What's behind the big red doors? Sanctuary in the city

Editor's Note: This story is part of our Faith in Action series of stories exploring faith-based and faith-inspired works, the people accomplishing them, and the connections with the community they are creating. The series is supported by the Fetzer Institute.

KALAMAZOO, MI — For some of the unhoused in Kalamazoo, there’s a guaranteed hour of hospitable living available every week. Sixty minutes of eating good food in a comfortable setting with friends, acquaintances, and very attentive servers. This gathering occurs every Wednesday downtown at Kalamazoo's First Presbyterian Church.

Red Door diners are welcomed in through First Presbyterian's back red doors.Starting at 5 p.m., up to 100 mostly unhoused people enter the church’s pleasant dining room through the parking lot's red doors to enjoy a hot entrée, vegetables, salad, rolls, dessert, and coffee. Everything is free and is prepared by about 15 enthusiastic volunteers, most of them members of the congregation.

Other organizations give meals to needy people but First Presbyterian’s focus is different. To many of those who come each week, the gatherings are affectionately called the Red Door Dinners.

“The food is not the primary goal of the evening,” says Meredith Alspach, the church’s director of youth, families, and outreach. “We want to give them a meal because they need it, but it’s the fellowship, the time together.

Meredith Alspach welcomes people entering the church’s rear door."It’s that they come in with so much baggage and it’s physical bags that they have to carry around town, it’s emotional, mental baggage and we want to give them an hour to set it down, to just be in our space and feel loved and feel safe and not seen for what they’re doing in their life but for who they are. When I’m at the door saying goodbye I have people say, ‘I’m trying to see myself the way you see me.’”

Alspach continues, “These people are running in circles right now. They’re viewed as a problem. A lot of them struggle with mental health and addiction issues and all kinds of things--convictions, and criminal records. So for people to see the good in them and care for them for who they are and not for what they’ve done is something that’s rare for them.”

Red Door Dinners

A regular participant in the Wednesday dinners is Mat Roe, an affable 57-year-old who laughs easily. He says he became unhoused four years ago because of a sudden legal mess. Pressed for details, he answers without being specific:

Mat Roe poses by the church’s main door.“I’ve been in limbo for over four years now; it can happen. And you don’t think it can happen but once it happens — yeah, it can happen.” . . . “People do bad things; you gotta remember that.  And sometimes people get caught up in bad situations because of it.” . . . “My wings were cut. I basically just kind of pieced together a life since then.” . . . “The case is so convoluted. It’s just one of those things. You don’t know how crazy it can get.” . . . “I’m fine being on my own. That part hasn’t been the end of the world.”

Roe says he has a Bachelor's Degree in English and Art History and he taught abroad, including in South Korea, China, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia.

Donna Schonveld and Wendy King with visitors to the Wednesday evening dinner at First Presbyterian Church.For four years Roe’s residence has been the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, where he has a daily cleaning task. His main mode of transportation is his legs, which suffice.  “My normal stomping grounds are the Presbyterian Church, the library, the Ministry With Community, the Mission. It’s all within blocks of each other,” he says. He uses federal SNAP food assistance to bolster nutrition.

He’s been going to the First Presbyterian dinner for three and a half years.  “It’s been great. It’s a nice solid meal every Wednesday; there’s a nice community feeling. I think they’re very good at fulfilling whatever people need.”

Roe is a part-time volunteer at the church, doing mostly archival work and operating a copier. “It’s been like life-saving just because so much of my life is so crazy. To have something steady and normal is pretty good,” he says.

A Sanctuary in the City: Living Faith

First Presbyterian Church, located at 321 W. South St., was among the first churches built in the city. It began in a schoolhouse on South Street in 1834 when Kalamazoo’s founder, Titus Bronson, his wife Sally, and 12 other residents began meeting for worship. The current large, grand building facing Bronson Park is the fourth home of the church and it was dedicated in 1930. 

