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.

“One day a fight broke out between two of the guys at the day center and one stabbed the other with a screwdriver before running off. The guy who got stabbed rather than wait for EMTs stumbled off towards the hospital near my house.” After getting off work, and while walking home, ”I followed a trail of this man’s dried blood on the sidewalk for blocks.” It made for the kind of reflection on the violence of poverty you’re not likely to experience unless you’re involved directly in a poor community.

At the same time, the service had its rewards. “On my days off I would go to Dunkin’ Donuts and my homeless friends would be there hanging out, and not realizing it was my day off they would run up wanting to talk about whatever issues they were having. It went beyond a typical job.” McIlree found it impossible to walk around Center City Philadelphia in his free time without running into people living on the streets who he knew.

This was the crucial experience, for McIlree: Somewhere along the way, those that he served stopped being “the homeless,” the conceptual, faceless mass that most Americans see when looking at society’s most disadvantaged. The homeless had become people, individuals whose names he knew and life stories he had learned.

It’s this message of direct contact with the needy that many are seeing emphasized by the new pope—in his inviting homeless men to his birthday party, in washing the feet of prisoners at a youth detention center, or lovingly cradling the head of a severely disfigured man he saw on the street.  His idea of poverty fighting involves sneaking out of the Vatican at night to serve homeless people in person.

Katie Dorner graduated from Gonzaga University, a Jesuit college in Spokane, Washington, last May, and set out for her JVC placement at the Dolores Mission Parish in East Los Angeles in August. She says she knew she wanted to be a JV from her freshman year in college. She now serves as a youth minister at the Catholic elementary school where she says her daily duties involve creating safe spaces for youth in an often violent community where families can be torn apart by deportation. “It’s hard to be around a child whose father was sent away because of immigration policy,” she says.

Dorner feels invigorated by the recent messages out of the Vatican, and says her fellow progressive JVs feel it as well. “I live with five other young women JVs and as feminists and allies of the LGBT community we feel there’s more growth that needs to happen in the church, but we love Pope Francis, we talk about him a lot,” she says. “He really stresses the role of the lay community, so we’re really affirmed by who he is. It’s just a special time to be here.”

Other current Jesuit Volunteers and leaders in the organization that have been organizing new recruits for the poverty fight for years have all expressed to The Atlantic in emails that the inauguration of a Jesuit Pope has wired fresh voltage into their efforts. The JVC Facebook page timeline is filled with Francis associated postings, and discussion of the Pope's movements have lit up social networks of young Catholic progressives around the country.

Anthea Butler, a religious-studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania, sees the shift from sexual morality to poverty and social justice in the Vatican’s messaging as less a break with the past than a return to it.

“What Francis is saying is not new, this is the Catholic Church’s teaching. He’s doing what Jesuits always do. Jesuits get gritty with it. They get down in the dirt and do things. They know how to speak to lay people. This is the core of who Francis is as a Jesuit, that he is out working in the streets.”

In fact, in Butler’s estimation the radical change was the shift towards extreme social conservatism in American Catholicism. “Francis is pointing them back to Jesus,” she says.

McIree considers himself just another Jesuit Volunteer in a long line of men and women who joined the organization and gave a piece of their life to serve the poor. Regardless of whether their stories were told, whether they were individually recognized or even whether Catholicism was increasingly demonized in the eyes of the world, the church's progressive members have always sought to embody the message Francis is making a particular priority.  But, McIree admits that it’s nice to have the pope electrifying the world and winning broad support with this message. McIlree feels vindicated after years of having to justify his beliefs to peers that only saw the church's misdeeds.

"Of course it's great to have a Pope who's not from the old order, especially after so many years of bad news in the church," he says, adding: "It has definitely energized my spirituality, I'm going to Mass every Sunday again and it feels great."

The Jesuit Volunteer Corp doesn't know yet if they'll see a big surge of applicants looking to live Pope Francis's dream for the church as a group of street hardened poverty fighters; it's too soon to gauge the size of this year's applicant pool. But Andrew McIlree isn't convinced the enthusiasm surrounding Pope Francis will directly translate into more Jesuit Volunteers in American inner cities—the program's demanding reputation precedes it.

"Everyone loves the idea of what the JVC about, but not many people are willing to really live it. Just like so many people love the idea of being a Christian: truly living as one is different matter."