Giving with passion

Family Promise of Sacramento takes its cuefrom a variety of faiths to aid homeless families

Balancing on a wall with friends? Fun. Helping families get their balance back? Priceless.

Balancing on a wall with friends? Fun. Helping families get their balance back? Priceless.

Photo courtesy of family promise of sacramento

For informationabout volunteeringor contributing toFamily Promise,call (916) 443-3107 or visit its Web site at

Maury Marcus, former pastor of visitation at Fremont Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, once dissected the word compassion into its obvious elements—with and passion—when discussing the requisite for living a spiritual life, whatever formal religion or lack thereof one may have. It’s not enough just to sit back and meditate or contemplate; one must, in Marcus’ words, “reach out in a pro-active and inclusive, not exclusive way.”

Seldom are the notions of reaching out inclusively “with passion” better exemplified than in Sacramento’s Family Promise program. This program takes in homeless families—mothers (sometimes with spouse) and their children—and helps them achieve self-sufficiency and regain a home, employment (if necessary), self-confidence and a general return to society’s mainstream. One only has to hear these families’ stories to learn just how “out of the mainstream,” literally invisible to others, they feel when homeless.

The Sacramento Family Promise program was started in 2004 by a small group of local folks whose commitment to get it going was based on faith, hope and the embodiment, I think, of Marcus’ notions. The genius of Family Promise is that it relies on a huge voluntary component of people and facilities provided by a network of local Sacramento area congregations, some 16 in number at last count.

Once admitted into the Family Promise program, families are housed and fed, enjoying the evening hospitality of an area church or synagogue, where facilities would otherwise go largely unused. Each morning after breakfast, the families are then transported to the program’s day center on the campus of Loaves & Fishes, where more volunteers and a small paid staff work with them in a comprehensive way to assess their needs and set weekly goals toward the objectives noted above: securing housing, health care and assisting with job searches, all the while improving their self-esteem. At the same time, the children attend Mustard Seed, Wind Youth Services’ education program or another nearby school, something they weren’t able to do when homeless.

Families served by the program are known as “guests” and, importantly, are not judged, proselytized or coerced; rather, they are treated with dignity, and stereotyping is strictly avoided. Guests are aided where they are (something like the wu wei of the Tao), not forcing or, perhaps more accurately, not obstructing them from achieving self-sufficiency.

The work is clearly of an interfaith character in the Christian tradition of “what you have done for the least of them you have done for me”; the Muslim pillar of zakat, sharing one’s wealth with others less well off; and consistent with the advice of Hillel about the essence of Judaism: “Do not do unto others that which is hateful to you.”

Family Promise volunteers do a wide variety of service, from chauffeuring guests without their own transportation to helping them build dream catchers and most everything in between. As a Family Promise volunteer, I recently sat with a guest I’ll call “Sam,” a tall 13-year-old, as he waited for his father to undergo medical examinations at the local Veterans Affairs hospital. I had one earplug of his MP3 player in my right ear and he had the other in his left ear, and we listened to a piano recording of a Beethoven selection he had played and recorded at the church where he and his dad had stayed the night before. Without formal lessons, Sam plays by ear.

Incredible, but typical of the enormous capabilities so often undeveloped for one reason or another that our guests bring to the program. The music; Sam’s response to my appreciation of it; the act of reaching out to another in the inclusive, nonjudgmental and caring way of Family Promise—it is indeed a spiritual experience.