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Church opens parsonage to homeless families

It happened early last summer. The desire to help bumped up against an easy way to reach out.

The Church at Athens had an empty parsonage. Lots of people were losing their homes.

Maybe, the Rev. Roger Ellis thought, the church could offer to let families use the space while they got back on their feet.

"We sort of sketched the idea out on a napkin," he said. He presented it to the congregation, and after a few technical questions about stuff like insurance, it was approved unanimously by the small membership.

In one of those meant-to-be kind of coincidences, the church, in southwestern Fayette County, had a relationship with the Catholic Action Center. The center's executive director, Ginny Ramsey, immediately saw that it could work.

"There is a real need out there for families who are losing their homes," she said. The options are few in Lexington and fewer still in rural areas. Since June, dozens of single women and families have stayed at the parsonage-turned-way station.

"One part of the mission of the church is, 'Whatever you do for the least of your brothers of these, you do for me,'" said Ellis, who became a minister after a career in the Navy.

Ellis said he's sharing the church's story, in part, because it shows that small rural churches can still find a way to make a difference. The Church at Athens has an official congregation of about 125, he said. Attendance on most Sundays is about 75 to 85, with some folks coming from as far away as Winchester and Nicholasville.

A church that size can't compete with the mega-churches, and it shouldn't want to, he said. But they can find a way to help by looking at what they have to give.

Built when the church was established in 1972, the parsonage had long been home to the church's pastor. Ellis had lived there for a few years, but when he got married, he moved to Lexington to live with his wife.

It seemed a shame to let the space sit empty, he said.

There were some specifics to work out. Insurance and liability issues had to be resolved. The families who move in sign a contract, including a provision that they won't drink alcohol on church property. The Catholic Action Center screens and recommends candidates.

Sometimes the house is shared by a family and single women. Sometimes, several families. The layout of house, with bedrooms and a sitting area on the lower and first levels, allows for privacy. The kitchen is a communal zone.

So far, he said, there have been few problems.

That doesn't mean it's totally without friction. First, he said, people who move in are pretty traumatized, having lost their homes and often having to put most of the possessions into storage. Plus, grown people tend to have pretty set ways of how they get through a day.

But squabbles have been minimal, he said.

Some families stay a few weeks, others longer.

With the help of the Catholic Action Center and other groups, he said, all have found permanent housing that they could afford.

"They are not coming out here looking for someone to take care of them," he said. "These are middle-class families who never dreamed they would find themselves in this situation."

People staying in the parsonage are invited to walk across the parking lot to the church building for the Wednesday night potluck dinner and Sunday services. Some have attended; a few come back regularly, he said.

The church members have reached out, dropped by with cookies, made up Christmas baskets.

But, he said, for the most part "we try to let them have their space."

"We want them to feel like it is their house."

Until, at least, they can find a way back home.