People experiencing homelessness in the Baltimore area are getting a little extra help courtesy of the Jewish and Christian communities, thanks to the in-person return of the Baltimore Jewish Council’s Interfaith Volunteering program.
“We’re bringing together people from different parts of the community, from different faith backgrounds to come together, to build relationships with one another and do that through service, through serving the greater community,” said Josh Sherman, director of community relations at the Baltimore Jewish Council.
Most recently, BJC’s Interfaith Volunteering program held a Blessing Bags event on Oct. 17 in the parking lot of the Weinberg Park Heights JCC, in partnership with Word of Life Christian Community Church in Baltimore. Sherman said that 72 volunteers came out to pack 300 Blessing Bags.
“The Blessing Bag program is designed to bring together communities of faith in acts of service,” Sherman said.
Specifically, the Blessing Bags assembled at the event were intended for people experiencing homelessness, Sherman said. They contained items such as water, hygiene products, snacks and a resource guide on local shelters and programs that could assist them. Individual volunteers took the bags home, with the intent to leave them in their cars and hand them out to homeless individuals as they encounter them.
“As you’re driving around town, if you see someone who might be in need, or pull up to a red light and there’s a person experiencing homelessness next to you, oftentimes we find that, for community members, it can be an awkward moment or a difficult moment, and you don’t always want to hand someone cash, or you don’t know what to say,” said Sherman, a resident of Baltimore’s Oakenshawe neighborhood who attends High Holiday services at Chizuk Amuno Congregation.
“The idea behind the Blessing Bag is you already have something prepared,” Sherman continued. “So you have something that you can just hand to someone experiencing homelessness, and kind of bring back some of that dignity and have a conversation, or look at someone eye to eye and be able to help them.”
Before Oct. 17, BJC last held an in-person Blessing Bags event in 2019, said Sherman. The pandemic put a stop to much of their in-person programming.
This was also the first time that Word of Life Christian Community Church participated in BJC’s Interfaith Volunteering program, said the church’s pastor, Jermaine Johnson. The 10-year-old church purchased its current location in January of 2020 and has since made efforts to connect with community partnerships, such as with CHAI: Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. After connecting with BJC staff through CHAI’s One Park Heights forum, BJC invited Johnson’s church to collaborate on the Interfaith Volunteering program.
“We want [attendees] to take away the sense of gratitude and of compassion, being present for our community,” Johnson said in an interview before the event.
Future Interfaith Volunteering events might include projects like cleaning up a park or serving a meal at a local shelter, Sherman said.
In Sherman’s view, when people are given a project to do together, it allows for conversation and dialogue to happen in a more natural manner.
“I think when you enter into a space, and let’s say the program is based around interfaith dialogue, sometimes it can be a little difficult to get the momentum flowing, to get people open to start sharing,” Sherman said. “But I think when you have something else going on, when you’re doing a project, when you’re benefiting the community at large, I think people are more willing to open up, and the conversations happen more naturally.”