Seminary Alumnus Recognized at Wisconsin State of the State for His Efforts to Open Homeless Shelter

Dave Mowers S'12 applied what he learned at Bethel Seminary while bringing his community together.

By Judd Martinson '20

February 26, 2020 | 12:30 p.m.

Dave Mowers with Governor Evers

Dave Mowers S'20 and his wife Elizabeth meet with Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (left) and Lieutenant Gov. Mandela Barnes (right).

Dave Mowers S’12 noticed a for sale sign in the yard of the homeless shelter. The leaders of the shelter moved to a warmer climate for health concerns, leaving no plans in front of the community for a new one. Mowers stepped in to help form a solution, earning him recognition from the governor of Wisconsin.

Mowers and the team behind opening the Baraboo Area Homeless Shelter received gratitude from Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers at the Wisconsin State of the State Address. Mowers and his wife, Elizabeth, attended the address and a following reception at the governor’s mansion. “I was really grateful to be recognized by the governor, not so much because I’m doing a good thing, but because for a moment the governor took his big spotlight and shined it on the often invisible problem of rural homelessness, and on the way that our community is coming together to solve it,” Mowers says.

Mowers, now an Episcopalian priest and nonprofit leader in Baraboo, Wisconsin, organized a group of local clergies to brainstorm after seeing the need for a new shelter. Although no shelter opened that winter, a local church welcomed people in for an especially cold 10-day stretch. The group began a building search, and one possible church partnership in the village of West Baraboo surfaced. Despite an initial opportunity, the approval process for city codes in the village instead of the town of Baraboo became a complication. Neighbors organized around not wanting the possible homeless shelter to affect a nearby park, and after a political and public effort, the West Baraboo idea fell through.

“The last ‘no’ from the village was the Thursday before Palm Sunday, which is the start of Holy Week. And so, I just went into Holy Week feeling really flat and really drained,” Mowers says.

In his Episcopal church, the Good Friday service is stripped down to minimal music and usually features a rough wooden cross draped in black at the front of the church. Mowers’ mood typically doesn’t match the feel of the service, but the project’s delay left him feeling down. But then he realized God makes all things new. “Easter felt like Easter—like there was a resurrection that had happened…that God really was at work to make all things new, and even in the midst of this terrible circumstance that God would come through and be faithful to his beloved poor,” Mowers says.

Baraboo Area Homeless Shelter

The Baraboo Area Homeless Shelter is expected to open in March or April 2020 after renovations.

Mowers and his group worked all summer to find a building. In late August 2019, a local businessman offered to rent the shelter a vacant memory care facility. They signed the lease September 9, and spent the fall working with city and state entities before a major renovation. Mowers hopes the shelter will open by March or April 2020. About 80 to 100 homeless people reside at a time in Baraboo, often living in cars or staying on others’ couches. Mowers expects the shelter will hold 30 clients at a time. “That building, because of the way it’s set up, can hold safely both men and women, and children, which is unusual in a homeless shelter facility to have all of those demographics in one site,” Mowers says.

During the project, Mowers saw about every church in Baraboo come together for the homeless shelter effort, despite differences in beliefs. But to have a wide support base, the shelter isn’t a Christian nonprofit. “We wanted to build this as a community institution that was built and supported by a lot of Christian people who are faithful, but that is open and welcoming to having supporters of any or no faith,” Mowers says.

Mowers says his time at Bethel Seminary positioned him for his role supporting the project. At Bethel, he read For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmenmann, which highlights the similarity of serving God through the sacraments or church practices to finding Jesus in the poor. “I remember that that book dropped like a lightning bolt in the middle of my life when I read it at Bethel,” he says. “That fundamentally has shaped…my even willingness or desire to be involved with this project.”

Before moving to Baraboo in 2017 where he now lives with his wife and three children, Mowers studied full-time in seminary for two years, took some time off, and started working full-time in Bethel’s Student Success office and later as an associate registrar for the College of Adult & Professional Studies and the Graduate School during and after finishing his studies. Beyond learning from his readings, he also learned from his coworkers and peers. “The colleagues particularly that I had in CAPS/GS were and in some cases are still really valuable to me, and I grew so much in those relationships,” Mowers says.

Bethel’s supportive community impacted Mowers outside the classroom. While working for Bethel, Mowers’ dad died suddenly from a brain aneurism. As he worked through the death of his dad, Mowers mentions the impact of a Bethel coworker and friend, Ryan Gunderson. When Mowers reported up to Gunderson, they had, “conversation that you wouldn’t expect between a supervisor and a report in a workplace environment,” he says.

As Mowers moved to his registrar position, Gunderson became more of a friend than supervisor to him.

“The best classroom I had at Bethel was that .8-mile path walking around Anderson Center a lot of afternoons with Ryan,” Mowers says.