A Simple Way to Restore Human Dignity
At 26.1 miles, Colfax Avenue is the longest road in the United States. It runs east-west through the Aurora-Denver metropolis area in Colorado. There is also a dark side to this fame.
Along the economically depressed sections of Colfax, you’ll find seedy car lots, liquor shops and adult stores. On the west end, it’s also home to one of the largest concentrations of homeless and working poor. Official surveys like Point-in-Time put the number around 1,200. Agencies who work with the homeless put the number much higher: three times as high.
This is a problem. For Pastor Drew Ross and his congregation at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lakewood, however, it’s a huge opportunity to serve the poor and the powerless.
In 2009, Bethlehem opened The Table, a place where everyone–including the homeless–could meet every Thursday for a meal, fellowship, worship and a message. And the homeless have responded by opening their hearts and their lives to Bethlehem’s generosity.
“This allowed us to build a huge rapport with the homeless,” Ross said. They found communion, fellowship, acceptance and belonging. But Ross knew there was always more that could be done.
That’s when the mayor of Lakewood, Adam Paul, who Ross frequently worked with, said, “Have you heard of a shower trailer?” The concept was familiar but new to Ross. He knew it had potential, but he needed to figure out how to fund it.
Around the same time information about the Kaleidoscope Fund—a granting initiative established by Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF)—crossed his desk. But the event that pushed Ross over the edge involved a sideline conversation with one of his homeless friends.
An embarrassing confession
Over the years, once the relationship was built, Ross was accustomed to inviting some of his homeless friends to join him at speaking events. Then his friends started to turn him down. Ross couldn’t understand why. That is until another homeless friend pulled him aside and said, “The reason we don’t want to go with you is that when we hang out with each other at The Table it’s with other homeless people and we all smell, and nobody cares. But if we go somewhere with you, we’re embarrassed because we are the people who smell.”
This crushed Ross. He knew he needed to get a shower trailer.
“The dignity a shower could bring to a human being is so simple,” Ross said. “It had to be done.”
So he applied for the Kaleidoscope Fund grant. Then he and his congregation prayed. Their prayer was answered.
What is a shower trailer?
Shower trailers come in a variety of shapes and sizes: from one bay to twenty bays; some bays with nothing but a clothes hook, bench and shower stall to more elaborate set-ups like a shower stall, wood cabinets, toilet, mirror and sink.
With the Kaleidoscope Fund grant, Bethlehem invested in a four-bay shower trailer this past summer. Each bay has a shower, toilet, sink and mirror. The fourth bay is wheelchair accessible.
“The important thing to remember is these are private bays with their own separate entrances and exits,” Ross said. “For many homeless people, privacy is a rare thing. So private shower bays will allow each person the added dignity of 30 minutes of privacy.”
Ministry for the people who most need it
Restoring human dignity is one of the main–if not the main–themes inspiring this ministry. Speaking during the Oct. 21 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the shower trailer, LCEF Rocky Mountain District Vice President Kevin Grein said, “This is a ministry for the people who need it most. A people most people wish were somewhere else.”
Grein’s point was driven home by Joe Kniss, a tall, muscular late middle-aged man sporting a ducktail goatee. Around Bethlehem, Kniss was known as Joe the Scrapper since he hauls a trailer full of scrap metal behind his truck. His truck was also all the home he had.
“There were some friends’ houses I could rely on to take a shower,” Kniss said. This didn’t last. “I eventually got run out of those places because I lowered the quality of the neighborhood.”
This forced Kniss to take showers at truck stops and other public places. These shower stalls, unfortunately, were so dirty Kniss would spend 45 minutes cleaning the shower. Sometimes it just wasn’t worth it.
Dressed in Adidas training pants and a long-sleeved grey mock turtleneck emblazoned with the word Army, Kniss, holding back tears while on stage with Ross during the ceremony, said the longest time he’d gone without a shower was from Jan. 21 to the eve of Easter–74 days.
That’s two-and-a-half months without something we all take for granted. A shower, Grein said, “so readily available for us, but for others, it hardly exists.”
The significant meaning of the name
The name of the shower trailer ministry, Living Well Showers, is based on John 4:5-15, Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. The connection is important.
“The woman was a Samaritan,” Ross said, speaking at the ceremony, “a despised race, and everyone knew it. People passed her by on the street every single day without looking at her or giving her any attention. As a matter of fact, this woman went to the well at the time of day that she knew no one else would be there. This was because she had been robbed of her dignity.”
However, out of all the people in the world, Jesus chose to offer her unending mercy, love and grace. Living Well Showers intends to offer the same thing to those who “come to the living well when no one else is looking.”
No one believes Bethlehem will end homelessness in the west metro Denver area. “We are going to connect with those who need a helping hand,” Ross said. “We are going to build relationships with our community; and we are going to shower people with love, physically and spiritually.”
He is quick to point out that the ministry is a community endeavor. “The congregation, mayor, the community and neighborhoods. Everyone is behind it.” And as the word about Living Well Showers spreads, organizations are reaching out to Bethlehem to partner with the ministry.
Jefferson County, for example, gave Bethlehem permission to use their fire hydrants as a water supply. In addition, the ten Jefferson County libraries, which are already day shelters for many homeless people, gave Bethlehem permission to park the trailer in their parking lots.
Another promising developing partnership involves the Denver Central Library. Located near Civic Center Park (the hub of homelessness in Denver), the library is also partnering with a laundry truck to coincide with Living Well Shower visits. The ministry will probably reserve Saturdays for a visit to the library.
Every Tuesday the trailer will go a couple blocks down the street to Mean Street, a ministry with a food pantry and a weekly meal for the homeless community. The showers will be available at Bethlehem on Thursdays. On Mondays it will go to one of the libraries.
Vicar Nicholas Gonzalez said they are trying to establish a routine so people can plan and anticipate when they can shower. “We want to be open three to four hours a day, get as many people through.”
Getting as many people through a shower in three to four hours time (about the time it would take to run through their water supply) means putting limits on the length of the shower and time in the bay: ten minutes in the shower and ten minutes in the bay for a total of 20 minutes.
“It’s amazing to see their reaction when they come out of the shower bay,” Gonzalez said. Each person who takes a shower is also given a new pair of socks and underwear.
No more begging
Kniss, one of Ross’ good friends, was the very first person to take a shower in the new trailer. About that moment an emotional Kniss said, “The dignity to be able to take a shower and not have to beg. It lifts my spirits for sure.”
He added, “And all the guys out there who want to get a shower and need a shower now can have a clean shower and a clean body to show up for work the next day … There will be a lot of people who will be able to get a job now. Now they don’t have to beg anymore.”
When asked why Bethlehem was doing this, Ross said, “Love on. That’s our motto. Love on. We love people. Jesus loved people. He loved people through His life. Loved people through His death and resurrection. He said people will know you are my disciples when you love one another. All we are doing is loving people.”
Restoring dignity by providing a shower to the homeless is about as good as boldly loving others can get. That’s exactly the kind of ministry the Kaleidoscope Fund was created to support.