On the evening of Nov. 15, seven youths of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Girard, Kan., went to church for an overnight sleep-over. They had been told to show up at 6:30 p.m. for a church lock-in, but what they got instead was one of the most powerful lessons of their young lives.
"I came and informed them that they were locked out of the church and they would be spending night outside," said Doug B. Amend, minister at First Christian. The message that the youths were getting was part of "Hungry for Jesus," a church lesson about homelessness and hunger in America. The program was initially started by church youth leaders under Amend, when he was pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Augusta, Kan., from March 2002 to December 2006. Those youth leaders were Amend’s wife, Belinda Amend, Melanie Budda, Anna Wallace, and Sue Hourigan.
The youths, who are sixth grade through high school students, would not be dining on smores, soda and popcorn this night. Instead they were given an evening meal of a standard homeless food ration known as a "single sack supper." It consisted of a can with seven cold Vienna sausages, and seven saltine crackers.
As temperatures fell into the mid-20s, some of the youths and their three adult sponsors slept in sleeping bags they had brought, while others hunkered down on cardboard. If they got too cold, they had the option of getting up and warming their hands over a barrel of burning firewood.
As the night wore on, church elders stopped by and had devotion with the youths, gave them communion and told tales about living on the streets. Girard is a rural community of about 2,800 in southeast Kansas. Organizers of the Girard lockout were chiefly the pastor’s wife and church member Susan Thom. Church adults had met with the youths’ parents privately beforehand to get permission for the children to participate in the experience.
"The parents gave us caps and gloves and the things that their children needed," said Douglas Amend. "They knew exactly what was going on and approved of it." During the night, one of the elders shared a story with the youths about how her daughter had been in an abusive relationship that included drugs, which took her 10 years to get out of, and the journey she took to get her life back on track.
Pastor Amend said even though Girard is a rural community, Crawford County, of which Girard is the county seat, has many families who are living in poverty or are homeless.
"It was a good experience for the kids," he said. "The kids who were not able to be there were sorry that they had missed it. When the other youths told them what had happened, they wished that they could have been there and shared in that event."
The youths that participated in the church lockout, albeit reluctantly at first, shared their experiences with the congregation during worship services the next morning at church, a Sunday morning.
By James Patterson