URBAN IMMERSION EXPERIENCES & JUSTICE ORIENTATION REFLECTIONS
St Ben's offers two options:
St Ben’s Community Meal hosts Justice Orientation reflection groups as a way of orienting and educating participants in service with the homeless and hungry population of Milwaukee. This opportunity is done in conjunction with the Meal from 5 PM to 6:45 PM and usually involves an orientation to St Ben’s Ministries, a chance to eat and talk with the Meal guests, and a prayerful reflection afterward. This experience typically takes about an hour and a half to two hours. A donation of $25 and a collection of hygiene supplies or cold weather wear is appreciated to cover staff time. Groups of 5-20 people are welcome with 1 adult chaperone for every 10 minors participating.
Second is an overnight experience intended for high school or college age students. This immersion experience usually begins on Friday night with participation in the Community Meal, followed by a period of reflection and discussion. Saturday is spent visiting various agencies that minister with the homeless, including shelters, drop in centers, and community service programs. This weekend experience can be tailored to the needs of the group and could be a one or two night event. Students provide a sleeping bag; St Ben’s provides floor space for sleeping and will arrange for meals. A donation of $20 per person per night is suggested to help defray the cost of food, staff, and utilities.
Urban Plunge Teaches Social Justice by Irene Mehlos
Defying a winter weather advisory weekend, 13 Merrill High School Sophomores and Juniors together with 4 St. Francis Xavier parish adult chaperones took part in the annual Urban Plunge to the inner city parish of St. Benedict the Moor. And despite a cool financial climate, many local businesses and parishioners of St. Francis lent their support in the form of cash donations or contributions to the toiletry drive held by the students prior to their trip.
On March 27, four carloads of kids, gear and toiletry donations arrived at St. Ben’s, directly across the street from the Milwaukee County Jail, ready (or not) to spend the weekend interacting with the homeless. They hoped to learn from inner city churches and various agencies that address the needs of the homeless and working poor. St Ben’s parish has hosted 300-500 meal guests 6 nights a week since the late 1960’s at their “Loaves and Fishes Community Meal”. Their outreach includes a Prison Ministry, a Medical Clinic, and others such as providing toiletries and bus tickets to those in need. The many tooth brushes, tubes of paste, deodorant and other items shared by the Merrill community were received with grateful excitement!
In return, the local Capuchin Franciscans and meal guests welcomed the curious visitors from the north with open arms and hearts. The experience began with an opportunity to eat and talk with meal guests and afterwards, a Q&A session with a former gang member together with other inner city students being taught by former Merrill grad, Corey Mehlos, a Cap Corps volunteer. The meal security attendants, former guests, wore “Blue Shirts” displaying the community motto, “If You Want Peace, WORK for Justice”. At St. Ben’s, they do just that.
Nights were spent in sleeping bags on the floor of church meeting rooms. Clanging pipes and city noises were tolerated gratefully after witnessing homeless people skirting the barbed wire fence to sleep outside near a heated grate. Saturday was packed with visits to other ministries, including Casa Maria Catholic Worker House (hospitality to homeless families and refugees), Marquette University Center for Peacemaking, and several inner city churches responding to the needs of the poor with free tax preparation services or food pantries for neighbors in need. The Merrill students actually cheered the chance to pitch in some hard labor, moving dirt to expand space needed for a church basement food pantry.
The Sunday Mass experience topped off the cultural awakening with a lively Gospel Choir that made a two hour service fly by. On reflection during the weekend, students shared what they learned, in their own words:
• This weekend I learned the importance of stepping out of my comfort zone and meeting people I wouldn’t normally meet.
• There are a lot of people that are a lot worse off than my family who’s going through some rough patches.
• I learned not to take anything for granted and be more aware of the hardships of others.
• I will remember all the people we saw at night sleeping under patios in sleeping bags—I’ve never seen that in real life, only in movies…people in the street are worse off than any of us ever thought!
• Peace and justice go hand in hand. If you want a world full of peace, then you also have to work for the world to be a just one, because you can’t have one without the other.
• Homeless people are human beings just like everyone else. I will remember the people most, and taking food to the people who slept outside.
• I was surprised that there were children—and whole families—who were homeless.
• This trip taught me some valuable lessons that I would never have been taught in school or by parents/guardians.
Helping move dirt at
St Martin de Porres
Clarke University students pose on porch with Br. Rob Roemer (far left) before beginning a tour of neighborhood services for the homeless.