A Church-Based Approach to Ending Family Homelessness

The co-founders of Bridge of Hope

Sandy Lewis and Linda Witmer
Bridge of Hope co-founders

Sandy Lewis’s Story:  “It’s Always Been the Lord’s Work”
from Amazing Hope, 1998

Sandy Lewis calls herself a “thorn in the flesh” of her congregation during the years before she and Linda Witmer began Bridge of Hope. As director of a women’s shelter at the YWCA in Coatesville (PA), she was confronted with the overwhelming needs of homeless women every day – needs that Christians are called to address.

“It was plain as the nose on my face that this is what the church should be doing,” Sandy says in her soft southern accent. So she kept talking about homelessness in Sunday school, bringing her clients along to church, asking her homeless clients to tell their stories during services – in short, she kept “beating a dead horse,” she says with a laugh.

It must have worked; by the time Bridge of Hope was in the formation stages, members of Sandy Hill Mennonite Church strongly encouraged Sandy and Linda’s dream. It became one of the primary churches to support the fledgling program with prayer, financial support, and volunteer help.

Getting to that point herself wasn’t easy. Overworked at the shelter, discouraged by the fact that she was seeing the same women return again and again “because a roof over their heads wasn’t enough to take care of their needs and their children’s needs,” Sandy struggled to figure out how to best help her clients. “I remember one time locking the door, putting my head on the desk, and crying to the Lord, I can’t do this anymore. There’s not enough of me. Send someone to help me,” she recalls.

Shortly after that cry to God for help, Sandy met Linda Witmer, who was a public health nurse in Coatesville and shared her concerns about the temporariness of the help they were providing. “I felt the Lord had put her there,” says Sandy.

The rest is history. Through the rough years of getting the program off the group, Sandy ended her job at the YWCA so she could do volunteer work for Bridge of Hope full-time. She worked with Larry Zook, a master’s level student in Eastern College’s non-profit management program, who served as start-up facilitator. Larry later became vice-president of the Bridge of Hope Board of Directors. Working out of a drafty hallway in the YWCA, Sandy says those years required intense creativity and commitment. “I would wake up in the middle of the night with ideas and visions of ways to make the program a viable one. I have to attribute it to the Lord,” she says.

Sandy can hardly talk about those first years–or any part of Bridge of Hope’s history, for that matter–without mentioning God’s intervention. “For me, Bridge of Hope has always been the Lord’s work. Even though we’d run into stumbling blocks, I think I always knew it was the Lord’s work. I’d always think, ‘This program is doing to be. Nothing’s going to harm it.’”

Now the director of a residential program for women who have abused or neglected their children, Sandy says she believes more than ever in Bridge of Hope’s philosophy. “I’m convinced that the only way that women break out of this cycle of despair is through the unconditional love of Christians,” she says firmly. “If one is not surrounded by people who care, any of us would perish.”

Linda Witmer’s story
Commitment to Poor Means Constant Conversion
from Amazing Hope, 1998

For Linda Witmer, Bridge of Hope is only a piece in a life’s vocation of work with the poor and oppressed. With more than a decade of providing health care among the K’ekchi’ people of Guatemala, working in public health in Coatesville (PA), and teaching public health nursing at Goshen College (Indiana), Linda says she feels a definite call to living and working among the poor. The second element of that vocation, Linda adds, is raising awareness in the church of poverty and oppression.

“Poverty in the United States is hidden,” Linda says. “Highways go around slums. People do not have to touch the lives of the poor. As long as we do not see poverty, we don’t have to feel responsible.”

In 1986, upon her return from Guatemala, Linda began working among the poor in Coatesville and soon discovered a deep commonality between the two experiences. “I soon learned that the roots of poverty in the United States were similar to those in Guatemala,” she says. “Injustice, racism, violence, unequal distribution of resources, and faulty and ineffective structures were all contributors to homelessness and poverty.”

Feeling increasingly helpless, Linda soon met Sandy Lewis, who was working with many of the same women, feeling the same discouragement, and whom Linda calls a kindred spirit. Their common frustration that shelters were only Band-Aid solutions grew into prayer times for ways to provide more substantial assistance to the women they watched come in and out and back into shelters.

As the two women’s ideas became more specific, the other part of Linda’s vocation came into play – raising awareness in the church of poverty close to them. “We invited women from area churches to get involved in some of our clients’ lives,” she says. “For example, rather than me taking the food they collected for a Thanksgiving dinner, I asked them to deliver it and see for themselves, to touch the lives of those they were helping. It seemed to me that as members of churches touched the lives of the poor, they would also be transformed.” This, of course, is exactly what happened.

Like Sandy, Linda says she didn’t lose hope for the program, even during rough times. “I believed strongly that God was calling for this project and that it would happen,” she says. In fact, she believed so deeply in the program that she turned down a job offer to teach nursing at Goshen College to fulfill her commitment to get the program off the ground. Fortunately, Goshen College administrators affirmed her dedication to the organization, saying they appreciate faculty who are devoted to community work. Two years later, just as the Bridge of Hope Board was formed, Linda accepted the college’s second teaching invitation. “This was another confirmation to me that the Bridge was to happen,” she says. After several years of teaching at Goshen, Linda returned to Guatemala.

Linda is clear about the fact that her commitment to the poor is nothing less than a constant conversion. “Through our risk in becoming involved in brokenness, conversion takes place,” she wrote in an issue of Mennonite Central Committee’s Women’s Concerns report. “Not only is hope restored to the one being helped, but we too are changed in the process. We experience more deeply our faith in action. Our lifestyles are challenged. Our time, talents, and money are all required…As we serve each homeless person, we see Jesus.”