Somebody is playing "Chopsticks" for what must be the 50th time on the rec room piano at South Valley Unitarian church, but David and Tiha Behunin hardly notice the commotion. They're too busy admiring a freshly decorated Christmas tree that somebody dropped off hours earlier, along with a box of children's holiday crafts.

"Such good, generous people — they don't even know us, but they want to help us," says David, 29. "Every need has been met, even quarters for the laundry. It's like a dream."

Welcome to the Behunin's home — at least for this week. Over the past few months, they've lived in a half-dozen churches run by Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans. Now it's the Unitarians' turn to host the homeless family of five. Thanks to Salt Lake City's Family Promise program, there is always room at the inn for people like the Behunins who have fallen on hard times.

It's a simple, but brilliant idea, dreamed up by a single mom from New Jersey in 1995: With so many churches practically empty except on Sunday, why not help a few needy families make a new start?

In Salt Lake City, about 20 congregations are hosting homeless families in Sunday School rooms that have been outfitted with beds, bureaus and books — all the comforts of home. Volunteers cook breakfast and dinner for their guests, provide clean towels and grooming supplies and make sure the kids are occupied with plenty of toys, games and movies.

Truth be told, though, says Tiha, 26, "my children have the most fun just running up and down the halls. It's like a big adventure for them. Staying at a church instead of a public shelter, they feel more relaxed. They know that they're safe here, that people will care for them."

Hoping to share their experience with Family Promise, Tiha and David recently invited me to join them for a Free Lunch of steak fajitas in the South Valley Unitarian church's rec hall. Although the Behunins have lived from one payday to the next for most of their lives, they always managed — until a few months ago, when they gave up their jobs and apartment in St. George to move to Orem and care for Tiha's ill mother.

When living arrangements with relatives didn't work out, they rented a motel room for a while, hoping to find an affordable three-bedroom apartment for Mary, 8, Arianna, 6, and Elias, 3. But the money from David's construction job quickly ran out.

"It's stressful, starting from scratch," says David, "but this program has saved our family. The people at these churches don't judge you, they don't look down on you. They know we're not junkies from the street. They know that this could happen to anyone."

The Behunins aren't certain where they'll spend Christmas Day, since they check into a new church every Sunday. But it's a safe bet that their room will come with a home-cooked Christmas dinner and plenty of presents.

"Think about what would happen if every single church in the city took just one family in so that they could save for an apartment," Tiha marvels. "You could do away with homelessness." That's one Christmas present, she says, that should go to the top of everyone's list.


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