November 11, 1999
Harvard
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A Safe Haven in the Square: Shelter for homeless reopens to fanfare after renovation

By Ken Gewertz
Gazette Staff


At the University Lutheran Church Homeless Shelter, pastors Joanne Engquist (right) and Thomas Chittick hold the ribbon cut by Katherine Reisz (third from right), daughter of shelter founder the Rev. Fred Reisz. The ceremony marked a major renovation.

Someone walking in the vicinity of Massachusetts Hall on the afternoon of Feb. 18 of this year might have witnessed a rather unusual sight: two men – a Lutheran pastor and a professor of religion – slapping their palms together in an exuberant high five.

The pastor was Thomas Chiddick of the University Lutheran Church on Winthrop Street. His partner was Paul Hanson, the Florence Corliss Lamont Professor of Divinity and Master of Winthrop House.

Hanson and Chiddick had just come from paying a call on President Neil L. Rudenstine. Their purpose was to ask Rudenstine to donate money to the University Lutheran Church Capital Campaign to renovate the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, which occupies the basement of the University Lutheran Church.

Hanson later confessed that he was not looking forward to this visit to Rudenstine, "because I know how many charities come to his door." He admitted that his pitch had been "more in the nature of an apology than a hard sell."

And yet, five minutes later, Hanson and Chiddick had in their hands a commitment from Rudenstine to provide a $25,000 challenge grant to benefit the shelter, matching dollar for dollar funds donated by students, faculty, staff, and alumni/ae. This was the outcome that occasioned their sudden outburst of enthusiasm.

Hanson, a member of University Lutheran Church since 1965, when he was a graduate student, has been associated with the student-run shelter for all of its 17 years. His son Mark ’97 was a director of the shelter, and many residents of Winthrop House have volunteered there. During holidays when the students are not on campus, Hanson himself works there. Now as a member of the Shelter Steering Committee of the Church, he has taken on the job of raising money to keep the shelter going.

On Nov. 3, Hanson had the satisfaction of seeing one significant result of his fundraising efforts. That afternoon a ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the completion of a major renovation to the shelter, a renovation that Rudenstine’s grant helped pay for.

Through the Community Gifts Through Harvard Campaign, Harvard employees can now contribute money to the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter to match the funds Rudenstine has contributed.


Jennine Mazzarelli '01 (left), Alina Das '01, and Wendy Seider '00, volunteers at the shelter, look on. Photos by Justin Ide, Harvard News Office.
A handicapped access ramp, new showers and laundry facilities, new beds, lockers, lighting, and a fresh coat of paint have transformed the old shelter into an attractive and cheerful space.

The shelter has always been a place, where, as Hanson said, "guests are genuinely welcomed as people of dignity with nutritious meals, clean bedding, friendship, and opportunities for job training and counseling." But now that welcome can take place in fresher and cleaner surroundings.

"At the ribbon-cutting, I remember having a sense that this is our society at its best," said Hanson. "This is the making of a village, meeting the challenge of helping those who are less fortunate, and taking delight in the enrichment that occurs through contact with others."

As Hanson sees it, that enrichment benefits not only the homeless men, women, and children who use the shelter, but it also helps the students who cook and serve food, handle daily upkeep, or simply listen to a guest’s story. These experiences help students reach new understandings of the society in which they live. Hanson expressed this idea in a talk he gave Nov. 3 at the kickoff luncheon for the Community Gifts Through Harvard campaign:

"What tremendous revisions are set in motion as a student volunteer leaves the shelter at midnight, crosses a still-busy JFK Street, dodging between the Porsches and BMWs, sees lights now glowing above Grendel’s, knowing that those condominiums have sold for over $1 million apiece, and then recalls that parting image of rows of cots of good people who cannot afford the dignity of a private room. Economics, literature, history, moral reasoning, are all placed in a new light as a result of that existential experience."

Each year, University Lutheran Church hires a Harvard graduate student to help volunteers process their experiences and to aid them in locating courses that address the social problems they have encountered. But beyond this program, Hanson would like to see field assignments built directly into the undergraduate curriculum, as they already are in the curriculum of the Divinity School, Medical School, and School of Public Health.

Such a program might help students develop what Hanson believes would be a balanced and realistic attitude toward society’s problems and toward institutions like the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter that seek to rectify them. It is an attitude that encompasses both the warm glow of helping on an individual basis and the indignation of witnessing society’s persistent inequalities.

"From a larger perspective, the shelter is not something we can be proud of," said Hanson. "It’s a minimal provision necessitated by our society’s not doing its job of providing a decent life for everyone. And with this in mind, we must keep pressing for progressive and humane attitudes toward society’s problems. But this larger view is not an excuse to close our eyes to the fact that people will die of hypothermia on the streets unless we help. We have to do both."

To make a donation to the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, or any other charity, simply designate the charity on the green charity-of-my-choice pledge card contained in the Community Gifts Through Harvard package and return the card to your local keyperson.

 


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College