SAVOY – Friday night's camp-out was a cold one for Pastor James McClarey.
The 48-year-old leader of Savoy United Methodist Church planned to spend 12 hours sleeping outdoors as a way to experience firsthand what many of the area's homeless do – outside without a home.
"I know we can't really duplicate what it really feels like to be homeless, but I thought, you know, let's try to enter into the experience," McClarey said.
Savoy United Methodist Church is one of three area churches that operates an overflow men's shelter during the winter months in cooperation with the TIMES Center for homeless men. First Presbyterian Church in Champaign and Restoration Urban Ministries are also part of the group. Earlier this year, First United Methodist Church opened a new winter emergency shelter for women in downtown Champaign.
By 7:30 p.m. Friday, temperatures had dipped below 20 degrees. McClarey and a few church members were standing around a bonfire they had built on bare ground just off the church parking lot along Old Church Road.
Aside from the church building, McClarey's parsonage and a shed, not much else sheltered McClarey from the cold where he had set up camp earlier at 6 p.m.
His shelter was simple: a couch, a few wooden pallets and cardboard to form a wall, and a couple of tarps for a roof.
"Part of what I'm wanting to do, later on, is be by myself, think and pray," McClarey said.
McClarey said that in the few hours he had been there – layered in old worn clothes – he already had gained a few insights.
A few church members had assembled the shelter for McClarey by the time he arrived.
"I was excited about this little shack," he said. "They cared enough to come out early and take care of me."
When talking to his friends, he noticed that he was aware of the cars driving by.
"There was almost a longing for people to have contact with," he said. "I wonder if homeless people go through that, if they feel cut off from society."
McClarey was joined by Dan Davies, who said he might stay the night as well. He said he hoped other church members would see the need for their participation during the church's rotation as an overflow shelter. About 50 people volunteered to help at the shelter during their last stint, Davies said.
"We're asking them to take a night out of their lives and stay at the church," he said. "When you are raising a family and have a job, it's awfully hard to lose a night's sleep, but we want to get them to understand that people have no place to go. If we don't give up from our time, (they're) going to be out in the cold."