“We evangelize through our presence”
By Sara Francis
Picture a severe bed bug infestation in your home, but you didn’t have the resources or support network to leave for a few days while it was fumigated. This would have been the fate of a family in the community if St. Michael’s Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SSVP) hadn’t stepped up to pay for a few nights’ hotel stay. One of the family members couldn’t be exposed to the chemicals due to allergies.
“We try to give people a hand up so they can get themselves into a better situation,” said Jeanne Besner, St. Michael’s SSVP coordinator.
The SSVP is an international lay Catholic organization whose mission is to serve Christ in the poor with love and respect. With the economic downturn in recent years, the 40-member parish-based chapter has been very active.
“There is no question — when there is an economic downturn, we get a lot more requests for food and emergency assistance to keep the power on and winter clothes for the kids,” said Besner.
The people they serve are called friends. Often, these are people who are on welfare and may need extra support.
“They are living so close to the margin that any unexpected expenditure makes it impossible to manage their regular housing, food, utilities. We often hear from people with exceptional circumstances.”
Sometimes it’s middle to higher income earners who have been laid off as a result of the economic downturn who turn to SSVP.
“They have a house, a mortgage, a car. They don’t have a job. They did have reserves, but after living without an income for two or three years, everything they had saved up is gone. And now, they are unable to keep the power on in the house,” said Besner.
People hear about SSVP through word of mouth or referrals from other agencies. With every request, a volunteer performs a thorough assessment of the situation before offering assistance. Each month, several volunteers deliver 30 food hampers, assisting roughly 50 adults and children.
“We are very lucky because we get strong (financial) support from our parishioners,” said Besner. St. Michael’s is able to share its resources with other SSVP parish chapters. During Christmas, it provides 30 food hampers to St. Bernard’s Parish in Parkdale, and other requests for rent assistance as the need arises.
The Society serves people of all backgrounds and religions. And while the volunteers don’t overtly talk about their Christian faith, sometimes the people they serve ask to know more. Currently, Besner brings a woman and her child from a shelter to Sunday Mass, and another volunteer brings a refugee family to the church.
“We evangelize through our presence, not our preaching,” said Besner.
She counts herself among the dedicated volunteer base for whom ministering to Christ through the poor is very rewarding.
“It makes you extremely grateful for what you have. We encounter so often that except by the grace of God, we could be in their shoes. We learn to be non-judgmental. They may be women fleeing violence and trying to make it on their own. They might be immigrants who have been professors in their home country, but they can’t get a job here and need to work at Safeway.
“There’s a lot of joy and satisfaction that comes from helping somebody in need. And sometimes, it’s just downright disheartening and that’s when you are grateful for what you have.”