Lyme pastor camps out for the homeless
Reverend Stephen Gehlert of Lyme Congregational Church in Lyme, N.H., puts on a third pair of socks at his home in Lyme before leaving to spend the night in a tent on church property on January 21, 2014. "Iâve got better gear, and I can get out of here at 7 or 8 in the morning, and homeless people have got to deal with this all day long,â said Gehlert, who is spending every night this week in the tent to raise awareness for homelessness. (Valley News - Will Parson)
With the temperature in single digits, Reverend Stephen Gehlert of Lyme Congregational Church in Lyme, N.H., adjusts his tent's guy-rope before bundling up in multiple sleeping bags on January 21, 2014. "I've got better gear, and I can get out of here at 7 or 8 in the morning, and homeless people have got to deal with this all day long," Gehlert said, who is spending every night this week in the tent to raise awareness for homelessness. (Valley News - Will Parson)
Using the lawn of the Lyme Congregational Church as his pulpit – and campsite – the Rev. Steve Gehlert is seeking to make homelessness in the Upper Valley an unavoidable issue.
In alignment with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Gehlert, 64, has erected a small dome tent on the lawn of the church, and is camping out this week – bitter cold and all – to raise awareness of homelessness and hunger.
An interim pastor in Lyme, Gehlert moved from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, to Lyme in early July. While he drove back from Ohio after Christmas and watched temperatures sink to 14 below, he was struck by the stark challenges for those stuck in the midst of New England winters.
“I just thought of the cold and a way to make this more graphic and visible – as a reminder that this is happening all the time,” he said.
Lorry Kenton, a Hanover resident and deacon at Lyme Congregational, said that Gehlert informed the deacons of his plan a week ago, but didn’t tell the congregation until Sunday.
“When he announced it in the worship service yesterday, there was dead silence,” Kenton said Monday. “I don’t know what that silence means, but personally, I admire him and hope that this will make a difference even with one or two people.”
On Sunday, Gehlert spent his first night in the tent, with two sleeping pads and two 20-degree sleeping bags. And while temperatures dipped to 9 below zero in Lyme on Tuesday night, Gehlert seemed unfazed.
“I’m doing fine. I’ve been warm every night,” Gehlert said yesterday afternoon. “I’ve been in the tent for eight or nine hours. But it’s because I have the advantage of really good gear.”
When he awoke before sunrise yesterday morning, he returned to the parsonage down the road for a shower and warm breakfast. “For other people, that’s not a sure thing,” he said. “It’s hopefully raising awareness and getting people thinking about those with no place to go.”
He’ll be sleeping outdoors through Saturday night.
The sub-zero temperatures are forecast to continue through much of this week, but Gehlert isn’t daunted. “I’m a backpacker, I’ve camped out in the winter before,” he said.
In conjunction with Gehlert’s project, Laura Perez, volunteer coordinator with the Upper Valley Haven, was invited to speak before the congregation of about 160 last Sunday to share volunteer opportunities. The Haven, which is located in White River Junction, has recently filled the two shelters it operates. The organization also runs a food pantry, clothes closet and children’s programs, and is working to open a warming shelter.
Gelhert said 13 members of his congregation on Sunday expressed a willingness to volunteer, with interest in helping to ready the new warming shelter.
“We’ve been talking a lot about how blessed and comfortable we all are and how important it is to better understand those who have less than we do,” Kenton said.
Part of the service, Gehlert added, “was about how we get into routines and ignore the needs of others. It’s not that we do it intentionally. Our lives get filled with other things, but these are issues we shouldn’t be ignoring.”
“My hope with regard to the church is to deepen and expand our involvement with The Haven,” he said.
Lyme resident Martha Tecca, who is also a deacon at the church, said that she was “very moved” by Gehlert’s commitment.
“There’s often a sense that the church is just telling people to do things, to do good,” Tecca said. “It’s really refreshing to see them living that. But that’s what Steve is doing. He’s very, very committed to justice.”
Gehlert timed the project with the commemoration of King’s birthday in order to acknowledge and continue King’s work.
“Martin Luther King was all about justice and remembering the needs of the less fortunate,” Gehlert said. “His message was about creating a society where the less fortunate were treated with dignity and respect.”