Hospitality is an important part of the Extravagant Welcome we are committed to living out in the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference. We know that welcome isn’t just about words, but also about gestures of care, attention, and anticipation of needs. This is the kind of hospitality Fairmount and Pilgrim United Churches of Christ in Wichita are practicing in a new way, as they reach out to share God’s love with teens who are experiencing homelessness. In this new venture, they are also partnering with Oasis of Wichita, who rent space on Pilgrim’s campus.
Across 10 high schools in Wichita, Cynthia Martinez is the liaison for more than 2,000 students living in transition. Through something called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, her role is to help teens stay in school — and ideally, stay in the same school in the district — even when their families do not have a regular night-time residence. Teens might be sleeping on a friend’s couch or in a domestic violence shelter; living in a car or an abandoned building; or dealing with any other kind of unplanned living situation.
Teachers and staff members at the school work to put at-risk students in touch with Ms. Martinez and others who oversee the program, to make sure the students are still able to access as many school services as possible, including transportation and meals. But often, when a teen makes it to Ms. Martinez’ office, the first thing she’s worried about is when they’ve last had something to eat.
Unlike younger children in elementary schools, teens don’t benefit as often from programs that supply backpacks of food or supplies. When they take a seat with a McKinney-Vento staff person, teens in transitional housing can have a hard time focusing on details like bus schedules or homework when they’re really just hungry. That’s where Fairmount and Wichita Churches and Oasis come in to the picture: with bags they’ve stuffed with 7-8 snack items, including a beverage and at least one shelf-stable “protein” item (think beef jerky or tuna-and-cracker snack packs).
When a hungry teen (and when are teens not hungry?) sits down in Martinez’ office, before they launch into conversation, before they start to make a plan in the midst of an immensely difficult situation, she can hand them a bag of snacks. The point isn’t just to silence a grumbling stomach. The point is to extend hospitality; to say, “We care about you here, and so do others in Wichita. You are not alone.”
In the past, both congregations have worked together to host a food bank. Recently, they’ve begun to question the impact of keeping it open, as food-insecure families and populations have changed somewhat in terms of location and needs in Wichita. The Rev. Phil Hodson, serving as pastor to both Fairmount and Pilgrim, has encouraged them to reach out and try something new. Partnering with the school district has created an opportunity for Pilgrim, Fairmount, and Oasis to work together on a project they can all support, with a goal of filling about 100 bags per month to start — though Ms. Martinez has said she could use up to 1,000.
Anna Perkins is the Pilgrim-based chairperson for the program, and along with her husband Joe (who currently serves as Moderator at Pilgrim), she has been leading the Wichita United Churches of Christ into a partnership that they hope will blossom into more opportunities to support programs at the school, including other volunteer projects and community classes on topics like parenting. At this time, more than 25% of first-year students in Wichita’s public high schools are not expected to graduate. While feeding hungry teens in transitional housing is a first step to say “we care,” Pilgrim and Fairmount hope it is just the beginning of a new journey into ministry and witness alongside local families and teens. #3GreatLoves #Loveofchildren