By Kent Heltne, Paradise Valley UMC
Open Table began in 2005 with a chance encounter. While serving meals at Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) in Phoenix, some Paradise Valley United Methodist Church (PVUMC) youth and adults met a homeless man named Ernie who asked if he could come worship with them. Though unanticipated, the adults said yes, and over the next few months, these church members brought Ernie to PVUMC and back to the shelter each Sunday. But it didn’t end there.
Ernie’s presence forced these church members to hear God’s call to use their vocational and life experiences, as well as their networks, to help Ernie restore himself to the community. They convened a group of church members (now known as a Table) as a missional outreach to Ernie, and embarked on a transformational journey from homelessness and dependency to wholeness and self-sufficiency.
Jon Katov, one of our church members, heard God’s call to become involved and subsequently began Open Table. For the past eight years, he has taken this model of helping homeless people wherever God opens the door, in Phoenix and in 45 other US cities in Oregon, California, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Iowa, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Alaska. Later this year, PVUMC plans to take the Open Table model worldwide, to South Africa. In collaboration with several other churches in the US, and in partnership with the Rev. Kyle Woodrow, one of our former associate pastors, PVUMC will help a group of churches in South Africa begin an Open Table program to help the homeless there.
The faith-based community collaboration model has also expanded beyond the homeless population. We now help youth aging out of foster care. In Arizona alone, there are more than 600 young people who, at age 18, leave the foster care system and have to figure out how to become self-sufficient, productive members of society on their own. About six months ago, 18 PVUMC members started two young-adult tables for Beverly and Laura. The groups meet regularly with these two young ladies to help them make the journey to productive adulthood through our relationship with them. The mentoring process is going so well that the church may add more tables in the future.
What are the requirements for being on a Table? Only the desire to bring your own vocational and life experiences to help a child of God become all that they can be. Being in relationship with another human being is the key to a successful Open Table. We can all do that.
This fall, PVUMC has started another initiative that serves homeless veterans. On any given night, 60,000 veterans are homeless, and 23% of the current homeless population are veterans. The unemployment rate for veterans ages 18-24 is 29%, even though 85% have completed high school and 89% were honorably discharged from the military.
Gennaro Buonocore, a PVUMC member who recently returned from his fourth tour of duty in the Middle East, has agreed to assume the role of Director of the Open Table Initiative for the Military and Veterans. Prayerfully consider volunteering to be a part of this new initiative, particularly if you’re a veteran.