Santa Fe, N.M., is gifted with a warm climate — which is at least one reason why the city also has a sizable homeless population.

First Presbyterian Church, located in downtown Santa Fe, is using a unique feature of its building to reach out to these sometimes forgotten people. 

The church has showers on its main level, made to be easily accessible to groups. The showers were added partly with the homeless community in mind. 

“When we built the new church about six years ago, our pastor then was the Rev. Sheila Gustafson, and she was very aware of the needs of the homeless in our community as well as the fact that we have a lot of visiting groups,” said Mary Ann Lundy, chairwoman of the congregation’s Mission and Social Justice Committee.

Church members have taken advantage of the unusual arrangement by offering a program called Hot Water Hospitality on Sunday afternoons. The program, established two years ago, runs from May to October and provides showers, meals and a clothing center for about 80 homeless people. 

The church estimates there are 1,200-1,500 homeless people in the city, and it reaches about 350 of them throughout its season.

“It’s primarily men, although there are women also homeless and then we have some families.  Since we’re in New Mexico, we have a lot of immigrants in the program. We have a number of veterans,” Lundy said. “They’re all homeless, that’s the common denominator.”

Sallie Watson, regional presbyter/stated clerk for Santa Fe and Sierra Blanca Presbyteries, visited the church on a recent Sunday and can attest to the popularity of the program.

“I was at worship there a couple of weeks ago and as I was leaving, the people were lining up outside to come in,” she said. “It looked like a group waiting for the second service and I guess kind of they were.”

The effort has also been made interfaith. Every second Sunday, another faith group is invited to bring and prepare food. So far groups from Temple Beth Shalom, Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Unitarian Universalist Church, and Santa Maria de la Paz Catholic Church have helped serve more than 2,100 meals.

The meal is served buffet style, and guests seem to appreciate the atmosphere as much as the services, prompting many to stay for the entire afternoon even though they’ve already showered and eaten.

“I think it’s also become a center for fellowship among the homeless,” Lundy said. “They have said, ‘We feel you treat us with respect and we feel normal here.’ They seem very much to enjoy the atmosphere of the place.” 

Watson recognized that Hot Water Hospitality is not only a benefit for the community but for First Presbyterian Church as well.

“I think the value goes both ways, not only for those who are being assisted, but for those in the congregation also,” she said. “It not only showed that the church was actively serving, but also that there was a way for the congregation to mix with and get to know those who were coming in for assistance. It has not always been that way, and so I think that is really refreshing.”

The Rev. Brooke Pickrell, an associate pastor at First who recently left to take a position elsewhere, really got the church involved in the shelter community in the city, Lundy said. Pickrell also served as vice chair of the Interfaith Shelter Board, a position that has now gone to Lundy. That group is working on renovating a building that will open Nov. 1 and serve as a full-time shelter facility.

Once the full time Interfaith Shelter opens, much of what is now done at First Presbyterian will move to the new facility. The shelter will house the clothing center and kitchen and will also have a resource center where the homeless can have access to employment and medical referral services. 

But the new shelter might not mean the end of the Hot Water Hospitality program at First.

“We don’t know yet about next summer,” Lundy said. “There’s a lot of feeling that this has become a major place of fellowship on Sundays for homeless people and that we need to think about continuing this program even after the shelter opens.” 

Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.