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Baltimore Basilica’s outreach to neighbors expands

Abby Steele, right, co-director of the Source of All Hope missionary program at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, shares her lunch hour with Susan Henderson in West Baltimore April 13. (Tim Swift/CR Staff)

Susan Henderson is used to being ignored.

The 32-year-old Florida native spends most days panhandling along the downtown stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, holding a tattered cardboard sign on the median as thousands of cars whip past her.

For the past few months, she has been befriended by young urban missionaries from the the Source of All Hope program at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They have taken her to lunch, prayed with her and even took her gardening, but most importantly, they listened to her.

“They have made me feel special. It’s nice to have somebody who’s like a friend. They actually talk to me like I’m like a person,” said Henderson, who  lives in an abandoned building without running water in West Baltimore.

“Being on the street is hard. But little things make it easier, like having friends out here like them,” she said.

Young missionaries started their outreach to the homeless in the summer of 2019, before the onset of the pandemic. While other social services have been curtailed during the pandemic, the basilica’s missionaries have actually expanded their program to include homeless women such as Henderson.

Economic fallout from the pandemic has caused hardship. The missionaries said some of the people they meet said the pandemic was a factor in becoming homeless. They have been shut out of public spaces such as libraries and coffee shops, pushing them further to the margins, but the pandemic has created unique opportunities to help.

The missionaries have helped dozens of homeless people access stimulus money from the federal government to which they were entitled. Many don’t have identification, haven’t filed taxes in years and don’t have a fixed address.

The missionaries help them navigate these hurdles and have also passed on information about a city program that houses people in area hotels. For all the practical assistance provided, however, lead missionary Colin Miller said the biggest benefit they provide is a sense of connection to other people.

“A lot of the men and women, they’re coming from backgrounds where they’ve experienced rejection throughout their entire lives. When you’re out on the streets, it’s only exacerbated,” Miller said. “They think they don’t have self-worth and that they’re not really worth investing in. So those obstacles can be broken down, those storylines can be rewritten, and we are able to walk with them.”

Colin Miller, co-director of the Source of All Hope missionary program at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, distributes a water bottle outside the basilica April 13, 2021. (Tim Swift/CR Staff)

Miller and fellow missionaries take to downtown streets every few days, checking in with people they have been befriended. They visit MLK Boulevard, the Inner Harbor and Mount Vernon, often handing out socks and bottles of water.

Abby Steele, co-director of the Source of All Hope program at the basilica, said that although evangelization is at the heart of their work, participants gradually build rapport and let the people themselves bring up religious subjects.

“What we like to say is that our charism is accompaniment. We’re very much walking alongside people through their journeys, whatever that looks like,” said Steele, noting that often­times, homeless people are providing spiritual insights to the missionaries, not the other way around. “They’ve taught us a lot about their own prayers and their relationship with God.”

While the basilica is viewed as a historic cathedral, it is first and foremost a neighborhood parish, a connection strengthened by Source of All Hope.

“We’re making Jesus radically available to the neighborhood, to the people of Baltimore, because that’s something we really believe is going to bring unity,” Miller said.

For more information, visit sourceofallhope.org.

Email Tim Swift at tswift@CatholicReview.org

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