Church volunteers enjoy extending hospitality during Red Door dinners.The church’s front and rear doors are painted red, which has resulted in the unhoused community calling the Wednesday gathering the Red Door Dinner. Traditionally, red Christian church doors signify the blood of Jesus. Also, at times in history, a church with a red door indicated it was a place of refuge and sanctuary, and this is appropriate for First Presbyterian’s slogan, which is “A Sanctuary in the City: Living Faith.” Within the congregation, the weekly dinner is a Celebrate the Vision (CTV) event. CTV began 15 years ago exclusively for church members, then opened to nearby neighbors and kept evolving into its current state.

Alspach, the church’s director of outreach, notes, “We do have people who have been placed in housing since they’ve been with us. These are people who have a lot of people helping them out, a lot of resources that they’ve had to use.

“The vast majority of people that walk in the door are unhoused — they’re couch surfing, they’re living in a tent, they’re living on the street, they’re living at the Gospel Mission.”

Among the church volunteers who serve food every Wednesday are retired teachers Paul and Donna Schonveld of Schoolcraft. Paul was a high school physical education teacher and counselor and Donna was an elementary school teacher. They’ve been part of the Red Door Dinner for a decade and they note that recent attendance has been the highest ever. Donna says, “I don’t know if there’s anywhere else that they can sit with tablecloths and sit in a round circle and talk and pick their own seats and not have to be in such a big hurry.” 

Donna Schonveld listens to requests for prayers.She continues, “Wendy King and I go around and talk with people and get their prayer requests.” Paul notes, “There are at least 15 requests every week.” Donna says, “A lot of them are for housing. Someone says, ‘I got my application in. Please pray that I get it.’ Another person says, ‘Pray for me; I have this doctor's appointment.’ And somebody will say, ‘Pray for my son.’”

What motivates the volunteers, who usually number about 15 at each dinner?  “It’s the Christianity — what would Jesus do, that kind of thing,” Donna answers. “I know that we’ve been blessed, and I just love going, I just love talking with the people. I feel camaraderie; I think it’s just a feeling for them that we’re equal.”

Paul comments, “I think we’re making a difference in their lives by reaching out. We get so many ‘Thank you’s, ‘Bless you’s.”

“Now some of the people are coming to our service,” Donna says. “We’re getting a few, a handful that feel like they’re welcome enough.”

First Presbyterian: Growing in faith

The size of First Presbyterian’s congregation is well over 500 and is growing. The Rev. Dr. Seth Weeldreyer, senior pastor, comments, “The Red Door Dinner really is a meaningful human connection, an expression of true community. It’s facilitated by homemade food, fostered by unconditional love, radiant in the faces and voices of those who sit at table together.
“Our congregation seeks to live faith as a sanctuary in the city, with the city, for the city and others far beyond. That includes hosting events like the Red Door Dinner and many other groups who use our facility daily — Head Start, Scouts, recovery groups, peace and environmental advocacy, literacy, arts, numerous collaborative concerts with Western Michigan University, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, Crescendo, and many others." 

Outreach by a church can include possibly saving lives, as was demonstrated during January’s severe cold spell by Meredith Alspach, First Presbyterian’s Outreach Director. When there was deep snow and wind chills as low as -25 Alspach knew there were people in peril. 

Tables fill up at First Presbyterian's weekly Red Door Dinners.“I went out and would go to all the places where the unhoused could shelter and I would get boot sizes and drive straight over to Costco and buy boots and go back and put them on everyone’s feet,” she says. 

“And as someone who works in a church, it was a very spiritual undertaking for me to go through the process of helping people whose feet were frozen and bandaged. I would put warm socks and warm boots on them and I spent several weeks in that cold snap trying to make sure everyone had something warm and waterproof on their feet. People were literally freezing to death out there.”

Alspach also gave out survival blankets designed to preserve body heat. She says, “We really invested in helping people kind of stay alive through that cold snap.”  More than 100 people were helped.

Pastor Chrissy Westbury volunteering at a Red Door DinnerBeing a sanctuary church means more than opening its Red Doors to newcomers, feeding the hungry, offering fellowship, and warming cold feet, according to Weeldreyer.

". . .it means working to bring the beauty, goodness, and abundant life we experience here within our doors and walls to every place and person in our community. We believe God loves all people, no exception, no exclusion, accepting us as we are.”
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