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Sunday, December 23, 2007

I Am NJ: the Rev'd Wade Renn

Wade Renn
Posted by Star-Ledger Features December 23, 2007 12:00AM
Categories: Priest
Room at the Inn
Priest leads an effort to offer dignity to the homeless


Shortly after 9:30 on a Wednesday morning, a man shuffles into the multipurpose room of Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair. Weighed down by layers of clothes, he carries a small black duffel bag containing pretty much everything he owns.

He smells faintly of alcohol and is difficult to understand, both because of some missing teeth and because of a long gray beard that hangs to his chest and muffles his voice. But he's remarkably erudite, lightly taking a visitor's hand and bowing every so slightly as he is introduced.

"Madam," he says.

He's come to use the shower, clean himself up and get fresh underwear and socks -- some of the basic elements of personal dignity -- things more difficult to come by when you're homeless, as Joe is.

But he's helped in this pursuit by a retired Episcopal priest who in the past year has assembled a group of volunteers in town looking to cut through the red tape that prevents one person from helping another -- the homeless, the poor, the under-served.

The shower program is just one effort of that group, MESH -- Montclair Emergency Shelter for the Homeless -- which is spearheaded by Father Wade Renn and supported by the Montclair Clergy Association.

"If you take a shower, you want to put fresh underwear on, right? he asked. "You and I want to do it, so why not they?

Homeless in Montclair?
The idea that there could be homeless in as affluent a town as Montclair is a bracing idea to some who respond to the news with, "Really? Montclair?" But Renn looks past what others see -- or perhaps what they don't see -- and is reminded only of a couple long ago who needed shelter and, finding none, gave birth to their son in a stable.

Renn is looking for a stable, otherwise known as a walk-in emergency homeless shelter. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it must, like the original, protect its occupants from the elements. He hasn't found one yet, but he's got faith and sometimes that's all you need.

"You have experienced doors being shut, is that right?" he asked the congregation last month at House of Prayer in Newark, where he is interim pastor. "Doors we thought we should have been able to go into and journey in this direction or that. Only to find another door was opened, and we stepped into that door and realized God opened it for us, and those doors have lead us to where we are today."

The doors through which the 72-year-old Renn walked on his way to Montclair and MESH include ones at Boeing, where he worked as an engineer after getting bachelor's and master's degrees in physics. Another door lead to his work as a missionary in Zimbabwe for six years. Another to Nutley, where he served as pastor of Grace Episcopal Church for 23 years.

But of all the doors Renn has walked though, perhaps the most important was the one he passed through almost a year ago; the one that took him into the bitter cold. The one that made him think: Someone is going to freeze to death.

A chill in the air
Last January, as the temperature dropped, Renn's anxiety rose.

Each day, as he felt the wind sharpen, he found himself fearing the same thing -- that some homeless person would freeze to death huddled outside a building in Montclair, where he lived.

'I'll be right up front: My anxiety was for the township of Montclair. What a shame, what a blot for Montclair" if that happened, he said.

And then he had another thought.

"We can't let that happen."

Montclair is a splendid town, with good schools and tree-lined streets of center-hall Colonials. But behind some of those windows, and behind some of its buildings, the story is no different than in many American towns and cities.

Every day a free meal is offered in Montclair, and every day 40 to 60 people sit down to lunch, most of them residents who have difficulty making ends meet. Among them are 10 to 15 homeless men and women who avoid the Newark shelters out of fear of violence or theft. Instead, they spend their nights curled up on roofs, huddled next to buildings or wedged in some small space that blocks the wind.

Fifteen homeless adults in a town of 37,000 residents may not seem like a lot, but what if one froze to death, as seemed increasingly likely to Renn last January. What would that say about a community with so much affluence?

He considered the thermometer and then asked the Montclair Clergy Association for help in establishing and supporting MESH. They embraced and funded the idea.

What MESH wanted was an emergency walk-in shelter. Montclair has a temporary shelter run by the Salvation Army, with 23 rooms, including three for families. But those wishing to stay must qualify for housing through the welfare department, must arrive sober and free of drugs, and must remain so and meet several other requirements.

Others who find themselves in a tight spot on a cold night have nowhere to go in town.

But establishing a walk-in shelter would take time and organization, not to mention insurance, and Renn and MESH felt compelled to act immediately to avoid a tragedy.

At the first meeting, someone mentioned zero-Fahrenheit sleeping bags, and they seized on the idea as a way of providing warmth to people who literally won't come in from the cold.

Renn took $1,000 from the MCA treasury that day and hustled down Route 17 to Campmor, where he bargained for 18 of the sleeping bags. Then he split the bags between Toni's Kitchen and the Salvation Army, two of the three groups that provide free lunch during the week, as well as other services to the homeless and under-served. (The Seventh Day Adventist Church provides a free meal on Sundays.)

