Across the street from St. Patrick Parish in Northwest Portland, the sidewalk is lined with tents and shelters belonging to people without homes. Twice a month, a group of parishioners from the church prepares either coffee and hot chocolate or lemonade to take to these homeless neighbors.
The cost for this ministry is low but the results are rich. Parishioners talk to these people living so close to their parish and give them the dignity they deserve. There is an exchange of stories and eventually friendship.
“It’s just connecting to those in need in a very simple way and encountering God in a different way. In a very real way,” says Aixa Perez, who leads the group of volunteers.
Scattered throughout the state are pockets of homeless communities like this one, living in tents or sleeping bags along streets or trails. For some parishes, these micro-communities are neighbors.
Nowhere is this more true than at St. André Bessette Parish on Portland’s West Burnside Street.
This parish, formally called the Downtown Chapel, didn’t start as a homeless ministry project. But serving homeless people has become its identity. Volunteers and organizers at the church provide clothing and hygiene items and serve food and coffee for up to 125 people, six days per week. In the winter, parish workers and volunteers hand out sleeping bags, tarps, tents and winter clothing.
“Serving our neighbors in this way is a part of who we are,” says Tom Frieburg, volunteer manager at St. André Bessette.
“We’re providing hospitality.”
The entire church building is used to provide a warm and peaceful place for those guests of the parish’s hospitality.
Even those communities with fewer homeless people can become involved in reaching those in greatest need.
Parishioners at St. Jude Parish in Eugene like to help the homeless by providing aid through existing organizations. They gather coats, socks and blankets for those in need and volunteer at homeless shelters. Many provide aid at the mission in downtown Eugene.
Numerous churches in the archdiocese have St. Vincent De Paul chapters to serve those in need. This is one way that a parish could reach out to homeless neighbors.
The St. Vincent De Paul chapter at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Portland keeps consumables that require little preparation for people who come to the church and are hungry. The volunteers consider the different needs of each person who comes to them in search of help. During the cold of the winter, the Immaculate Heart crew welcomed one couple who had been sleeping in their vehicle. For another woman, they provided assistance in relocating to more permanent housing.
To those wanting to become involved in homeless outreach, Frieburg suggests first talking as a parish community about the needs of the parish’s specific area.
“Start slow, but don’t be afraid to start,” says Frieburg.
As a parish whose identity has become serving the homeless, St. André Bessette started just by offering soup out of their lobby once a week around 20 years ago.