5 questions for..Rev. David W. Spollett, senior pastor at First Church Congregational
FAIRFIELD — Just talk to the Rev. David W. Spollett for more than a few minutes and his Massachusetts roots are obvious.
The senior pastor at First Church Congregational, Spollet first moved to Fairfield in 1983, for a job with the American Bible Society in New York City. A year later, he became one of the pastors at First Church, and in doing so, perhaps helped to change an affluent community’s perspective on the homeless.
Spollett literally stumbled upon a homeless man sleeping in the church’s vestibule one evening and that started the drive to open a homeless shelter in town.
Now, Spollett, who with his wife, Geralyn Radowiecki Spollet, has two children, has seen the birth of his grandson. He’s seen his Red Sox win the World Series — multiple times. And he’s also seen the realization of a long-held hope — that the homeless shelter he helped to open would no longer be necessary.
Spollett recently talked about Operation Hope’s past and future.
Q: What was the impetus for you to start the work for a homeless shelter?
A: Late one night in November 1985, I was shocked to discover a gentleman sleeping in one of the vestibules of the church. I had no idea at that time that there were people in Fairfield who did not have a place to sleep. I quickly discovered that there were many people “sleeping out” in our town.
Once they became aware of the need, the people of First Church decided to open our doors until a proper shelter could be developed. People said, “If we believe what it says in the Bible, how could we leave the doors of the church locked when people are sleeping outside for lack of shelter.” In February 1986, First Church unlocked its doors and they remained unlocked, providing a dry, warm, safe place to sleep every night until the shelter on Nichols Street opened in February 1988. At one point, we had 18 people sleeping in the church.
Many people from the churches and synagogues of Fairfield came together in the winter of 1985-86 to find a solution to issues of hunger and homelessness in Fairfield. This was the beginning of Operation Hope. First Church was providing emergency shelter, and soon we had opened a food pantry on Timko Street, which was busy from its very first day. There was great community spirit of wanting to help.
Q: What was the biggest obstacle that needed to be overcome in the community to get a shelter opened?
A: Thanks to the visionary, compassionate leadership of First Selectman Jacky Durrell, there was very little opposition to opening a shelter. After First Church had been providing shelter for six months, a group of leaders from Operation Hope — Rabbi Leon Waldman, Rev. Henry Morris, Mrs. Jean Lee and myself — went to meet with Jacky to ask for the town’s help. She began the meeting by saying, “I understand that you have come to ask for help in opening a shelter. Thank God you have come. I have been waiting for someone to do something about this problem.” That set the tone for everything that followed. Every branch and department of town government was supportive and helpful.
Soon, everyone was pitching in, civic organizations, youth groups and scout troops, sports leagues — you name it, everyone was involved. It was amazing and inspiring how the people of Fairfield responded to the needs of neighbors who were poor, hungry, or without shelter.
Q: What do you think are some of the common misconceptions held by the community about people who find themselves homeless?
A: Actually, given the fact that Operation Hope has stood at the center of our community’s life for 32 years, I think the people of Fairfield have a very sophisticated understanding of the dynamics of homelessness and hunger. They know that poverty, the shortage of good paying jobs, and the lack of affordable housing lie at the heart of the problem. We have proven that.
Operation Hope owns and operates 59 units of affordable supported housing. In addition, it provides support and counsel to scores of other people who are at risk of homelessness. The shelter on Nichols Street is no longer needed because Operation Hope and the citizens of Fairfield have ended chronic homelessness in our community.
Q: It is the start of the Lenten season, when many people opt to give something up, as a personal sacrifice. What are some suggestions for someone looking for something perhaps more meaningful that could help the homeless?
A: I think Lent is more meaningful when the “giving something up” is paired with a “taking something on.”
Lent would be great time to get involved with Operation Hope: cooking for the evening meals that Operation Hope volunteers provide seven days a week, organizing a neighborhood food drive for the emergency food pantry, joining the volunteers who are planning the Tag Sale, giving generously to support our ongoing work. If you give up chocolate for Lent, as an example, why not give the money you saved to Operation Hope? If you give up some television time, why not use that time to get educated about the issues of poverty, hunger, and housing in Connecticut and contact your state legislator?
Just because the shelters on Nichols Street are closing, does not mean that Operation Hope is going out of business. The work continues, feeding people who are hungry and providing affordable supported housing.
Q: What was your initial reaction when Operation Hope decided to close the emergency shelter?
A: My fondest dream the first night I unlocked the doors of First Church in February 1986 was that the day would come when it would no longer be necessary to provide emergency shelter in our town. That day has come, thanks be to God.
Through the collective efforts, generosity, creativity, and commitment of thousands of people over 32 years we have ended chronic homelessness in our community.
The anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote, “Never doubt that small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.” The people of Fairfield have confirmed Mead’s wisdom. It is a day to celebrate!