When Vicki Philips heard Deacon Tim Sullivan talk about ministering to the poor, her first reaction was that no way was she going into downtown Detroit.
“I was afraid,” she said.
She became a volunteer anyway with PBJ Outreach Inc., and for seven years has been a greeter who hugs the people she once feared.
“We have the same needs,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “We are the same people — God’s people.”
The face of Christ
The ministry was founded in 2002 by Deacon Sullivan and members of Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church in Plymouth, Mich. Volunteers come from the parish, other churches and the community.
“I tell new volunteers, ‘You are going to see the face of Christ today, and you are going to see it in a different way than you ever thought,’” he said. “And I tell them that the people will see the face of Christ looking back at them.”
The volunteers meet at the church at 6 a.m. every Saturday to prepare food to take to a vacant lot at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Third Street, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in one of America’s most depressed cities. Each Saturday they serve more than 250 people — the homeless, the poor, the elderly and the lonely — who come for sandwiches and fellowship.
“You see a lot of handshakes and hugs and looking into the eyes of people who are used to being shunned,” Deacon Sullivan told OSV. “They are used to being ignored, and just for us to recognize them brings them back every week. Since we started, we have served probably 120,000 people.”
He got the idea for the ministry when he and his wife, Gail, were in Boston in July 2002.
“We saw a young woman had a card table set up and she was making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the homeless,” he said. “The next day we saw a lady sitting on the ground, leaning against a building, and she had a sign that said, ‘I’m homeless. Help.’ She was filthy and her clothes were dirty.”
He gave her money, then Gail Sullivan said she would pray for her, and asked her name. She said it was Pam, then she asked, “What are your names? I want to pray for you.”
On the flight back home, Deacon Sullivan knew what he had to do.
PBJ Outreach took off fast, adding drinks, a variety of sandwiches, chips and snacks, and simple hot meals like beans and franks. They also pass out bags of bread, peanut butter and jelly to go and school supplies for children before classes begin. There’s a clothing distribution twice a month.
Festive meals, like turkey dinners, are served on holidays, and there are gift boxes for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Christmas. Last December, the ministry asked parishioners to donate 400 gift boxes and got 1,200. The rest were given to shelters and warming centers.
Prayers and blessings
All of the volunteers bring gifts to the ministry, like Philips with her funny holiday hats that make people smile.
“One volunteer, Darlene Sabol, brings first-aid supplies, like bandages,” program director Christina Hohman said. “And Tim and I pray with people when they come through the food line. We don’t make them pray, but we offer.”
One morning when a man that she hadn’t seen for three months asked for her prayers, she said, “I know you, Truman. I prayed for you yesterday.” He was surprised and touched that anyone remembered him and prayed for him.
Another man has been declining prayers, but lately, he’s come closer to listen to others.
“We are trying to bring people to God, but we don’t want to overwhelm anyone,” Hohman said. “We want them to know that we care.” They care for each other, too. One man collects discarded bags of peanuts from around the nearby stadium and shares them on Saturdays.
Later this year, PBJ Outreach will open a daily soup kitchen with services like literacy programs, 12-step meetings and job opportunities in a planned cottage food industry.
“When I first started, one of the hardest things to ask anyone was how they are doing,” Deacon Sullivan said. “If I were in their spot, I would tell you exactly how I was doing. But about 98 percent of the time, they say, ‘I am blessed.’ That really sticks out to me the most, that they feel blessed. I am blessed, too.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
On the Web
Learn more by visiting pbjoutreach.org.