By Anne Seebaldt
The Catholic Times
ANN ARBOR — St. Francis of Assisi Parish is using a Lenten program to raise awareness of the issues of affordable housing and homelessness.
Each week, at the front of the parish bulletin, stories are told to help parishioners empathize with the plight of the homeless. During the prayers of the faithful each week during Lent, the issue of homelessness is addressed, “just to keep it in people’s minds,” said Kelly Gauthier, a resident of Ann Arbor who serves on St. Francis’ Peace and Justice Committee.
The committee also came up with the “Sack Homelessness” Program, which through almsgiving and activities raises funds for the Religious Action for Affordable Housing (RAAH) and raises awareness about homelessness. The committee came up with a Lenten calendar of activities. Some of the activities call for money to be put in brown paper sacks provided by the church; they will be turnedin on Palm Sunday and the money given to RAAH when Lent is over.
For example, on Sunday, April 3, the participants were told “veterans protected the United States during times of strife, yet there are about 107,000 veterans without a place to sleep on any given night. Place $1.07 in your homeless sack and praise God for the warm bed you have each night.”
Or, the activity for Friday, April 8, said “homeless veterans, or veterans who are in danger of becoming homeless, can call the free, 24-7 National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at (877) 424-3828 to speak with a trained counselor. Place 25 cents in your sack for every phone call you made today.”
Scott Wright, director of social ministry for St. Francis, said the “Sack Homelessness” program gives “simple activities” that help parishioners “keep the issues in mind” through use of a Lenten calendar created for that purpose. He said the calendar is similar to the one used for Operation Rice Bowl.
“It’s a lot of work for the people on the peace and justice committee, but they’re excited about it,” he said. “When you have a passion and you want to see people engage in doing something about it, you’re willing to work on the tools.There’s always a need for coming up with creative ways to engage people, especially children.” You almost could think of it, he added, as a fun game that helps kids to learn about a serious topic, so they can say at the end of their journey, “we learned so much and we did it in a creative way.”
Wright said considerable creativity went into the Lenten calendar activities, which had weekly themes, such as homelessness, the housing needs of veterans and the Michigan Prison Re-entry Iniative, which helps to transition former prisoners into productive members of society.
“Sack Homelessness,” said Gauthier, builds on the “LEttERS HoME” exhibit, which was featured during the Christmas season in the church’s alcove. It visually portrayed the plight of the homeless by combining photos of the homeless along with some of their salvaged treasures.
The committee wanted to give parishioners of all ages concrete steps to take to help the homeless. The focus is not just on fundraising and the homeless issue, Gauthier said, but upon the need for affordable housing in Washtenaw County.
“Housing is just becoming this huge financial burden for people,” she said. “It’s very hard for people looking for affordable housing.”
Some other activities from the calendar include:
- Read “Stone Soup: An Old Tale,” by Marcia Brown; in the story, “three soldiers teach a whole town to work together.” Pray for all veterans, especially homeless veterans. The suggested prayer for veterans states, “Let the example of their service lead us to better serve them. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
- Attend and participate in meetings when affordable housing projects are planned. Let your voice be heard for the homeless. Put 75 cents in your sack.
Gauthier said all funds raised will help RAAH’s campaign to raise $100,000 by May 2012.
“We work closely with them,” she added. “If they raise more, they can give more away.”
RAAH works with Avalon Housing, which owns numerous rental properties, to have housing cost no more than 30 percent of a person’s income. Another partner in this effort is the Ann Arbor city council, which recently approved a large complex with affordable housing at 1500 Pauline St.
While the first goal of this program is to raise awareness, Gauthier said the ultimate goal is “to make people think about the problem of homelessness and housing that may be too expensive for people to afford on their salary and to make sure we have decent housing available for everyone, regardless of their income. It’s a human right; that’s what our bishops tell us, and we need to act like that.”