The two groups made sure those who could use the sleeping bags the most got them, and an anonymous donor covered the $1,000 investment the Montclair Clergy Association originally made.

The winter passed. None of the homeless froze.

Renn: "We got through the winter successfully, and then we realized that they have other needs that aren't served by other agencies."

And just like that, doors started to open. With a call here, an appeal there and a knack for finding people who want to help, MESH began to put together a series of programs that draw together the resources of the community.

Central Presbyterian Church makes its showers available to the homeless every Wednesday from 9:15 to 11:30 a.m. Renn is there most weeks.

He negotiated with a Laundromat in town to provide 20 debit cards that MESH loads with $10 each month. The Salvation Army distributes them to the homeless, who can return them at the end of the month for a refill.

In addition, he worked out a voucher system with a taxi service in town. So now, when the under-served need a ride home after being released from the emergency room of the local hospital, they have one.

"Wade has no tolerance for barriers," says Patricia Moulton, a member of the vestry at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Montclair, where Renn was the interim pastor for two years before moving on to Newark.

"He'll find a way around them as best he can. I've seen him; he'll just get on the phone and he's relentless. I've been on the receiving end," she says, laughing. "I think he likes to fix things."

His wife, MaryAnn, coordinator of Toni's Kitchen, puts it another way.

"I think the one word that comes to my mind is incarnational," she says. "We're all called to be incarnational, not just to talk about a problem from a far, but to just do it" and try to change things.

"Wade likes hands-on stuff," she says. "He doesn't just like to talk about problems. He'll try to turn that talk into an action plan."

One thing MESH has not been able to find is a storage facility.

"This has not been resolved," says Renn. "We're thinking about it on a regular basis. How can we find a place where people can safely store their stuff? This is a big concern. That's the next project."

In junior high school, Renn took a vocational survey the purpose of which was to determine a student's occupational interests. There was a high spike under one profession: clergy.

He laughed.

His family worked in construction, and he planned to study engineering. His family wasn't religious, he says; in fact, they were anti-religious.

"My reaction to that information was it shows how inaccurate or stupid the test was," he says. "But in the long run it proved to be very accurate. I have a lot of regard for that test."

After finishing his master's degree, he went to work for Boeing, then the Atomic Energy Commission and then Johns Hopkins University, where he did research for the Army.

But, in 1961, he went for a weekend visit to a friend who was studying at General Seminary in New York and, while sitting in the chapel, Renn realized he was in the wrong business.

"I just became very aware that this is where I belonged," he says of sitting in the chapel. When he returned to Washington, D.C., he began to research what was needed to become ordained as an Episcopal priest.

But when Renn told his parents of his decision, they were upset. My father was outraged, says Renn. "Outraged."

Episcopal priests were not favored in his family, and the cruel words of one were responsible for their views on religion.

When Renn was 2 and his sister was 1, she picked up a loose diaper pin that had been left open during changing and swallowed it before their mother could act. The pin punctured organs; his sister died.

At the cemetery, after the service, the Episcopal priest told the grieving parents that because their daughter had not been baptized she would not go to heaven. His father had to be restrained from hitting the priest. After that, there was no more religion in the family, and no one spoke of the tragedy.

Over the years, though, when Renn's father traveled for work, his mother would speak of the loss and, eventually, her burden became his.

After they retired, his parents moved to Oregon; as an adult, Renn visited them once a year. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he began sitting them down the night before he left and saying, "We have to talk about this."

"It had to come out," he says.

During one visit, his mother left the room and came back with a box no one had ever seen before and silently gave it to Renn. It held some of the clothes and toys of his long-dead sister.

"I suspect, I believe, that is the reason" for becoming an Episcopal priest, he says. To seek some resolution for those feelings and that loss.

Another winter
MESH got a new supply of zero-Fahrenheit sleeping bags for the winter, and has distributed them again to Toni's Kitchen and the Salvation Army. But this time Renn is keeping a few at home, and one is always in the trunk of his car. Just in case.

"If (the police) find someone exposed to elements, they'll call me and I will immediately bring a sleeping back down."

His work keeps him busy and, booked with three meetings a day, he might be working full time in almost any organization. But when asked why he does it, he says only this: 'I'm a church person; I was called to serve."

Contributions to MESH may be made to: The Montclair Clergy Association,
c/o 558 Highland Ave., Montclair, N.J. 07043. Make checks out to the Montclair Clergy Association.

Additional insight:
Currently reading: "Giving" by Bill Clinton
Likes to watch: "Casablanca" anytime he can
Hobbies: Playing pinochle, solving crossword puzzles
Christmas wish: An emergency warming shelter for the homeless

Published Dec. 23, 2007

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