For Elisa McGee, helping her parish shelter the homeless is personal
On a cool October night, 10 homeless men found the gifts of warmth and presence as they walked into the gym at St. Therese Church in Seattle.
“Come on in,” volunteer Elisa McGee cordially greeted the men, who arrived via the parish mini-bus (driven this day by parishioner Jim Valiere) to spend the night in safety at St. Therese’s shelter.
After each claimed a sleeping mat, the men — all 50 and older — selected from snacks and beverages McGee had laid out for them. While most of the men soon retired to their mats for the night, two guests sat at a table, quietly chatting with McGee.
“We’re all the same,” McGee told them. “We’re all connected.”
When it was time for lights out, McGee and Valiere retired to mats on the floor, just like their guests.
The scene at St. Therese is repeated three nights a week from October through March; two parish volunteers spend the night with as many as 10 men who might otherwise be out on the street.
“It’s never the best night’s sleep you have, but it’s one of the best mornings,” McGee said.
Serving the homeless carries a special meaning for McGee. One of her brothers, struggling with addiction and other difficulties, once became homeless and needed assistance.
“Someone did it for my brother,” she said. “I really feel that these men we serve are somebody else’s brother.”
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Rooted in social justice
The ministry of serving the homeless is an extension of St. Therese’s mission of social justice, McGee said, a concept she learned while growing up with four siblings in Rapid City, South Dakota.
McGee’s mother Betty was a lay Franciscan. Her dad Frank led the guitar group at their parish, Blessed Sacrament. “Starting in first grade, you got a guitar and learned to play it, and were up there on the altar with everyone else,” she said. Betty, guitar in hand, would take the kids to a local nursing home to perform for the residents.
Sometimes the kids helped their mother when the lay Franciscans served at the local mission and food bank. “She used to drag me along,” McGee said. “I hated it.”
Unlike her older siblings who attended public high school, McGee chose St. Martin’s Academy, a Benedictine high school with a Jesuit principal who once was the family’s pastor.
“I feel really blessed, because in high school, [Father] Jim McDonough became like a spiritual director,” McGee said. “We would just go for walks and talk.”
On Father McDonough’s recommendation, McGee attended Gonzaga University. After graduation, she worked in Bellingham and Everett before getting married in Seattle in 1989. But the marriage ended just six years later.
“I never thought I was going to be divorced. And I certainly never thought I would be divorced with a 1-year-old,” McGee said. “It was hard to be Catholic and divorced and with a kid and not feel guilty.”
Already feeling “a little downtrodden,” she heard a priest during Mass “railing against divorce” and thought, “Why am I here?”
McGee left the church for a while, but was “never too far,” she said. When her son was about 3 years old, she found her way to St. Therese after hearing about the parish’s Shades of Praise Gospel Choir. “I could take my son and he could dance to the music,” she said.
“St. Therese was the thing that brought me back. It’s always been this great welcoming place, where they just had welcome arms for everyone.”
Deborah Tinsley serves up a breakfast of grits and chicken gravy for the homeless men staying at the St. Therese Parish shelter. Photo: Stephen Brashear
‘A level of dignity’
At St. Therese, that “everyone” includes the homeless. Since 1997, the parish has been part of a network of churches that help St. Martin de Porres Shelter in downtown Seattle serve more clients during the cold-weather months.
St. Martin’s, operated by Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, is a ministry to homeless men 50 and older. The shelter’s 212 beds aren’t enough to meet the demand, said Jennifer Newman, program director at St. Martin’s. Each fall and winter, six Catholic parishes and two Lutheran churches provide a total of 34 extra shelter beds each night. Still, some 30 men have to be turned away nightly, Newman said.
Many of the St. Martin’s men prefer to go to a shelter like the one at St. Therese, located in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood. “They’ve got more space, they’ve got more privacy, it’s quieter and they usually get nice snacks and a good breakfast,” Newman said.
At St. Therese, sleeping mats are arranged with 3–5 feet between “neighbors,” instead of mere inches. Next to each mat sits a chair, a place to remove shoes or stash belongings for the night.
“It’s a level of dignity. Everything’s not on the floor,” said Joan McNabb, who has spent 14 years as an overnight volunteer at St. Therese, where her husband, Greg, is the deacon and pastoral associate.
McNabb, who has been co-coordinator of the shelter ministry, sits on the steering committee, recruits and supports shelter volunteers and helps find new ways to engage more parishioners in the outreach ministry.
