We are called to practice the corporal works of mercy, based on Matthew 25:35-36: "For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; a stranger, and you welcomed me; naked, and you clothed me; ill, and you cared for me; in prison, and you visited me."
We must feed the hungry (and thirsty), clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the imprisoned, care for the sick and bury the dead — just as Jesus commanded us to do, as if we are doing so for him (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2447).
Pope Francis shows us the importance of this through his own example, as did past popes, including the soon-to-be-saints John Paul II and John XXIII.
Numerous Catholic organizations also show how works of mercy truly help people in need, including the three chronicled here.
Martha’s Village & Kitchen
In Indio, Calif., Martha’s Village & Kitchen (MarthasVillage.org) has nearly all of its 120 beds for the homeless filled each night. The organization serves up to 250,000 meals a year to those who walk through the door — and provides emergency assistance with food and baby supplies — in the Coachella Valley area. Last year, 40,000 people received such assistance.
"It’s a comprehensive, full-service facility in which we help our homeless folks — neighbors in need," said K. Magdalena Andrasevits, executive director of Martha’s Village.
That is the key: Martha’s Village calls each person who comes for help a "neighbor," seeing each person’s inherent worth as a human being.
Case manager Isabel Acosta once perceived the homeless in the Coachella Valley as bums and panhandlers — until 2006, when she started working at the front desk.
Her perception quickly changed, once she met mothers with no food for their children, battered wives and people who had lost everything. She recognized that a number of them were "coming from a world of chaos ever since they came into this world," and she wanted to help on a deeper level. That’s why she became a case manager.
Martha’s Village not only gives neighbors a good night’s sleep and meals — 80% of those served happen to be families with children — but it also challenges them to change and teaches them life skills through the "Challenge to Change" program.
We ask ourselves, Acosta explained, "how we’re going to get you back on your feet and in society."
Typically, a family stays from nine months to a year in transitional housing, while learning needed skills. Getting families into their own permanent homes and provided with regular work is a major goal of Martha’s Village, and it is good at doing so, being successful 80% of the time.
Andrasevits sees "God’s hand in all the details" of the ministry. That includes everything from reaching out to neighbors in need to a new medical-clinic partnership and plans to expand the 10-acre campus.
One model case for Acosta began when she met Jackie Barela, a single mother of four with no job and no permanent home. Barela had been on drugs since she was a teen — but she had been clean for several months and wanted to change her life.
"I knew I was here for one reason — to change my life and make a better life for my kids," she said. "I took full advantage of all that Martha’s Village had to offer me."
"My kids felt very safe and stable here," she added. "Being there was a blessing for me. I know that God made me go there at that time in my life when I didn’t know how to function in society." She credits her road to success to the "motivation I got from my case manager and the staff members."
Barela graduated to permanent housing and a steady job, but her story did not end there, because works of mercy often lead to more works of mercy.
A year out of the program, she returned to Martha’s Village — to apply for a job. Her focus was "giving back what was given to me."
Now, three years later, she is a case manager helping others.
"God has blessed me tremendously," she said with a joy she did not have before coming to Martha’s Village. "Everything I have is only by the grace of God."
Sharing and Caring Hands
Sharing and Caring Hands (SharingandCaringHands.org) in Minneapolis was started 30 years ago by Mary Joe Copeland to help the homeless. Copeland remains the head of this amazing outreach program.
She has never taken a penny in salary, has been honored at the White House, and for a number of homeless who come here, "she washes their feet like Jesus," said longtime friend and spiritual adviser Father Joseph Johnson, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Louis Park, Minn.
From its modest start, Sharing and Caring Hands has expanded over the years to include Mary’s Place Transitional Shelter for housing families and Mary My Hope Children’s Center.
The whole enterprise is in honor of the Blessed Mother.
Copeland credits the nuns who raised her and taught her about the Rosary and the Blessed Mother with her ministry.
"I was very close to the Blessed Virgin, and I always wanted to say Yes like she did," Copeland said. "I always want to be doing God’s will. Mary was always that great intercessor, and she taught me how to serve others. Mary is somebody that we should all honor."
After Copeland married and raised 12 children, she volunteered to help the needy.
Frustration with bureaucracy prompted her to start her own organization.
