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A Valentine Message of Pure Love

Church program gives shelter and warmth from February cold.

What we celebrate as Valentine’s Day sprang from events quite contrary to what is now symbolized by flowers, chocolates, candlelight dinners and, often, expensive gifts. It stems from an act of defiance that got its namesake executed by the Roman Emperor Claudius II.

When the infamous Claudius banned marriage in order to encourage young men to join the military and, thereby, increase the strength of his armies, a priest named Valentine continued to perform secret marriage ceremonies until he was caught, jailed and finally executed, on Feb. 14, 270 AD. His actions inspired fourth-century Pope Gelasuis to canonize Valentine as a patron saint.

As with the nature of Claudius, in the colder regions of the world, Valentine’s Day occurs in one of the harshest months of the year, a time when winter’s chill can also bring death, as was the fate of St. Valentine.

To prevent that outcome, Valentine’s Day 2006 will offer many homeless along the Route 1 corridor the opportunity to experience an unquestioning love. It will not be in the form of roses or chocolates, but in the form of a warm sleeping bag spread out on the floor of Fellowship Hall at United Methodist Rising Hope Mission Church on Russell Road.

This valentine takes the day, or rather night, back to its original roots. It is the Ventures In Community Hypothermia Outreach Program, a joint venture by an array of member VIC churches, New Hope Housing, Mental Health Services of Fairfax County, and Rising Hope.

The mission of Ventures in Community, as stated in its brochure, “Is to unite the faith communities of Southeast Fairfax County to advocate for and serve those in need.”

INITIATED FEB. 1, the hypothermia project has served an average of 10 to 13 homeless individuals each night with a warm place to sleep, a light dinner and a take-away breakfast, according to the Rev. Keary Kincannon, the pastor at Rising Hope Church.

“The entire purpose of this program is to make sure no one freezes to death. We are not a shelter. We are a church,” Kincannon said.

Last year three homeless people did freeze to death in Fairfax County, according to Kincannon. “We do not want that to happen again this year,” he said.

Rising Hope is supplying the location, other churches are supplying personnel on a nightly basis, New Hope Housing is providing professional guidance personnel who have experience in dealing with homelessness, and Fairfax County is supplying resources for the sleeping bags and other supplies, according to Laura Derby, program and office administrator, Rising Hope.

“Those that have been showing up are exactly the community we were hoping to reach. They are not regular residents of a shelter. They either stay in the woods somewhere or in cars or are what I call “couch surfing” on a nightly basis, going from place to place if something is available,” Kincannon said.

“The response from the VIC churches has been wonderful. We are trying to get personnel from one church each night to aid in the program. They are here from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m.,” Derby said.

James Darden, custodian of Rising Hope, has volunteered to stay throughout the night. He also sleeps on the floor of the office in a sleeping bag to provide an overnight presence to handle any problems, requests or needs, according to Kincannon.

Many of those coming in have expressed gratitude to get in from the cold, according to Darden. Although, for privacy purposes their names cannot be revealed, an example of the gratitude was summarized by one homeless man: “This is a real blessing. I appreciate it so much.”

Of those using the program, about 75 percent are male and 25 percent female, according to Derby. “This pilot program also points up that homelessness is a lot bigger than those staying in established shelters,” Kincannon said.

THE MAXIMUM NUMBER of homeless that can be accommodated on a given night is 20. They are all adults. “We cannot take children or any family with children. We are not equipped for that,” Kincannon said.

During its first week of operation, the project has helped at least 20 different individuals. “And, this has been with our rather mild weather so far. If it turns really cold or if we begin to get snow the numbers are going increase dramatically,” Derby predicted.

“We volunteered to be the location for the program because many of these people feel comfortable coming here and it fits our mission. But, we depend on the other churches for personnel support. Susan Bentley, volunteer coordinator for Ventures in Community and a member of Aldersgate Methodist Church, recruits, trains and supports other volunteers,” Derby said.

Nightly volunteers are supported by professional care facilitators and case managers from New Hope Housing. They provide professional guidance every night.

“This program will end March 31. It was pulled together in just one month. But, it is not meant to be year-round. When the weather gets warm it will end,” Kincannon said.

“Until then it is a living example of a love of people caring for one another. We want to show love for all our brothers and sisters. That is the true meaning of Valentine’s Day and something to be done every day. After all the day is named for a saint,” Kincannon said.