People often ask us how we stay hopeful while doing the work we do – so many thousands in our communities are experiencing homelessness and the problem can seem insurmountable.
Reverend Jan Bolerjack is one of those who keeps us hoping.
Jan has been quietly doing the work and walking the talk for many years. Earlier this month, Jan received one of two Gertrude Apel Pioneering spirit awards from the Greater Church Council of Seattle, a special honor given to individuals and organizations who have modelled a faith-filled compassion with justice and demonstrated a “talent for fostering cooperation and getting things done.”
The Church Council recognized her work in this way:
The Rev. Jan Bolerjack lives her vision to “see with the eyes of Christ” as the Senior Pastor of Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila. Offering the “sanctuary” of her church means presiding over community dinners, a food bank twice a week, creating shelter space both inside and outside the church building, tutoring children and accompanying them on outings. Seeing airport workers lining up at the food bank moved her to be the leading spokesperson for the effort to increase SeaTac’s minimum wage for hospitality and transportation workers to $15/hour. As she said to the Seattle Times, “There’s such a ripple effect right down to the kids . . . I see so many parents at the end of their rope, just trying to cope, to hold things together.” For her ministry of restorative healing and social justice, borne out in a love of people and hope for the future, the Church Council of Greater Seattle is proud to honor Rev. Bolerjack with the Gertrude Apel Pioneering Spirit Award.
Jan is currently hosting several families in housing on the church property and in rooms for religious education in the church building itself. Under her guidance, Riverton Park UMC recently hosted Tent City 3 and is active in serving homeless and needy families in the larger community of Tukwila, which has a frighteningly high proportion of homeless children. In the 2012-2013 school year, 305 students enrolled in Tukwila public schools were homeless – over 10% of the districts’ student population, compared to 2,370 homeless students in Seattle Public Schools during the same period – or roughly 4.5% of that district’s population. (This data was collected by WASEH, the Washington Alliance for Students Experiencing Homelessness; you can find more student and family homelessness data here on our site.)
Jan interacts with families that make up these statistics every day and she relates one of these stories below.
By Rev. Jan Bolerjack
It had been a long day and I was tired, so shortly after 9 pm I slipped into my comfy pajamas and set out to relax in front of some mindless TV. It wasn’t long before I heard a knock on my front door. Oh please, can’t I just be done for the day? My parsonage is on the church property so it isn’t unusual to get visitors at all hours of the day. Usually it is about a plugged toilet at the church or a suspicious car in the parking lot.
This time, it was the police.
Two badged, blue-suited, armed giants stood before me as I somewhat hesitantly stood before them in my pink pajamas. They didn’t seem to notice my embarrassment because they launched into their concern. It seems that they had discovered a family sitting on the curb at the Homeland Security Office , which is located within our city limits.
The family, although speaking in very limited English, managed to communicate to the officers that they had been evicted from their home in Kent and the Sheriff had driven them to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) building and suggested they wait there until the next morning. The police had come to my door hoping that there would be space in my church building for this family to find shelter and safety for the night.
“It’s a family of eight, including an infant,” they told me.
“Of course,” I said, knowing that I already had two homeless families that had come to us the week prior staying in the Sunday School rooms.
I could, of course, give this new family floor space in the social hall. We could dig up extra blankets and pillows, find some food, and offer a welcome. While the officers went back to ICE to pick up the family, I got dressed and rushed over to the church building. I gathered the blankets, moved some tables and waited for their arrival. My building groundskeeper and security manager also pitched in. We found some cup of noodles, bread, juice, crackers and cookies in the Food Pantry to share with them. And soon they arrived. The police officers showed great concern and compassion as they dropped them off, asking several times if there was anything else we needed to get them through the night. “No,” I assured them. We had become well practiced in receiving families at all hours of the day.
As they left, I said, “How could we, the church of Jesus Christ, ever say to a homeless and desperate family that there was no room at the inn?” Haven’t we learned that, maybe, in that leftover, unused space, God may be born?
What a joy it was to see this refugee family find a temporary home with us. I thank God for the work of my community that works to receive and care for the homeless.
Rev. Jan Bolerjack is currently Senior Pastor of Riverton Park United Methodist and has been serving in ministry for 22 years. With a background in nursing and education, she is now pursuing a Doctor of Ministry here at the Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry.