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Difference Maker

A church that is home to the homeless

Pastor Richard Berry lives the motto 'faith without works is dead'

By Cynthia AndersonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 23, 2009

Richard Berry stands in a former Sunday School classroom in the basement of Trinity Evangelical Free Church. The room has been turned into a men’s homeless shelter. Construction work has begun on a new shelter next to the church.

Sarah Beth Glicksteen/The Christian Science Monitor

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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.

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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."

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