“Thanks to Joan, we’ve set our standard high,” said Catherine Pages, shelter co-coordinator.
Now the men enjoy the comfort of pillows, with pillowcases freshly laundered by parishioners. The pillows, McNabb said, are the result of her guilt about bringing her own pillow to the shelter when the men had none.
In the morning, parishioners arrive about 5:30 a.m. with a homemade hot breakfast — also an idea developed by McNabb — starting their guests’ new day on a positive note.
“It’s so important that people have a friendly hello and an opportunity to eat hot food that someone has prepared especially for them,” said Pages, who has been involved with the shelter ministry for five years.
By 6:30 a.m., the men have picked up sack lunches, also prepared by parishioners, and boarded the mini-bus for the drive back downtown, where some may have jobs waiting.
Volunteering at the shelter is “a remarkably easy way to feel fulfilled, to feel like you’re doing a good job,” said Patrick King, who has been an overnight volunteer for more than six years. “At least for that night, you are impacting the lives of 10 men you don’t know. I feel lucky that I have the opportunity to serve these guys.”
Elisa McGee setting up beds at St. Therese Parish shelter. Photo: Stephen Brashear
The drive to live Gospel values
The parish’s commitment to the shelter ministry impressed Father Maurice Mamba when he became priest administrator at St. Therese in October 2014.
“The concept of opening the doors of this parish to the less fortunate, the drive to actually live out the Gospel values, particularly social justice … that was the first thing that really struck me,” Father Mamba said.
With just 450 households, the parish manages to get 70 to 90 volunteers willing to keep the ministry running each season, from the overnight hosts to those who buy supplies for the shelter. The ministry operates almost entirely on donations.
“Everybody does their part. It all works together,” McGee said. “It is a mighty feat; I have to say, we’re a mighty little parish.”
McGee’s involvement with the shelter began by shopping for supplies with her young son. Then she signed on to deliver breakfast, later stepping up to be an overnight volunteer. The first couple of overnights were exhausting, she said, but the experience “didn’t meet any of the expectations that I had that were negative. … It was easy.”
Today, McGee sleeps at the shelter one night a month and each month she delivers breakfast to the men. “I bring my paper in and just sit and have coffee and spread the paper around, and have a meal together,” she said.
McGee has helped the men in ways that may seem small, but are important to them. One guest wanted a small padlock so he could lock the zipper on his backpack. Another needed a decent pair of shoes so he wouldn’t appear homeless when he went on job interviews.
She also helps keep the ministry on track by scheduling and training volunteers and filling in on short notice. McGee even gets visiting family members involved: Her brothers and elderly father have slept at the shelter. “They just kind of know that this is the gig,” she explained.
For McGee and other St. Therese shelter volunteers, the ministry fosters more compassion for these men who are living without a home.
“They’ve spent their day on the street. And they’re exhausted trying to find a place to sleep. By the time they get to us, they can let down and just kind of relax,” McGee said.
“It makes it easier not to judge when you’re closer to it and understand just what it takes to get through the day,” she said. “This ministry has been so great for our parish.”
New van needed
In the beginning, organizers of the St. Therese shelter faced objections from neighbors and parishioners. Read more.
St. Martin de Porres Shelter by the numbers
50 - minimum age of men served
212 - men provided shelter, 365 nights a year
34 - men sheltered nightly at local churches, October through March
30 - average number of men turned away each night for lack of shelter beds
Read more about St. Martin de Porres Shelter, a program of Catholic Community Services of Western Washington.
Overnight shelter partners
Many other local parishes partner with Catholic Community Services to provide overnight homeless shelters through CCS programs:
ARISE – St. Anthony and St. Stephen the Martyr, Renton
Family Housing Network – St. Frances Cabrini and St. John Bosco, Lakewood; St. Patrick and Visitation, Tacoma; All Saints, Puyallup; Bellarmine Prep, Tacoma
HOME – Holy Spirit, Kent; St. John the Baptist, Covington
Noel House Programs – Holy Rosary and St. John the Evangelist, Seattle
Reach Out – St. Vincent de Paul and St. Theresa, Federal Way
St. Martin de Porres Shelter – Christ the King, St. James Cathedral, St. Joseph, St. Mary, St. Therese and Our Lady of Fatima, Seattle
Sacred Heart Shelter – Sacred Heart of Jesus, Seattle (provides use of property)
This story appeared in the December 2015 issue of Northwest Catholic magazine under the title "Overflowing with compassion."