Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Creatively and Compassionately Responding to the Needs of the Homeless


The Ignatian Spirituality Project originally began in 1998 by Fr. Bill Creed, S.J. as he sought a way to reach the homeless men and women with whom he was working in Chicago.  He began conversations of the ways to share the message and spirituality of St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order and the personage behind Jesuit universities and Ignatian spirituality, to a larger population, namely the materially and economically disadvantaged in Chicago.   The Jesuits had not previously had a program that solely provided the Spiritual Exercises to men and women experiencing homelessness.  The Ignatian Spirituality Project has grown and developed since it’s inception in 1999, and through the great work of Father Bill and his staff of counselors, retreat leaders, and spiritual directors, the program has touched and changed many lives. 

            The Ignatian Spirituality Project operates under a five-fold approach.  The first and foremost mission of ISP is to provide retreats, spiritual direction, days of reflection to homeless men and women seeking recovery.  These retreats are meant to serve as pathways to recovery for homeless men and women, and recovery means anything from becoming drug-free to finding support and community in their struggle and oftentimes isolation.  The second goal of this “recovery” is to give the retreatants a sense of purpose and meaning as they begin to piece their lives back together.  The Spiritual Exercises are meant for the retreatant to grow in a better understanding of their authentic selves, their relationship with others, and the unique and beautiful love that God has for them.  By recognizing these things about themselves, the retreatants on ISP retreats grow in a new and better understanding of their value as human beings and people loved by God.
            The majority of this five-fold approach (I’m condensing two, three, and four here) consists of properly and effectively structuring these retreats.  The retreats are comprised of men and women currently experiencing homelessness, the team leaders, staff of ISP and often Jesuit Volunteers, and former retreatants who offer witness on retreat.  These retreats are meant to strengthen the bonds between individuals experiencing homelessness as well as to connect them to formerly homeless individuals.   The volunteers in every city are often spiritual directors, have training in Ignatian Spirituality and the Spiritual Exercises, and serve as leaders on the weekend and day retreats.  The “witness” of former retreatants gives a perspective on and a testimony to the power of ISP and the power of the Exercises. 
            Another key aspect of this five-fold approach is the continued expansion of the ISP to cities and communities across the United States. The breadth of ISP has grown from a small organization in Chicago to currently reaching twelve major cities.  The retreat program has spread, as more and more individuals have heard of the deep and meaningful retreat experiences.  The ISP collaborates with communities and other agencies like Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, in their efforts to end homelessness.  These agencies offer ISP great support, as they refer homeless individuals who they work with to the retreats. 

            The greatest part of the ISP is the testimonials of formerly homeless retreat alums.  The stories of success and rehabilitation, as a results of their Ignatian retreats, are heartening and inspiring.  ISP’s belief is that these retreats have a real potential in ending homelessness for their retreatants.   After retreats, individuals often commit to “getting clean” from drug and alcohol abuse and often get jobs, housing, and a better quality of life.  A testimony by Wayne Richard, who is now the senior community organizer at Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, speaks to the truly transformative nature ISP.  Wayne was a homeless man living on the streets of Chicago after abusing drugs and alcohol.  To quote ISP, "he was lost, high, homeless, and desperate."  Then one day he was sitting under a traffic bridge and he found God.  He began to visit a transitional center and was beginning recovery and rehabilitation.  During his time transitioning, he attended an ISP retreat.  He is quoted as saying, "During the retreat I began to examine the continuous presence of God in my life."  Since his first ISP experience in 1999, he has helped lead over 60 retreats for ISP Chicago.  He says he sees "God move men on the retreats to faith and hope."  Wayne is only one of the countless people who had transformative experiences on an ISP retreat.

    Fr. Bill Creed, he had previous experience with these two levels of expertise (working with the homeless and Ignatian Spirituality), utilized his innovation and creativity and a sense of humble compassion to begin the Ignatian Spirituality Project. There is something interesting in looking at creativity from the standpoint of recognizing and responding to a need in a new and interesting way. Never before had someone thought that offering retreats could be a way to end homelessness. This way of thinking, this process of taking ideas and areas of expertise and combining them, is very creative.  And when discussing the realms of domain and field, it is again interesting to look at where Fr. Bill is coming from and where he lies in his ability to enact a paradigm shift of sorts. Being a member of the Jesuits, he was exposed to mentors with strong passions for spirituality and justice work and living in Chicago and working with the materially and economically disadvantaged gave him greater insight into the needs of a specific population and he creatively was able to respond to that need. So, how can loving compassion and Ignatian Spirituality get people off the streets? The creative energy and person within Fr. Bill has been working though that question for close to two decades now. And the work he's done with ISP is pretty amazing. 

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  1. I think that this is such a great program, thanks for bringing it to our attention! One thing that I have definitely struggled with in this class has been to think about individuals who are not obviously creative, like in the elementary school sense of creating for aesthetic purposes. However, this example is one where I can more easily see creativity in a different context, and really a context that I can actually care about. This concept of having retreats for homeless people, and connecting the homeless to others who have been through a similar situation, seems really obvious. It reminds me of how we were talking in class about how Gandhi took his spirituality and used it in such an obvious or simple way to fix a problem, and yet it was a big deal. By focusing on a spiritual, or internal solution, both Gandhi and Fr. Bill Creed saw that outside problems of someone's life could be solved. And it's so creative because it does not directly address the issue of homelessness rather, Creed perceived that it was an issue that could be directly influenced by a more simple solution - connecting with other people and with one's faith.

  2. This seems like such a sincere organization with its genuine care for the individuals they are trying to help. There are so many groups that aim to help the homeless however, I find that a majority of them focus solely on funds and ask for donation. With those action, sure, one may help to a certain degree, but it treats the homeless as an entity, not a group of individuals, human beings, our brothers and sisters. Forgive me for being a little cheesy, but it is the truth. This element that the Fathers are bringing through spirituality focuses on the individual and his troubles. Through ISP, it seems as though they are using creative means to actually resolve the issues and suffering at hand by helping these people who are labeled as ".homeless". They are showing interest in their personalities and their souls.


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