COMEA

COMEA

Its formation and development here in Cheyenne

 

John Peacock asked me to write my personal account of the formation of COMEA, an acronym of Cooperative Ministry of Emergency Assistance here in Cheyenne.

 

It all started when I first became rector of St. Mark's Church back in 1965. Immediately, I became aware of a constant flow of people coming into the church office, asking for emergency assistance with meals, overnight accommodations, purchase of gasoline and medical assistance, etc. I quickly realized, and was duly reminded, that this is a common phenomena of a downtown city church. However, the constant appeal for money (handouts) became an emotional drain on both the church secretaries and myself.
 
There was no way we could collaborate their stories of human need to justify the cash they were pleading for. The church budgeted around $50 per month (comparable to $200 today) for this ministry bolstered with assistance from my discretionary account. Yet we were terribly bothered, and often felt personal guilt, that we couldn't offer more than what we could afford to meet the human need that was daily pleaded before us.
 
The Episcopal Church Women (ECW) offered considerable relief by making sandwiches that were carefully wrapped and stored in the refrigerator for distribution to those who were hungry and asking for food. It pleased us in the church office to offer immediate relief when food was requested ... especially for children "out in the car." In spite of this, I was beginning to have some doubts about the validity of some of those requesting help.
 
One day I happened to notice that some of the lunch cartons which we had just issued, were tossed into the trash container just outside the church doors on Central Street — filled with food. This confirmed my growing suspicion that not all meal requests were genuine. What they wanted was cash — not food!
 
When I began thinking about it more seriously, it dawned on me that not all, but certainly many of those requesting help could also be making their appeals to other downtown churches. Receiving $15 from St. Mark's for gas and lodging could be multiplied four or five times by also calling on other downtown churches. Not a bad payoff for one afternoon of "conning" the system — for those inclined to do so.
 
What could be done about it? That was the sixty-four dollar question for which there appeared no answer. But it was becoming obvious to me that something needed to be done.
 
My first approach was to invite all the pastors of downtown churches (five or six of us) to meet with me in the Guild Room at St. Mark's to discover whether or not there might be a real problem here ..... or was it only my wild imagination. It didn't take long for us to agree that, indeed, we were all being approached by many of the same individuals pleading for cash handouts .... with the hardship stories varying from church to church. Reluctantly, we had to admit that this meant that our Christian charity of cash donations might be contributing to the problem rather than solving it.
 
But what could we do about it?
 
Again, there was no immediate answer. Except that the downtown pastors were willing to meet regularly in the Guild Room to explore possible solutions. Our first proposal was to quit issuing cash handouts and, instead, issue coupons for food, gasoline and overnight accommodations with participating Cheyenne merchants willing to accept coupons for later payment by our Cooperative Ministry of Emergency Assistance — which we began calling ourselves. This new approach seemed to work quite well at first — but participating merchants began reporting to us that many recipients of these coupons began reappearing with repeat coupons (from different churches) and there was no way for them to verify the difference between individuals genuinely needing help — from those who were "conning" the system. And rightly so, the merchants did not feel it was their duty to enforce violation of our ministry of good intentions.
 
Finally, after many monthly meetings of our downtown pastors, we came upon a fresh approach. We decided that we would select one central Cheyenne location to which all people seeking financial assistance could be referred — and from there they would be issued coupons which were redeemable only at certain specified merchants. And these selected merchants were reimbursed from the combined treasury of all the downtown Cheyenne churches.
 
And where would be this "one central location" to which all referrals were to be made? A brilliant suggestion emerged from our continuing monthly meetings of the downtown pastors: The Salvation Army! One central clearing house for all requests for emergency assistance with all costs paid from the combined treasury of the downtown Cheyenne churches. No longer would the charity of one church be duplicated or played off against the charity of another church. No more would there be cash handouts. All requests for emergency assistance would be carefully monitored and faithfully delivered to everyone who needed it!
 
It worked beautifully. Soon churches in the outlying area of Cheyenne volunteered to join in with the downtown churches ... because now they were being deluged with requests for cash handouts which formerly were provided by the downtown churches. I talked with both hospitals (DePaul and Memorial) in Cheyenne and they volunteered to cooperate with us in screening requests and providing medications for transients passing through our city. We were pleased when the Social Services in Laramie County sent regular representatives to our meetings. Also the Red Cross, Goodwill Industries and law enforcement agencies joined in with us. We were all often dealing with the same desperate people requesting help for food, lodging, medications and public assistance.
 
It became mutually apparent to all that our Cooperative Ministry of Emergency Assistance was primarily designated for transients — those needing help on a short-term basis. Long-term help was available through Social Services in Laramie County.
 
Our term "Cooperative Ministry of Emergency Assistance" seemed too long a title for us to continually mouth. But how else could we refer to ourselves? For some reason, one day I remembered the title of an Atlantic hurricane that was named Cornea. Ah Hah! ! ! Although the letters didn't actually match — the acronym was close enough. Without explanation, I began calling ourselves COMEA. It took!
 
In the Guild Room at St. Mark's we continued our monthly meetings of Cheyenne pastors sipping coffee and occasionally munching on sweets the ECW frequently provided for us — sending a sack full of sweets for handouts at the Salvation Army. We continued these monthly meetings for over eighteen years! I can't believe it myself.
 
COMEA continued to grow and expand — eventually renting an overnight facility for male transients needing a place to sleep. (Families housed separately.) An excellent fulltime director was hired, Virginia Sellner. Two Roman Catholic nuns who had taken the solemn vows of poverty were of tremendous help in all this expansion.
 
The expansion of COMEA had grown beyond my ability, time and energy to keep up with it. It was a good time for me to step down and I did. Thanks be to God!
 
 
In my book, Tales and Irreverencies of a Country Parson, I wrote: " Finally COMEA evolved into a locally and federally funded program for the transient homeless, including a 'warmth' shelter for overnight lodging, meals for the hungry, employment counseling, medical attention for the indigent, and so forth. No longer was a hitchhiker compelled to sleep under a highway bridge during a severe winter night; or a child deprived of milk, blankets and diapers; or a family forbidden a tank of gas to move on toward its destination — simply because they didn't have the funds to pay for it.
 
"The warmth shelter is staffed with volunteer help. Only the director and a few others in supervisory positions are salaried. The program works! Without doubt, the establishment of COMEA has been one of my proudest achievements as rector of St. Mark's Church."
 

More than that, I am proud and deeply indebted to the wonderful parishioners of St. Mark's whose encouragement and loyal support made it possible to happen!

 

Fr. Eugene Todd

Rector Emeritus

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