By Stan Friedman
CHICAGO, IL (August 30, 2011) – While president of the Evangelical Covenant Church, Glenn Palmberg met frequently with politicians in Washington D.C. to make sure they remembered the poor when making policy decisions. He had hoped to continue similar work in the nation’s capital after he retired in 2008.
When those plans didn’t materialize, Palmberg, who was living in Vashon, Washington, wasn’t sure what to do next. It was a difficult time, but he didn’t get a lot of sympathy. Instead, a close friend along with Palmberg’s daughter, Jennifer, each separately admonished him to get on with his life.
“You think people owe you a retirement,” said the friend. “You have gifts to offer, so go use them.”
Palmberg began to consider volunteering with Cornerstone Community Outreach, a homeless shelter, operated by Jesus People USA Covenant Church in Chicago. Even though he had been to the inner-city intentional community only once during his presidency, “I was captivated by what they were doing,” he says. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
One day while Palmberg was sitting on his deck and considering his options, his daughter Jennifer told him, “I think you want to go to the White House. God wants you to go to the homeless shelter. I think God cares more about those single moms and that shelter than anything else you’ve ever done.”
Palmberg realized what he had to offer was connections he had made over the years. He called Neil Taylor, one of the pastors at JPUSA, and asked to talk with him about helping the community. “It was very much a surprise,” says Taylor. “We had no idea that the time he came had touched him so much.”
Palmberg then spent a week living at the community and learned of their many needs, especially at the shelter. He agreed to make a three-year commitment to the community.
A room has been set aside for him, and he lives at JPUSA one week every other month. He uses his connections to raise funds and recruit churches to help with much-needed projects.
“He has just devoted himself to us,” says Sandy Ramsey, director of the shelter. “He basically schmoozes with whoever he knows and tries to get them to help.”
Palmberg puts it a different way. “My job is to be this kind of obnoxious person who goes around knocking on doors.”
The shelter is located in three locations and serves roughly 450 people. One site enables families to stay together, another is for single women with children, and the third is for single men.
The 400 people who live at Jesus People spend $520,000 a year to operate the shelter. Additionally, they feed 300 people three times a day.
“It’s too big a burden,” Palmberg says. He tells each congregation, “JPUSA joined us in 1989. It’s time for us to join them.”
He acknowledges that many Covenant groups have helped at JPUSA, but notes that much of that important assistance involved smaller projects. There also has been no organized means of matching talents with needs at CCO as well as seeking larger financial gifts from a variety of sources.
“We do so much surviving on a day-to-day basis to meet people’s immediate needs, we don’t have time to pursue the things that really make lives better for people,” says Ramsey.
Palmberg says, “I’ve found churches are willing to help, but they don’t know what to do or how to initiate it.”
Northwest Covenant Church in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, was the first of the denomination’s churches to respond to Palmberg’s entreaties. Their work included converting a storage room into a laundry for single mothers. Previously the mothers had to walk four blocks to the laundromat.
“It was quite a challenge, especially in the winter.” Palmberg says. “Now all they have to do is open a door, and there’s the laundry room.”
Winnetka Covenant Church of Wilmette, Illinois, held a “sewathon” at which they made partitions to provide privacy in the large open room where moms with children sleep.
Naperville Covenant Church was the latest congregation to help. Their “Windy City Project 2011” was a week-long experience that made major improvements to the shelter, including replacement of a “disgusting” shower. (For more on the project, click here).
During a Sunday morning worship service, congregation members shared their experiences. One noted, “Glenn was so excited, it was easy to get caught up in his passion for the poor.”
That excitement has been continuous. “When he’s here, he’s making lists in the middle of the night,” says Ramsey, laughing. When not at the community, “He emails us all the time. He’s always making lists.”
Those lists of projects include opportunities churches can do without even coming to Chicago.
The partnership has been beneficial for the community and Palmberg. “We needed him, and he needed us,” says Ramsey.
He agrees, saying,“ This has been remarkably gratifying to me.” Palmberg hopes his experience will encourage other retirees to use whatever gifts they have to serve others.