"I asked Mary to ask Jesus to give me a building," she said, "and I said I would give great honor to her and him: ‘I will name my place in honor of you if you let me overcome the obstacles and build for your poor families.’ Mary did ask her Son. Mary is our hope, and she is the Mother of God — and God never turns his Mother down," Copeland recalled.
Mary’s intercession aided the start of Mary’s Place, with 92 apartments for families in transition. It houses 500 people, about 400 of them children. And then came Mary My Hope, a children’s and teens’ center. Sharing and Caring itself also serves more than 240,000 meals a year to the hungry homeless.
"She won’t accept a single penny of government money and doesn’t want anyone to tell her she can’t put up crucifixes or pictures of Mary or hand out rosaries," said Father Johnson. "All is supported by Providence."
Father Johnson described how this place for homeless families is full of joy and love, peace and safety. The children don’t think of it as a shelter, but as a real home.
"It’s all about recognizing their dignity as a child of God and treating them as an equal," said Father Johnson.
In addition to basic hygiene, food and shelter, shoes and clothing are also provided — sometimes by the pope himself.
When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was told of this work, he sent Copeland crates of new shoes that were given to him in Italy specifically for the poor.
Copeland coaches and mentors the parents and meets each child individually; she wants them to know God has a plan for their lives.
At the grounds’ adoration chapel, Copeland prays the Hail Mary and explains the Blessed Mother to the residents. When they leave Mary’s Place, they say they have grown closer to God because they were here.
Over the years, Copeland has always put herself in Mary’s and God’s hands.
"When you do God’s work taking care of his people, everything else will be provided for," Copeland emphasized. "For 30 years, we’ve never done without."
Saint Jude Hospice
Saint Jude Hospice (SaintJudeHospice.org) provides fully Catholic hospice care in five states: Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Wisconsin and — recently added — Minnesota.
The seed for this work of mercy was planted when a first-grader named Tom Moreland served as a child volunteer one summer at Mercy Hospital in Iowa City, Iowa.
By college, Moreland spent two summers volunteering at Blessed Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity AIDS hospice in San Francisco. By doing so, he learned his vocation in life was to serve the sick and dying.
By 2010, Moreland said he heard God’s call to establish a hospice faithful to Catholic teachings, ethics and practice.
"We specifically see Jesus Christ in the dying," Moreland explained. "That was specifically taught to me by the Missionaries of Charity in San Francisco. We’re taking care of Jesus Christ, and, hopefully, we can be Jesus to them. As Mother Teresa would say: ‘Let them not see us — but see Jesus.’"
The 187 hospice workers and 200-plus volunteers do so through nursing care, visits, bathing, grooming and social services, as well as music and respiratory therapy. They take care of not only the individual, but the family, too.
As a testimonial on the website from Lisa B. states, in part, "Saint Jude is a wonderful, caring group of people. … Thank you for enriching the lives of those you touch. Thank you, Saint Jude, and God bless."
Saint Jude has no facilities of its own; it provides care where the sick person calls home. In most cases, that is in their own homes, but can also be in a hospital or nursing home.
Moreland continues to get calls from dioceses asking him to start a Saint Jude Hospice in new areas.
Archbishops Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., and Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee endorse this work, as well as others, because Saint Jude Hospice’s mission for care is very clear.
Moreland explained the approach:
1) See Jesus in the dying; this care brings them the dignity and love they deserve;
2) Participate in the New Evangelization by showing people how to live the Gospel; and
3) Show that good hospice care is a way to battle the movement to euthanasia by loving people and showing them they have hope.
Workers and volunteers demonstrate this mission as they treat 300 people daily. Several religious congregations work directly with the dying and their families, including by praying for them if the sisters are cloistered.
These congregations include the Brides of the Victorious Lamb, Queens of Mercy, Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters and Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus.
Recently, two Sisters of Nazareth came from Kenya to work with Saint Jude full time as part of their apostolate.
"We understand redemptive suffering," said Moreland. "And we explain to them redemptive suffering."
"Them" includes not only the dying and their families, but also every employee and volunteer. Every first Monday of the month, all employees and volunteers have a "Catholic 101" class on redemptive suffering.
"Although there may not be a cure, there can always be healing," Moreland emphasized. He noted how praying the Hail Mary brings lots of comfort to the people in their care.
Moreland sees his participation in the corporal works of mercy — which equally applies to the other two organizations profiled here — as part of his call to answer Jesus’ command: "Love one another as I have loved you" (John 13:34).
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.