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Should the city’s largest homeless shelter also be one of its biggest proselytizers?

When you check into the Milwaukee Rescue Mission, the city’s largest homeless shelter, you get your picture taken, a photo I.D., and you probably sit down on one of 126 chairs with blue cushions (the staff calls these the “blue chairs”), where residents may wait for a chapel service to begin. The chapel is the former Wells Street Junior High’s auditorium, a plain room with a high ceiling and low stage where an ordained staff member (there are about a dozen) or volunteer will lead a short worship service. They’re all Christian, and each functions as a gateway to a free meal or warm bed for the night. Prior to breakfast and lunch, the services run about 15 minutes, long enough for a short song and sermon, and a 45-minute service follows the nightly curfew.

The Rescue Mission has tied basic services for the homeless to evangelism since 1893, when a traveling evangelical minister, the Rev. B. Faye Mills – and “a group of Christian businessmen,” according to the official history – founded the Rescue Mission in a rented building on Kilbourn Avenue. Entering the current location on West Wells Street, one passes under a billboard-sized crucifix on which is spelled: “Jesus Saves.”

The Rescue Mission is boldly independent, relying on private donations and virtually no government support, the latter of which could require it to retire the religious lens through which its services are directed. Its 400 short-term shelter beds account for about half of those in Milwaukee, making it a central knot in the city’s social safety net. Although food, clothes and shelter are essential, the Rescue Mission also wants to “share the hope of our Christian faith,” says executive director Patrick Vanderburgh.

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Outside the Rescue Mission, this evangelism is often described as a prerequisite for assistance: A handbook to local social services by the Community Advocates group notes “you must attend [a prayer service at the Rescue Mission] to receive a free meal.”

The Rescue Mission serves about 800 meals a day, every day. The St. Ben’s Community Meal, a long-running Catholic program on West State Street, serves dinner each day to about half as many. The only religious aspect there is a quick group prayer. The city’s second-largest homeless shelter, the Salvation Army Emergency Lodge on North Seventh Street, receives funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and holds any religious programming as optional. “We don’t make people go to church,” says Tom Flatley, the shelter’s operations and logistics manager.

“Sometimes people think we’re forcing our religion down people’s throats,” says the Rescue Mission’s Vanderburgh, “and that’s really the last thing we want to do. There are certainly individuals who don’t appreciate the chapel and don’t like it.” He says staff members tell people who identify as non-Christians: “There’s absolutely no need for you to profess our Christian faith.” These people generally bide their time in the chapel’s back rows, he says. “You’ll see individuals who are nodding off, not paying attention.”

A 2006 meta-study by researchers at the University of Southern California found “considerable evidence” that religious involvement tends to improve outcomes in people using social services. But how programs intertwine themselves with religion varies. One of the researchers, Kristin Ferguson-Colvin, now on the faculty at Hunter College in New York, surveyed shelters serving children in Los Angeles, Mumbai and Nairobi between 2003 and 2005. None of the “faith-based organizations” she recalls, conditioned basic services like food and shelter “on attending [religious] activities.”

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Matt Hrodey discusses this story on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” July 17 at 10 a.m.

‘Food for the Soul’ appears in the July 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
Purchase a copy on newsstands at one of 400+ locations throughout Wisconsin.

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