Serving the Lord ‘Concretely’ by Serving the Poor

Moved by the message of Pope Francis, Catholics across the country are helping the needy in inspired and ingenious ways.

(photo: Facebook/HopefortheHomeless,Inc)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The men who call Emmanuel House emergency shelter home in one of Providence’s poorest areas are invited to an April 22 garden party on Earth Day — a party they’ll celebrate in their own backyard.

Just like last April’s party, the residents will kneel in the newly tilled, compost-enriched brown soil, in a space that was once a preschool playground, to sow donated tomato, cucumber, collard green, potato, green pepper and zucchini plants, in the hope that bounty will grace their efforts once more. The watering, weeding and care of the garden by the homeless men produced fresh vegetables all summer long for their table and those of their neighbors.

“Last year, we harvested so many vegetables for us and our neighbors, but that was a trial run,” said Dottie Perreault, the executive director of the shelter, which provides up to 35 beds a night. “This year, it should be more bountiful. We are all so excited.” The bounty extends to the Knights of Columbus, Boy Scouts and college students, who donated their weekend a year ago to clear and clean the overgrown lot to make room for the garden.

But Perreault says it is about more than just growing food; it’s about growing good habits. She says gardening is “very therapeutic for my clients. ... It kept them from drinking by keeping them busy,” tending to the crops that fed them last summer.

“God wants all of us to be saints,” said David Gillis, a member of the Providence Knights of Columbus, the group that organizes the now-annual effort.


Answering the Pope’s Call

The Knights in Providence, like other lay Catholic apostolates across the country, are responding to Pope Francis’ call to see Christ in all people, especially the poor.

“To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete: It means seeing in every person and face of the Lord to be served, to serve him concretely. And you are, dear brothers and sisters, in the face of Jesus,” the Pope said May 2013 to residents of Dona Di Maria, a homeless shelter in Rome.

In Norwalk, Iowa, a group of 16 women are also trying to make the Holy Father proud. On Monday mornings, they meet in the library at St. John the Apostle Church to crochet discarded plastic grocery bags into six-foot long mats for homeless people living outdoors in nearby Des Moines.

The mats go over wood pallets the homeless sleep on to fight off the cold dampness of the ground, said Vickie Clingan, who launched the effort last fall. It takes 500 to 700 plastic bags chain-stitched or single-crocheted over 100 hours to produce a single mat.

“We have produced 28 mats so far,” said Clingan. “There are 102 unsheltered people in Des Moines, so we will make 102 mats. The mats provide a moisture barrier and a little protection from the cold. We make them with a loop, so they can be hooked onto their backpacks or slung over a shoulder.”

Clingan said she learned how to cut the bags from a YouTube video.

She said so many people are showing up in the church library on Monday mornings to crochet the large balls of plastic bags into mats that they may move to the church hall.


Restoring Dignity

In Cincinnati, Haircuts from the Heart, a group working within the ministries of the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor, cut the hair of homeless men and women in exchange for donations of aluminum cans. Homeless children, the elderly and the disabled pay 25 cents for a cut from Sister Bonnie Steinlage, a nurse who earned a license to cut hair and graduated from cosmetology school to begin the ministry two decades ago, when she saw the impact poverty has on a person’s self-image.

The 16 homeless men who live at St. Francis-St. Joseph Catholic Worker House in Cincinnati are regulars at the little walk-in salon in the Over the Rhine section of the city, said John Clark, the house manager.

“We have over 100 guys who have come through who went to Haircuts From the Heart,” Clark said.

In the past seven years, more than 10,000 customers have walked out of the salon “feeling a little more human,” according to Estelle McNair, executive director of the organization. “The homeless are really not seen, so they feel better about themselves with a trim or a haircut.” Women are given perms and relaxers when they are getting ready for a job interview, and men even get their beards trimmed.

Some 25 hair salons and barbers across the city accept vouchers issued by Haircuts From the Heart at a discounted rate to provide convenience to the needy.

McNair said this is more than getting gussied up.

“Sister is very kind to them and talks with them as she cuts their hair. She is the only person who is licensed to cut hair at the salon," McNair said. “It is a holy experience. They are treated with dignity.”


Dinner Beneath the Interstate

When Hector Gonzalez was 18, he met a homeless man sitting on a curb. It was the early 1970s, and Gonzalez had never seen a homeless person before, so he took a picture of the man.

“To my surprise, the man told me he was an MIT graduate; he was a very intelligent man, but he lost his job,” Gonzalez, now 58, recalls. “I was surprised that this could happen to anyone.”

The encounter changed Gonzalez’s life by giving him a lifelong vocation.

For the past 25 years, Gonzalez has fed the homeless, first in his family’s grocery store and cafeteria when they relocated to Miami and now as the leader of Hope for the Homeless at St. Agatha’s Church, also in Miami.

“I always prayed to the Lord to give me just enough money to feed the hungry and take care of my own family,” Gonzalez said.

With help from the parish St. Vincent de Paul Society, the group brought 200 ham-and-cheese sandwiches, cookies and bottles of water to homeless men and women at locations that Gonzalez knew they congregated, including beneath Interstate Route 95. The effort has grown to provide clothing, blankets and shoes.

More than 100 St. Agatha parishioners support the ministry, and 60 to 80 people gather at the church hall on Wednesdays to make some 700 sandwiches. A convoy of SUVs and pickups deploy from the church at 6:30pm to the various stops.

“A line of people is ahead, waiting for us at the stops on Wednesday nights,” he said.

The parish school’s students make sandwiches as a community-service project, and a cookie drive by teachers brought in a six-week supply of cookies.


Continuing Inspiration

Gonzalez is still inspired and warmed by a comment related to him by one of his student volunteers. A young homeless woman in downtown Miami overheard a volunteer tell a fellow classmate that she was scheduled to sing a solo with the choir at St. Agatha’s.

“The homeless girl turned around when she heard the name of the church and said, ‘You are blessed, because the people of that church give me a hot meal; they give me clothes; they gave me my dignity back,'" recalled Gonzalez, his voice cracking. “I always become emotional when I tell people that story. That story alone is enough for me to know I must continue my work.”

Register correspondent Joseph LaPlante writes from Providence, R.I.