By Mark Michael

Wisconsin’s governor Tony Evers used his January 22 State of the State address to honor the Rev. Dave Mowers for his role in establishing a homeless shelter in the small town where he serves. The 35-year old Mowers, who has served three years as rector of Trinity Church, Baraboo, says a contentious struggle that eventually led to widespread community support has taught him a great deal about faith and leadership.

Governor Evers said in his address, “The struggles we face will test both the depth of our empathy and the strength of our selflessness. But Wisconsinites, I know we are up to the task, because it is the depth of our empathy and the strength of our selflessness that have defined who we are as a people for generations. …People like Reverend Mowers who, after the only homeless shelter in his area closed a few years ago, worked with the Department of Safety and Professional Services to expedite the new shelter and get it opened so his neighbors would have a place to stay … Reverend, thanks for helping make this happen.”

Mowers and his wife Elizabeth watched the speech from the gallery of the State Assembly chamber of the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. They were also the governor’s guests at a reception following the speech at the Governor’s Executive Residence nearby.

Baraboo is the county seat for rural Sauk County, Wisconsin, which Mowers estimates to have 80-100 homeless residents out of a total population of 40,000. When Mowers first moved to Baraboo, a small Pentecostal church was operating a cold-weather shelter, but the church closed in the summer of 2018. While the county does have a shelter for women and children, the closure meant there would be no beds for homeless men anywhere in the region during the devastating Wisconsin winter.

Mowers said he has become more attuned to the region’s problem of “hidden homelessness” because he also serves St. John’s Church in Portage, Wisconsin, where the former rectory is used as transitional homeless shelter. He mentioned the Pentecostal church’s closure at a local clergy meeting, and the group decided to form a non-profit organization to address the need. At the first meeting of the Baraboo Area Homeless Shelter Board, much to his surprise, Mowers found himself elected president.

Mowers said he believed there was strong support for a homeless shelter in the city of Baraboo itself, “maybe 8 or 9 to 1 in favor.” The group was encouraged in February 2019, when a Church of God congregation in neighboring West Baraboo offered to share their facility rent-free as a shelter.

The group, however, ran into stiff opposition from residents of the village of West Baraboo. This blue-collar community, he later learned, has a generations-long rivalry with the larger, more prosperous city of Baraboo. Conversations about merging the two municipalities have failed in the past, and Mowers acknowledged, after the fact, that he has learned that “there’s a lot of sticking it to the village going on behind the scenes.” The West Baraboo planning commission and village board both denied permission for the shelter, after a series of large and contentious community hearings on the issue.  The rulings were issued in late March, just before the beginning of Holy Week.

“I went into Holy Week quite drained,” Mowers said, “But it was a most moving Easter. When I got to Good Friday, it felt like Good Friday, but when we came to the resurrection, and Jesus sending out the Holy Spirit, I thought, ‘We could use some of that power.’”

Despite the rejection, Mowers knew that he had to persevere in finding a place for his community’s homeless residents. “I kept coming back to the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. The parable’s question is whether people who are losers in society, the down and outs, will be treated with dignity or not.  If I didn’t do something, I would have people freezing to death on my conscience, and I couldn’t live with that.”

“There isn’t much difference for me,” the Nashotah House graduate added, “between a life of devotion to God in prayer and the Eucharist and a life of solidarity with Christ and his beloved poor.”

Last August, Baraboo resident Tim Moy approached the homeless shelter board, offering to rent a former nursing home within the city of Baraboo for a shelter. Mowers noted that the new space, which the board leased in September, is only a half mile from the church that used to provide the winter shelter, and doesn’t require any zoning changes. Baraboo’s officials have been very supportive, and local state representative Dave Considine helped arrange a fast-tracked process for approving the shelter’s plans by the state department of safety and institutional services.  Mowers thinks that Governor Evers learned about the effort through this fast-tracking effort.

Baraboo community members have joined together to rehab the building for use as a shelter, with a local store donating the furniture and another local company providing free electrical work. The group has already raised $105,000, and a fundraising website just went live last week.  Mowers noted that contributions have come from the Diocese of Milwaukee and from friends of his around the Episcopal Church, priests who have sent checks from their discretionary funds. There has also been major support from Mowers’ own parishioners. “There’s lots of Episcopal money on that list,” he said, “many people who are giving sacrificially.”

Mowers said it has sometimes been stressful to be at the center of such a visible community conflict in his small town, but his congregation has been deeply supportive. “When I interviewed with them,” he said, “they asked how I would represent them in the community. They believe that their priest is the pastor of the entire geographic parish.” Mowers said that when he recently expressed concern at a vestry meeting about how much of his work time the shelter project was consuming, the senior warden raised his voice, saying: “Father, we brought you here to do just this sort of thing, so keep doing it.”

“It has been really encouraging to see the community here rally around this kind of shelter, even if I’m making it up as I’m going along. People are hungering for this kind of engagement, people of faith and no faith coming together to serve the poorest of the poor. In purple state America, in a little town, that a vision like this can catch fire in the way it has, is a pretty wonderful thing.”