- Associated Press - Friday, November 28, 2014

FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) - Bill Thompson was struggling. He was homeless, staying wherever he could.

After staying the allowable time at the Salvation Army, he needed to find another place - a warm place - to sleep. He learned a warming center had opened at First Presbyterian Church in Florence.

“I had been homeless for a few months; I just fell on hard times, and needed help. I found that help at the warming center,” said Thompson, 57, a disabled native of Lauderdale County.

Today, Thompson has a place to live and someone to help him manage his finances from the disability check he receives. He credits his newfound life to the helping hand he received at the warming center.

“With a little help from the church and some friends and a lot of praying, I’m not in that situation anymore,” Thompson said.

When the warming center at First Presbyterian opened earlier this month, Thompson was back, but this time as a volunteer.

“I figure, they helped me and they’re still trying to help others. This is the least I can do,” he said. “I’m just paying (the kindness) forward.”

Beth Howard and Krista Manchester were involved with the warming center last year. They agreed they both saw the need for something more for those who are homeless in the area.

Now, the two are on a mission to bring the first Room in the Inn program to Florence.

Room in the Inn is a faith-based program that began 26 years ago in Nashville and has grown nationwide, Howard said.

Howard, who moved to the area from Jackson, Tennessee, said she heard of the program and last year her mother’s church in Jackson participated.

“In the spring I went online and started trying to get all the information I could about the program,” she said.

Howard and Manchester made a trip to Nashville to meet with the coordinators of the program there.

“After doing our research and meeting with the people in Nashville, we got home and just knew this was what we needed to do,” Howard said.

The concept of Room in the Inn is to bring area churches together to feed and provide shelter for the homeless. The churches rotate participation on a nightly basis.

Manchester said 12 churches in the Shoals area have signed up to be part of the program. The goal is to have 20.

She said she is reaching out to other churches in the area as well as some in Colbert County that are already doing community feeding programs.

First Presbyterian Church in Sheffield has a meal on Tuesdays at 6 p.m., and First Methodist Church in Tuscumbia prepares the Shepherd’s Table at 12:45 p.m. on Sundays.

Our Lady of the Shoals in Tuscumbia, provides food on Fridays at 1 p.m., but guests are asked to call the church at 256-383-6456 by Thursday afternoon of each week.

As a part of the Room in the Inn program, Trinity Episcopal Church on Pine Street in Florence will begin offering a Tuesday evening meal.

The goal is to start Room in the Inn on Jan. 3 and go through March 13.

Howard said First Presbyterian Church in Florence will serve as the “hub.”

“We’ll have an office there and the guests will check in here at 4 p.m.,” she said. “Then the churches will come and pick up their guests from 5-5:30 p.m. for the evening.”

She said the churches will be responsible for feeding the guests, providing them shelter for the night and breakfast the next morning.

“Then they will be brought back to First Presbyterian Church between 7-8 a.m.,” Howard said.

She said no more than 12 guests will go to a church at one time.

“We want this to be a personal experience, for them to truly be a guest in these churches,” Howard said. “We want the guests to have a relationship with the community, to have a meal with someone who makes them feel they matter. The main goal is for hospitality, just treat the guests like any other person.”

Howard said for some of the homeless, they have never had anyone care about them.

“That’s why they are where they are now,” she said. “This one night could be a meaningful experience that could change their lives.”

Manchester said response to the program has been great. She said the project has a Facebook account, “Room in the Inn Florence,” that is gaining popularity.

“We are having people message us about being a part of what we are trying to do,” Manchester said. “And the churches who are participating are getting excited about the program.”

Emily Borden, coordinator for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Florence, said the church has agreed to take six guests each Thursday.

“My husband and I were involved last year as volunteers at the warming center,” Borden said. “This year, when it was decided to change the model, we spoke to our church elders and our pastor about being involved. They were totally on board with it, and gave us a budget to work with.”

Borden said she’s excited about being a part of the Room in the Inn program.

“It’s a really great ministry to be a part of and especially for our children to be a part of,” she said. “This is not a huge time commitment. This is about meeting a need in the community and we are excited about being a part of that.”

Howard is convinced Room in the Inn can work in the Shoals.

“It requires the people of faith to do what we are called to do. We are called to love the unloveable and to reach the unreachable,” she said. “With so many churches here in this area, this is doable.

“I never dreamed this is where God would call me, but I feel great about it, what we are going and trying to do with Room in the Inn.”

Manchester said she hopes Room in the Inn can grow into a homeless shelter for the area.

“We like to say Room in the Inn is an opportunity, not an answer,” Manchester said. “It’s an experience for our guests and for the hosts.

“We get to minister to (the guests) and they experience care and compassion, which helps to lift them up, and give them some self-worth.”

Manchester is speaking from her own experience of being a homeless teenager.

“I remember how even the tiny acts of kindness really made an impact on me,” she said. “I want this program, this community, to make an impact on the lives that we will be serving.”

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