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Honored Guests: Program at Catholic Men for Christ conference addresses needs of homeless and at-risk men

Richard Henderson lowered his head in reverence as a priest on stage led a group prayer.

He was among 1,100 men gathered for a day of prayer and faith. But unlike most at Peabody Opera House on Feb 6., Richard's journey to be there — even just to be standing — has been difficult.

Two years ago, Richard didn't have a permanent home or a stable job. He had just had a hip replacement, was using a walker and was on the verge of losing a leg, stemming from an issue with diabetes.

On a cold February morning, he got off a Metro bus just outside the Peabody. Standing in front of him was Tony Koester, with coffee and bagels. Just a bit earlier, Tony had entered the Peabody to attend the conference. On a side street, he saw three men around a grate, trying to keep warm. They asked if he could spare some money; he gave them a couple of bucks and went inside. Then it dawned on him: Why not invite them in?

"I went back and talked to them, but they wouldn't come. I think they were afraid," Tony said. He later brought out coffee and bagels to give away — that's when he saw Richard. "I talked to him for about 10 minutes, and he agreed to come in. I didn't know anything about him."

That was the beginning of the Honored Guest program.

Makin' it

Tony's desire to invite a few homeless men into the conference spiraled. He got help from other members of the Knights of Columbus at Incarnate Word Parish and men from the St. Vincent de Paul Conference at St. Anselm Parish in Creve Coeur. They quickly realized they could do more than invite in the men for uplifting talks and a meal.

The social strains in our culture might be complex, but most people recognize contributing factors: broken families, fatherless children, poverty and limited education. Perhaps the conference would be a doorway to address the needs of the entire man — spiritually, emotionally, psychologically and financially.

This year, more than a dozen Honored Guests attended — either homeless or at-risk. Organizers work with parishes and social service groups, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Missionaries of Charity and Catholic Charities, to identify men to invite. They arrange for transportation, tickets to the conference and a light breakfast and box lunch.

The first year Richard attended, he revealed that he had been shot in the face and lost all of his teeth. On the way to find a seat, Tony ran into Marc Braeckel from St. Vincent de Paul conference at St. Anselm and asked if he knew a dentist. Turns out, the man sitting in front of him was a dentist. He and Marc arranged for Richard to visit another dentist in south St. Louis County, who did the work for free. The St. Vincent de Paul conference picked up the bill for X-rays and lab fees.

The men took turns visiting Richard about once every two weeks for many months. He had a place to stay, but was sleeping on the floor. They got him an air mattress, a TV and food. Richard later had his leg amputated and landed in a nursing home. He eventually got fitted for a prosthesis and now would like to find an apartment. The men hope to connect him with Catholic Charities of St. Louis to help him find a place to live and perhaps a job.

"I've got some people helping me look for an apartment, I'm ready to get out of this nursing home," Richard said. "I've got my running shoes on now. I'm makin' it, I ain't fakin' it. It's all about going forward."

In the meantime, Richard has made new friends, just through a chance encounter as he got off the bus one day. This year marked his third conference, and every year, the spiritual insight has been inspirational.

"This has absolutely helped me," he said. "As long as I can get the heavenly food, that's what it's all about."

"God's image in my heart"

Sitting on a plush lounge chair in the Peabody's Kiel Club, Clennon Prince — he simply goes by "Prince" — scanned his cell phone contacts to find a family member to call. He had found out his stepson, LaTrielle Dunn, was shot and killed the previous weekend, and he was checking whether the family had enough money for funeral expenses.

"They called and (asked) me, 'do you know?'" he said. "I never had that call before. Oh man, don't tell me that."

A regular at the Missionaries of Charity soup kitchen, he signed up for the conference after learning about it from the sisters and volunteers. Listening to speaker David Williams share his uplifting story of conversion and fatherhood was just what Prince needed, especially as he grieves the loss of his son.

"I had a spiritual feeling inside of me from the talk about fatherhood," Prince said. "I've got 13 grandbabies and I've got five kids — one just deceased and I'm working with that. I like to keep God's image in my heart. We've got to get this money together for his funeral, and I have no clue how we're going to get it, but I have no doubt that we're going to take care of my son. But it's out of my hands, because I'm on a set income. It's in God's hands."

After hearing his story, the Honored Guest organizers mobilized and are assisting Prince's family with funeral expenses.

Dominican Brother John Steilberg, a regular volunteer at the soup kitchen, is moved by the courage of these men who attend the conference.

"I was born and raised Catholic, and I have a rosary on my belt — it's easy for me to be here," he said. "For them to be invited by someone they don't know super well, and to have that courage to be here today, I'm very humbled."

He added that the long-term follow-up and genuine interest in developing relationships with these men make this effort worthwhile.

"This can't be just doing a one-day thing where we feel good about ourselves for the day," he said. "This needs to be an all-the-time, everyday thing for us. By them being here, we can start to pool resources to help them."

According to Steve Rupp, conference coordinator with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, helping with long-term care, such as utility assistance or prescription coverage, is part of the society's mission, making the organization a perfect "cog in the wheel" for the Honored Guest program.

"That was Tony's long-term vision," Steve said. "To expose them to something as grand as this (conference) as a starting point, and letting them know that, "gee, there are some people out there who really care about me and are willing to help me.'"

Tony is pleased the program has grown in just a few short years, through the interest and generosity of others.

"We hope to make the men feel comfortable and at home with a friend who cares," he said. "There's no pressure, no expectations of them. They don't owe us anything. We are doing this out of love." 

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