Interfaith Hospitality Network Seeks New Leadership

“Give food to the hungry and care for the homeless.” – Isaiah 58:10

Every year since 1993, a corps of faithful Covenant volunteers has followed the prophet’s wise counsel, giving food and shelter to families with children cycling through the Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN).

For four weeks each year, the families—facing difficulties that have left them temporarily homeless—call Covenant home. Volunteers stay with them, provide dinners and enjoy the fellowship as the families strive to restore stability in their lives. Their days are spent away from campus, working under the guidance of the Foundation for the Homeless (FFH) to seek the training, employment and other resources they need to resume normal lives. The Foundation is the IHN’s parent organization.

During the two to three months it takes them to get back on their feet, they move from church to church through the 16-member network, staying at a different church each week. Organizing Covenant’s volunteers for the last nine years has been a task performed with great care by three church members – Jon Smith, the primary coordinator; Kay Davenport, the food coordinator; and Geoff Mattie, the volunteer coordinator.

The three are stepping down from IHN to pursue other opportunities. The Mission Committee is searching for successors as we prepare for Covenant’s final scheduled weeks in 2017: Sept. 3-9 and Dec. 17-24.

The IHN was created in 1986 by a marketing consultant in New Jersey. Eight churches, Covenant among them, started an IHN chapter in Austin in 1993.

Leadership of IHN is an ideal opportunity for a Sunday School class, a small group, or any team of three to five members. The responsibilities can be divided as Jon, Kay and Geoff have done or they can be shared in other ways. IHN Director Andrew Bucknall works closely with the leadership at each church to plan the hosting weeks.

The families arrive on Sunday afternoons and are fed and housed in Eaton Hall. They leave each Monday through Friday morning, then return around 5:30 p.m. for dinner and sleep. Covenant volunteers use the website SignUp.com to register for various shifts, which range from a one-hour hosting assignment to overnight duty. Families are free to come and go on Saturdays, returning Saturday night and then leaving for their next church home early Sunday afternoon.

“It’s a most worthwhile undertaking,” said Jon, who has been primary coordinator since 2008. “With the right key people in place, the work required of the other individuals actually providing the hosting, meals and overnights is quite easy. It’s also very rewarding and one of the most tangible ministries I can imagine.”

Geoff agrees. “It’s an extremely worthwhile charity,” he said. “It is very rewarding to be able to meet and speak with the families you are helping, and learn not only about their struggles, but the strength they have in keeping themselves – and in most cases their children – positive versus getting mired down by circumstances.”

“Working with the IHN program has been a real blessing to me,” said Kay. “IHN is the only Austin program that provides shelter and food to temporarily homeless families. The IHN parents and children have dreams and goals similar to those of Covenant families, but due to circumstances beyond their control they have experienced extraordinary setbacks.”

Volunteering and getting to know the families doesn’t always end at Covenant. Jon recalled that his daughter and a child of a client family started kindergarten together at Highland Park Elementary. “That little girl remained at HP all the way through fifth grade,” he said. “Near elementary graduation, her mom approached me and asked if I remembered who she was and I said ‘yes.’ She said that IHN had been very helpful to them, that she still had the same job she got during the program and their family was doing great.”

Though they will no longer be coordinators, Jon, Kay and Geoff will be available to help their successors and fill some volunteer shifts themselves. There are approximately 35 shifts per week. That may sound like a lot, but there is good news on that front: Members of several other churches have offered help.

Sharon Lowe, who retired as the Foundation’s executive director in April, has volunteered to work overnight shifts and to provide other overnight helpers from her church, St. Matthew’s Episcopal. She said members from First Presbyterian and Highland Park Baptist also would like to volunteer. And Bucknall said he recently spoke with some members of a church in Manor who want to get involved in IHN.

Plenty of training material is available, as well as assistance from those who have filled these roles before. Interested? Three members of the Mission Committee are leading the campaign to keep Covenant participating in IHN. Please contact Deb Rieber (debrieber@gmail.com), Karen Maxwell (missions@covenant.org), Paul Mowry (paulmowry@att.net) or any other mission committee member.