Traverse City Church of the Nazarene (TCCN) is located in the Northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Traverse City sits on Grand Traverse Bay, which is an arm of Lake Michigan about 250 miles north of Chicago. Traverse City has about 15,000 residents in the city itself and probably another 20,000 or so in the surrounding area. Traverse City is primarily a tourist community, with most jobs existing in service industries. When you couple the historically low wages of service workers with the high cost of housing in Traverse City, you get a situation that is precarious for many residents. TCCN has an average attendance of about 80, with approximately 100 members.

What is Safe Harbor?

One evening in November 2003, I was walking through our church, and God said to me, “You heat this building every night, and I have people sleeping in the woods across the street. Now, what are you going to do about it?”

My answer was, “I guess I’m going to open the doors and let them come in, but I have no idea how that is going to work!”

I was walking through our church, and God said to me, “You heat this building every night, and I have people sleeping in the woods across the street. Now, what are you going to do about it?”

At about the same time, God laid similar thoughts on the hearts of a few other people at TCCN who were involved with Grace Point Café, our one-night-a-week meal ministry. I talked to the church board about it at our December meeting, and the consensus was that we needed to do something—although none of us were sure how it would work.

We decided to start opening the church in January 2004 on any night when the wind chill was forecasted to be below zero. In order to comply with our local zoning regulations, we had to identify specific parameters to avoid opening every night, which would’ve resulted in our being rezoned as a boarding house—which would require public hearings and an extended legal process before we could actually help anyone. During January and February of 2004, we opened the building thirty-five nights and maintained an average attendance of about fifteen.

That spring, a couple of local United Methodist pastors contacted me with offers to help the following winter. We put together a rotating schedule for our three churches to host emergency shelters—the combination of which became known as Safe Harbor. The shelter season began shortly after Thanksgiving in 2004 and ran into March 2005. Eventually, more local churches joined the effort, and we transitioned leadership of the ministry to a group of laypeople from the involved churches.

Preconceived notions have been adjusted, leading to a more compassionate perspective.

It has grown so that there are currently about twenty participating churches in the Traverse City area and well in excess of a hundred volunteers from those churches. The average population at Safe Harbor during the 2015-2016 winter season was probably in the range of around fifty people each night.

What do you wish you had known on day one that you didn’t know?

Probably just some of the practical things that accompany a ministry like this:

*Open communication with your church’s insurance company to ensure you are covered for the ensuing ministry activity.

*Inviting local governmental bodies (like the police, fire department, and/or zoning administrator) to be involved, whether in providing information on parameters and restrictions or actual, physical assistance. In our experience, these agencies were more than willing to work with us once they found out what we wanted to do, and in many instances they had ideas and suggestions to help us be more effective.

*Reaching out to other churches for co-participation. At the time we began the Safe Harbor ministry, there was no active ministerial association in Traverse City, so I had limited contact with other pastors in the community. The continued involvement of other churches is what has really grown the ministry into something long-lasting and meaningful for the community.

How has Safe Harbor impacted your surrounding community and the volunteers who give their time to this ministry?

The ministry has given both our community and our volunteers a much greater awareness of the problem of homelessness and the various forms it takes. It has also helped community members and volunteers learn the most effective ways to address the problems associated with and resultant from homelessness. A lot of preconceived notions have been adjusted, leading to a more compassionate perspective in our community about homelessness as a whole, as well as people taking more personal responsibility for aiding the homeless and eradicating homelessness.

How do you credit the success and longevity of Safe Harbor?

Safe Harbor has succeeded thanks to an intentional focus on what the ministry is intended to be—emergency shelter for the homeless during winter months. When we all come together with this simple goal in mind, we are able to provide ample opportunities for volunteers, share the burden of responsibility among several people and churches, and avoid allowing theological differences to hinder our cooperation.

How has this ministry strengthened you as a pastor and your church as a congregation?

I’ve benefited in the same ways the community has. I’ve expanded my understanding of the unique challenges of homelessness and poverty in a larger context, and I’ve been given the opportunity to connect with people who would not normally come into contact with our church. Many of our Safe Harbor guests think of TCCN as their church even though they do not attend worship services.

As a congregation, we’ve become much more outwardly focused and compassionate. It would be inaccurate to claim that everyone in the congregation is actively involved in our community ministries, but as a whole, these outreach efforts have positively changed the composition and attitude of our congregation. As a result, we’ve rediscovered in a personal way that compassionate ministry is truly part of what it means to be a Nazarene, which has deepened our congregants’ connection to our denomination.

What do you hope to see in the future for Safe Harbor?

Safe Harbor is currently working with the city of Traverse City to acquire a building to use as a permanent location for the emergency shelter program. Their goal is not to become a year-round homeless shelter, but having a permanent, non-rotating location would allow Safe Harbor to offer other services, such as storage of personal items, laundry and shower facilities, and access to the internet and other computer and printing needs. Such a facility could also provide the potential for training in job and life skills to help people transition more effectively out of homelessness.


Interested in how to start a ministry like Safe Harbor in your community? Contact The Community blog here and we can help you connect with Pastor Richard Rice.