How many churches do you figure we have in Albuquerque?
Our Yellow Pages list 553 churches (I counted them). Every one owns a building, be it a sprawling mega-church with a roller park or a plain cinder block chapel, inconspicuous on a residential street. It all adds up to a lot of real estate, and a lot of dry, safe, empty rooms between Sunday school classes.
At the same time, Albuquerque has an estimated 4,000 homeless people, many of them families with children. Shelters won’t let fathers or teenage boys live among women and girls. Consequently, the price of keeping a homeless family together can mean living out of a car, or worse.
I’ve seen homeless families taking refuge on the doorsteps of locked and darkened churches, as though that open platform promises more protection than hiding in trees or camping under a bridge. It’s a sad, sad picture, one I can’t get out of my mind.
Somebody disliked that picture enough to do something about it.
Several years ago, David Pietz approached Albuquerque attorney Richmond Neely with an idea about utilizing unused areas in church buildings to shelter homeless families. It was to be called Albuquerque Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN). Pietz asked Neely to establish a charity so they could start working. Neely did as asked, but didn’t expect the project to go anywhere.
Next thing Neely knew, Pietz had recruited a board of directors and found a church to take in homeless families. First United Methodist Church would be the first to sign up. For decades, First Church has been serving its Grace Meal, known on the streets as the best free meal in the whole city. A block-long line of hungry men and women forms every Monday near noon at the church’s open doors Downtown.
Next, Pietz and his board (now chaired by the once skeptical Neely) enlisted St. Timothy’s Lutheran Church. Soon they hired an executive director, Kelly Brooks. Brooks says she had never heard of IHN before seeing this tall, lean, energetic man with a head of unruly white hair manning a table at a social services conference. She remembers Pietz explaining his hopes for IHN, standing next to a homemade, hand-lettered cardboard display spotted with cutout pictures and photographs held by scotch tape.
That was 2003. Today, IHN claims two more Methodist congregations, three Presbyterian churches, First Congregational Church of Christ and the more conservative Montgomery Church of Christ. IHN operates on a budget of less than $75,000. Its two employees are only part-time. I interviewed Brooks in her dreary basement office. The rugs were soaked from rain that had seeped through the foundation. She didn’t seem to notice the water squishing under her feet as she brought me records on IHN’s work.
IHN’s paltry resources give no hint of the organization’s results. IHN’s tiny staff manages to provide assistance with finding employment, securing benefits, getting kids to school, lining up health care and making homeless families a part of the community. In little over two years, IHN has hosted 86 families and moved 73 families into permanent housing.
IHN’s 800 volunteers are the key. (You read that right—eight hundred volunteers). People from every walk of life—doctors, lawyers, retirees, accountants, engineers, teachers—drive vans, cook food, clean, entertain the children and serve as all-night chaperones for the homeless living in their churches. Each church may house three families every two to three months. Brooks says such an effort requires a minimum of 50 volunteers at each church. Some churches have volunteer teams exceeding 100 people.
The Archdiocese of Santa Fe has now given its blessing to IHN, making it possible for individual Catholic parishes to sign on. Several more Protestant congregations are considering adding their facilities to the program.
The beauty of IHN is keeping homeless families together. Children need not be separated from their father just so they can sleep safely. And fathers, out looking for work during the day, can hold on to the family that gives their life meaning and direction.
Everyone I spoke with insists Dave Pietz continues as IHN’s driving force. He is, fittingly, retired from a career with the Energizer company. I was told he was probably out of town, occupied with his latest project. He heard that children on the Toha’ajilee reservation weren't getting fresh vegetables into their diet. He’s been out there working on an idea for portable vegetable plots that can be moved indoors and continue producing all year round.
So maybe Dave Pietz is too busy for interviews. That’s OK. After all, his work speaks for itself.
Know other saints in our city? Please tell us so they get a little of the recognition they deserve. And maybe we can fire up someone else along the way.
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