Parishes offer hospitality to homeless people

The chili in the slow cooker was warming. Sandwiches were ready. Fourteen cots were made up with sheets, blankets and pillows in a large multipurpose room.

Suddenly a whoosh of cold air came in when the door opened to St. Francis Xavier (College Church) Parish rectory, quickly followed by a group of homeless people carrying their belongings in bags.

For the guests, staying overnight at the church in Midtown St. Louis was a welcome respite. They were glad to interact with the friendly volunteers, get a good meal and sleep in a safe environment.

The scene is repeated in the basement of Sts. Teresa and Bridget Church in the Jeff Vanderlou neighborhood of north St. Louis. Two nights a week, when the temperature falls to 20 degrees or when snow has fallen, the parish opens the church to those seeking comfort.

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'How you doing?'

On a cold night earlier this month -- when snow filled the streets -- Tucker Redding, a Jesuit scholastic from Texas, greeted the men and women as they came for food and rest. Redding recognized a man from a previous visit. "How you doing, buddy?" Redding asked. "Good to see you. You know the drill -- we need your signature."

Before Redding took the man to pick a cot, they chatted a bit. Redding asked if the man had spent Christmas with his dad. He had and it went well, the man said. "We'll talk more in a bit," Redding said as he went on to assist someone else and tend to some paperwork.

Another guest, Chris Pearson, led the prayer before the meal, addressing our "most gracious and loving, kind God," thanking Him for what He has provided and asking Him to be with them this night and to take care of others who have no one to care for them. Pearson later said he looked forward to staying at the College Church shelter because the volunteers are so respectful and meals so good. "And they listen to me when I come in with small problems," he added.

Cold winter nights

Teka Childress began what is now St. Louis Winter Outreach as a way to help people in severe weather who had no place to go. One of the people she had visited had died from the cold and she didn't want it to happen to anyone else. On cold winter nights the volunteer team picks up the shelter guests at Centenary United Methodist Church in Downtown St. Louis -- or sometimes on the streets and tucked-away places -- and drives them to any of eight shelters.

Anne Osdieck, a volunteer who helps oversee the effort at the College Church, said they have about 150 volunteers. On this night, parishioners held sway as St. Louis University students were off on winter break.

Some of the parish volunteers primarily provide the food. Osdieck mentioned Mary Kellog and her husband, Bob Powers, whose effort one night recently included making 40 sandwiches with tomatoes and lettuce as well as homemade cookies. They also bought and received a donation of hats and scarves.

This is the fourth year for the outreach. Osdieck, an Ignatian Volunteer Corp member, began volunteering as part of that program. The parish has a well-organized process for staffing and opening the shelter. Separate innkeepers, as they are called, spend the night and a different group comes in the next morning to clean up. A laundry service washes the bedding.

The guests often play cards or games. Most know each other and appreciate each other's personalities.

The guests and volunteers mesh to a point where it's hard to distinguish between them. Older volunteers from the parish and the SLU students form a bond. "It's like the Mystical Body (of Christ) -- there doesn't seem to be any differences," Osdieck noted.

Many of the homeless who come to the center have lived productive lives, she said, citing one who was an engineer before losing his job.

At the dinner table Jan. 8, conversation included a discussion about New Mexico, where one of the guests previously had lived. Laughter could be heard often.

A family atmosphere

Volunteer Catherine Nobbe of St. Boniface Parish in Glen Carbon, Ill., who sometimes attends Mass at the College Church, volunteers with her husband. She likes the idea of "not just throwing checks" at a charitable effort but instead seeing what it does to help people.

Redding, the Jesuit, said he feels called to helping the poor, especially homeless people. "We open our home to them and build a community, somewhat of a family. That's something that is desperately needed for people on the streets. One of the best things we can give them is to listen to their stories and problems."

Joe Vaughan, who retired from teaching and supervising at the divinity school at SLU, served as one of the innkeepers on Jan. 9. The parish effort is "what the Lord was asking us to do in life," Vaughan added.

The guests usually receive toiletries, a gift card from Schnucks and a bus pass. They get a breakfast and sometimes a lunch to take with them.

In God's hands

At Sts. Teresa and Bridget Church the next night, volunteers from the parish and St. Pius X Parish, farther south on Grand Avenue in south St. Louis, were busy preparing cots and food for their 16 overnight guests. Sts. Teresa and Bridget has about 35 people who volunteer and St. Pius has about a dozen who help out, also on a rotating basis. Several Cardinal Ritter Preparatory High School students have volunteered. Sts. Teresa and Bridget parishioners Stella Cooper-Blount and Helen Bailey cook each night the shelter is open.

Wanda Underwood-Johnson said the story of how she came to speak after Mass and ask for volunteers to start the program was God's doing. She had been asked by Childress to lead the effort.

"I just saw God's hand in this program ... so I let go of my shyness and got up there and announced it at Mass." Before that, Underwood-Johnson said, she was consumed with anger toward the two men who murdered her son in a robbery. "This was an answer to my prayer and made me smile again. It gave me a purpose and reason in life again. This was my answer not to concentrate on those two guys, but to concentrate on people in need, people looking for love."

The outreach group, which includes social workers, carefully matches the homeless individuals with shelters, screening them to make sure those who won't fit in get an alternative form of assistance.

Underwood-Johnson said the shelter has housed infants, school-aged children, people who are going to a job the next morning and more. "You see all walks of life. People say people are homeless because they want to be. Some are, but some have had businesses or jobs they lost because they were sick for a month and had bills they couldn't pay or had no health insurance. Anybody could be homeless."

It is impressive to see the churches and others, including a business, offer space and food as overnight shelters, Underwood-Johnson said.

Marie Andrews of St. Pius called the Catholic participation "the Grand experience" since the parishes are along Grand Avenue. St. Vincent de Paul parishioners volunteer at the American Friends' winter shelter. Similar shelters throughout the St. Louis community are needed, Andrews noted.

Jo Harris, a Sts. Teresa and Bridget parishioner who was volunteering at the shelter, said she enjoys socializing with the homeless people. "This lets them know they're not out there by themselves," Harris said.

Winter Outreach 

St. Louis Winter Outreach needs donations to purchase bus tickets, blankets, hats and gloves and other items.

Send donations to:

St. Louis Homeless Winter Outreach

c/o MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse

Attn: Mo Costello

3606 Arsenal St.

St. Louis, MO 63116

For more information, see:

www.stlouisreview.com/rAb or www.stlwinteroutreach.org.

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