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Church aims to draw in the homeless

By Danielle Paine, Reminder Assistant Editor

LONGMEADOW No walls, no dress code, no decor just church.

This simple concept is one that St. Andrew Episcopal Church's new Associate for Outreach Ministries, Father John Jeffrey Purchal hopes to establish in downtown Springfield as a way of bringing church to the homeless.

Like other sucessful programs in the nation's biggest cities, this no-frills weekly service will be intended to bring religion into the lives of the homeless population without the intimidation or challenges a person living on the streets might face were they to attend a typical church service.

"A lot of us like to talk about helping the needy but we aren't always that comfortable when they come to our doors," Purchal said. "By offering a holy space in a common space, it will offer a non-threatening setting that allows people to edge in."

The services, temporarily dubbed "Church Without Walls," will be held every Sunday regardless of weather conditions. A location has yet to be determined. Sites being considered include Court Square and space surrounding the Christ Church Cathedral. Both are in close proximation to some of the city's major services for the homeless.

Within the next two weeks, Purchal will have finished moving from his current Rhode Island home to a downtown Springfield residence where he will begin talks with city officials and local homelessness advocacy groups such as Open Pantry Community Services Inc.

Along with the approval and cooperation of these groups, Purchal will seek the blessings and guidance of area religious leaders in creating a no-frills eucharist that will work best for an outdoor service.

"A lot of it will depend on the relationships I start to build within the city in next two months to determine where would be the best place to put this," Purchal said. "We want to be consistent and stay at the same location."

Purchal, 42, became very involved in urban ministries such as this one while in General Theological Seminary School in New York City. From Wisconsin originally, Purchal came to New England to intern with St. Andrews church in the summer of 2003. Together with the leaders of St. Andrew's church, Purchal has felt called to carry out this mission to bring church to the homeless within Springfield.

"I myself come from the working class poor and my parents always struggled to keep their heads above water," Purchal said. "They were often a paycheck away from destitution and that is where a lot of the homeless come from, when various things have forced them into homelessness like the loss of a job, relationship, or an injury."

Parishioners of St. Andrews are said to be excited about their affiliation with this project which, one day, may become a regional program. Purchal will also head the parish's ongoing work in supporting Mayor Charles Ryan's 10-year-plan to end long-term homelessness.

For now the church's involvement in that project is focused on collecting furniture for the apartments to which homeless people are being placed in. A main piece of this program is a concept of obtaining permanant housing for the homeless before addressing other needs like career training.

"A lot of times we did it backwards by giving all kinds of training to people without a personal address who are just focused on finding a place to eat and sleep and protecting their few belongings," Purchal said about the plan. "Some of the people put in homes may never be able to work but for others, it is just hard to get a job without a phone number and an address."

In the future, Purchal hopes to see the "Church Without Walls" program and the church's other programs for the needy feed into on another, becoming part of the city's network of public and private organizations working together to support for those in need.