Serving the Poor, Pope Francis-Style

For young, progressive Catholics in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, the new pope is inaugurating a new era: one where the issues that matter to them are back in the spotlight.
On his 77th birthday, Pope Francis welcomed homeless men to the Vatican. (L'Osservatore Romano/Associated Press handout)

Like a lot of millennial progressive Catholics, Katie Dorner feels like the days of having to defend her faith from the negative perceptions of her peers are coming to an end.

“When the Pope won [Time Magazine’s] Person of the Year I thought to myself, it’s like advent,” the time preceding Christmas when Christians prepare for celebrating the birth of Christ, “but for the church. He’s bringing hope to the church and to the world,” said Dorner, currently serving as a Jesuit Volunteer in Los Angeles.

Catholic Millennials in the United States have come of age in a dark era for the Church, largely defined by child sexual abuse scandals and the associated sordid newspaper trial coverage. The challenge of keeping the faith has been arguably harder for young progressive Catholics, given the increasing gap between the Church and the general population on social issues such as contraception and homosexuality.

During the worst years of scandal, as progressive Catholic youths came of age they did what many Catholics have always done: they quietly served the poor. And in many cases, they did so through a program run by the very order Pope Francis came from: the Jesuits. Now, with Pope Francis in the Vatican strengthening the church’s anti-poverty message, they feel welcomed back into the fold.

Andrew McIree was raised in Osh Kosh, Wisconsin and graduated in 2006 from St. Nortbert College, which he jokingly describes as “your typical ‘Airborne Toxic Event’-type small liberal arts school,” referring to Don DeLillo’s famous depiction in White Noise. Having gotten a taste of direct service poverty work on a week-long college social justice trip to a Philadelphia homeless shelter, he was looking forward to returning for the more intensive, year-long service that the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) promised. In 2006, as whopping cash settlements in clergy sex abuse lawsuits rained down nationwide, Andrew McIlree, now 30, joined the JVC and left his 94% white and only 4% impoverished hometown for North Philly, where the population is 80% black and Latino and 50% of families live in poverty.

The Jesuit Volunteer Corps was founded in 1956 for the purpose of putting Catholic college kids into service for poor native Alaskans. In the past half-century it has grown to a multinational, though largely domestically focused, network known for sinking its volunteers neck-deep in communities many Americans fear and deliberately avoid. Like the Jesuit Pope Francis who envisions his ideal church as one that is “bruised, hurting and dirty” from being in the streets serving the poor, the JVC holds to the same belief that true service takes risks and works directly with the impoverished.

The Jesuit tradition has had a strong emphasis on social justice and at times a close relationship to “liberation theology,” which puts a theological primacy on advocacy for the poor and oppressed. While by no means exclusively a progressive organization, and open to all faiths and creeds willing to advance efforts rooted in this tradition, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps tends to self-select from young idealists who typically identify as progressive.

The year McIlree spent in Philly was the most violent of the decade. Nearly 400 people were murdered during his time there.

He and a small group of other JVs were assigned to live in a brownstone in a section of North Philadelphia known for gun violence and drug markets. “The first time I heard gunshots outside the house I figured it must be a nail gun or something,” McIlree remembers of those first days.  “I was seriously lying awake wondering, ‘Who does construction work at night?’” That winter, an abandoned squatter house up the block went up in flames after the family’s sole space heater exploded, leaving all of them dead.

McIlree worked in a day center for the homeless known on the streets as “802” for its address on North Broad Street. The day center offered the most basic services; showers for men who didn’t like bathing at the cavernous, filthy and notoriously dangerous nearby Ridge Avenue shelter, a vast stock of donated clothes, and a warm (or cool) space to spend time, depending on the season. A homeless person could use 802’s mailing address for receiving welfare or disability benefits, or to fill in the home address space on that first job application after getting out of prison. With no requirements for entry, the place attracted the city’s chronically homeless—individuals who often reject more structured social services due to their sobriety or medication compliance requirements. This is the hardest homeless population to serve.

McIree learned that directly serving some of the poorest people in America had challenges you don’t encounter unless you’re physically in this space. There were men and women barely recognizable as human underneath piles of ragged clothing. There was the smell of men and women, some unwashed for months, who arrived wearing jeans stiff with dried urine that day-center staff would help peel off and replace. Many in the day-center crowd were severely mentally ill and unmedicated, their behavior unpredictable, and others had assault histories. A homeless former Army Ranger once, without warning, grabbed McIlree around the neck and placed him in a choke hold before releasing him a moment later.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker and writer based in Philadelphia. His work has also appeared in Newsweek, and he is columnist at The Fix

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