you're hungry," Pastor Berry says.
The place has a homey, if utilitarian, look. On a recent Sunday the men watched TV, cooked dinner, or lounged outside in easy chairs on a makeshift patio. One split wood for an outdoor furnace that provides heat and hot water. At 7 p.m. everyone crowded into a basement room for bible study, led by an associate pastor.
"This is crazy stuff," says Berry of what has ensued since he decided in July 2008 to let one homeless man temporarily spend nights at the church on a sofa. "There are days I can't catch my breath. I never envisioned any of it."
By "any of it," Berry's referring to the fact that last year, when he asked his congregation for permission to operate the church as a shelter, about half of its members quit. "They didn't want to be associated with 'people like that,' " Berry says with a shrug. "They decided they wanted out."
Trouble also arrived in the form of town officials and the state fire marshal, who threatened to shut down the shelter for code violations. Berry pushed for a compromise that allows Trinity to remain open as long as he agreed to construct a new shelter, the groundbreaking for which began last summer with a donated backhoe, bulldozer, and building materials.
Ned Goff, a Skowhegan business owner, loaned heavy equipment for the excavation of the site, next to the existing building. "I knew there were a lot of people in the area in need," Mr. Goff says. "Pastor Berry was doing something about it, and I felt that we could help."
Still, money is tight. The shelter operates on effectively a zero budget, dependent on a grocery chain for free vegetables, meat, and canned goods, and on a local bakery for bread. The bunks where the men sleep are salvaged, and other furnishings are minimal.
But Berry has no intention of giving up. Beneath his laid-back demeanor, and a warmth that makes him as likely to extend a hug as to proffer a prayer, is a stubborn core. Also compassion, as both his mother and wife will attest. If Berry is surprised by what has transpired at Trinity, his wife, Selma, is not. "Richard has a huge heart," she says. "That's what drew me to him in the first place."
More than 100 men have lived at the church in the past 16 months. The 23 there now, Berry says, are "a motley crew" – some recently released from prison and some facing down addiction or mental illness. They seem to be a thankful crew, too. One after another they express gratitude for having found Trinity.
"I don't know where I'd be without Pastor Berry and this church," says Mike Boutin, who became homeless in November 2008 after the house where he was living burned. Mr. Boutin was already unemployed and drinking heavily. Mostly on a whim, he says, he went one night with a friend to Trinity. It wasn't long before Boutin signed a contract that allowed him to live there. He had to agree to stringent policies, secular and religious: no drugs or alcohol on the premises; a 9 p.m. curfew; attendance at daily 7 a.m. prayers and 7 p.m. bible study, and four weekly church services.
Boutin adjusted. "It's not about rules and regulations," he says. "There's a family atmosphere here. We eat together, we pray together, we sleep together."
Thus underpinned, Boutin was able to steady other parts of his life. When his mother died a month after he moved in, he remained sober, turning to Berry, another pastor, and his housemates for support. He now leads Bible study and has become the shelter's supervisor.
Berry is unabashed that Trinity's assistance – which also includes visits from social workers and medical personnel – comes with a large dose of the Scriptures. "That's the most important part of the package," he says.
Church member Joyce Palmer says Trinity's success in rehabilitation stems from Berry's own qualities and his faith. "He knows that he's doing what God wants him to do," she says.
John McLaughlin, case manager for Maine Pretrial Services, sends men to the shelter on bail or under house arrest in lieu of doing jail time. "Without Pastor Berry, our ability to restore stability to these men's lives would be greatly hampered," he says. "His instincts are unerring. He nurtures them but doesn't coddle. He believes in the redemption of souls."
Berry is quick to acknowledge that "the program doesn't work for everyone. We've had people come and stay, and people come and leave." He prefers to dwell on those who stay.
"The transformation is incredible," he says. He recalls what happened when a man found his way to the church one night while Berry was away. When the man dropped to the floor in despair, the residents got down beside him. They prayed, then emptied their pockets of money for him.
Berry's eyes fill and his voice breaks. "They wanted to help because they'd been helped," he says. "They came in with needs, and now they were meeting needs."
As the Maine night falls, Berry stands outside, looking over the foundation for the new shelter. He keeps thinking about the label "people like that."
"You know, it could happen to anyone," he says.
The new facility will be built, Berry says. The funds will be provided. A passage on the banner at the top of the Trinity website, which chronicles the project's progress, summarizes his stance: "Faith without works is dead."