Stories of human lives are what drive junior Ken Fox and sophomore Jacob Bowers to lead a van full of Franciscan University students to Pittsburgh every week for Homeless Ministry.
A hot meal beneath an underpass greets the students when they arrive — but they aren’t there for the food. They are there to encounter the individuals, homeless or otherwise, who come to share in the meal.
According to Fox, the ministry is unique because it provides the homeless with an experience of real human encounter. “They just want to be recognized and someone to listen to them,” he said. “Homeless people are just people.”
“Something people don’t realize is when you’re homeless, people treat you really badly,” said Fox. “They don’t pay attention to you … to have someone ask you what your name is, what your story is, where you’re from, what you’re interested in, what your beliefs are … they don’t get that ever… so it’s a big deal for them. We call ourselves a relational ministry because of that.”
One of the Works of Mercy under the Christian Outreach Office, Homeless Ministry is somewhere around seven to 10 years old, said Fox. It was founded by someone who had participated in Christ in the City, which is a similar ministry but on a larger scale. Fox got involved two years ago when he transferred to Franciscan.
Responsibility for the meal alternates between a Catholic church and an older couple “who does it just because they love serving the homeless,” Fox explained. Students meet in the rosary circle around 5 p.m. on Thursdays to go to the Pittsburgh overpass.
One of Fox’s favorite parts is encountering the regulars whom he sees every week. “There’s this guy Kevin, everyone loves Kevin, he’s been at homeless ministry longer than I have. … I don’t think he’s homeless, but he’s always there, he’s a staple.”
Some of the partakers in the meal aren’t homeless but come for the community. This creates a variety of people, beliefs and experiences, according to Fox. “Of course, you can get that at any ministry I suppose, but there’s something special in homeless ministry,” he said.
“There’s such a desire to converse that I think it’s really special. These people don’t normally have a chance to interact with especially young, enthusiastic, Christian people. It’s really cool, seeing how special that is to them. We’ve heard from people who go every week that it’s actually a big motivation for them to come every week, is just to see us. You get to become such an important part of these people’s lives, these people who don’t really have that much.”
Fox even said, with a smile, that there are some people who are “so on fire for their faith, even if they’re not Catholic, and you wonder who’s ministering to whom, because they’re almost more excited than you!”
Because it is a relational ministry, Homeless Ministry doesn’t seek specifically to convert people. Fox explained that “the idea is … because our hearts are already on fire for the Gospel, these people are going to find out you’re Christian, and they’re going to see there’s something different about these kids who are treating us with dignity, and they’re going to make that connection, that maybe Jesus has something to do with it.”
Some students take a more direct approach than others in the ministry. Fox said he prefers a more indirect way of sharing his witness because it’s natural for him to tell his conversion story. Others ask more direct questions that can lead to conversations specifically about faith.
“It’s so important to have all the different kinds of people that come to Homeless Ministry because I might be able to talk to one person about playing guitar … but someone else might know sports, and they’re able to connect with them on that level,” he said.
The number of students who attend on a weekly basis varies regularly. There have been as few as four and as many as two vans full. Fox stressed the importance of having as many people as possible to match the number of homeless so that there can be a variety of types.
“We need every kind of person to be there to be able to reach these people,” he said. “We’re all given different strengths for something like Homeless Ministry, but we’re all necessary.”