COCOA – They come in often, sitting quietly at the back of the sanctuary for services or crowding into the fellowship hall for the weekly coffee-hour event.
But for the congregation of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Cocoa, their frequent homeless visitors are more than regular passers-by — they are friends in need of help.
“We have our coffee hour filled almost entirely with the homeless,” said church member Sandy Baldwin. “They’re very gracious.”
And that’s why several church members have spent the last months working hard to launch their own chapter of the popular outreach program, Open Table. It all started when church member Dori Bisbey was performing one of her weekly outreach activities
“I feed the homeless every Tuesday afternoon,” Bisbey said. “I always felt like it wasn’t enough, like it was more giving a handout than a hand up.”
So Bisbey went home and started researching ways to make a more lasting impact on the lives of those who need it most. There, she found the national Open Table program, which already has been adopted by a handful of Central Florida Episcopal churches.
“It sounded wonderful,” Bisbey said.
The Open Table program teams small groups of congregants to act as mentors and a support system for one individual or family at a time. The groups meet regularly to help those selected get on their feet and back to a place where they can take care of themselves for the long run.
St. Mark’s group was chosen, at least partly, for its complementary skill sets and backgrounds. Among the eight members of the St. Mark’s group are a former teacher, family counselor, and successful area businessman.
“We have eight members dedicated to sharing their life experiences with someone who will really benefit from those experiences,” Bisbey said.
To get approval to move ahead, the group had to go through months of training via Skype with the Open Table national organization, starting in December. Baldwin says their approval was no rubber stamp.
“It was intense,” Baldwin said.
Now Bisbey/Baldwin and company are getting ready to move forward. They’ve chosen their candidate and are waiting for a few final tests before they’ll be given approval by the national organization to move forward.
The St. Mark’s congregation is ready to start getting those in need back on their feet, one at a time, for as long as it takes. The hardest thing will be just staying patient with so much good still to do.
“I wanted to do the whole bunch at first,” Baldwin said. “It’s really very exciting.”