Local parishes lend a helping hand in times of need and crisis

There is no doubt that it is more rewarding to give than to receive; to help than to be helped. Reaching out and helping others not only changes the life of those who receive the support, but also those who open their hearts to do an act of kindness. 

Often, people may believe that they’re not in a financial position to help anyone, and therefore cannot help in any sort of tangible war. However, there are many other ways to help our neighbor besides financially. Parishes and their many ministries often serve as a catalyst for loving our neighbors. There is always something we can do for our brothers and sisters and to bless those around us; we just need a willing and open heart. 

Stephen Ministry 

That is exactly what the Stephen Ministry has done for the past 45 years: reach out to others and help those who need it most. Founded in 1975 by pastor and psychologist Dr. Kenneth C. Haugh, the Stephen Ministry has helped thousands of people and reached out to more than 13,000 congregations around the world. 

After seeing the great need to “equip saints for the work of ministry” (Eph 4:12), Dr. Haugh decided to help congregations coach their members to serve all those struggling with a variety of life difficulties, ranging from the loss of a loved one to financial needs. This how Stephen Ministers, or caregivers, were formed. They are lay congregation members trained to provide one-to-one Christ-centered care. 

Marlene Julian has served as a caregiver for the past 13 years and is currently the ministry leader for Saint John XXIII Catholic Church in Fort Collins. After experiencing the loss of her husband, Julian felt the need to help other people, not only financially, but emotionally. Through her friends from the parish, she heard about the Stephen Ministry and decided to attend one of the courses that was about to begin. 

“We want to provide them a compassionate face and confidential caregiving… we recognize that God is the cure giver and we are the caregivers,” said Julian. “We get to witness God’s work in people’s lives in amazing ways. We’re there to serve our parishes and anybody that needs help with any kind of a problem. It could be family challenges, hospitalization or illness, faith issues, financial difficulties, etc. 

I’m amazed at how brave people are and how courageous it is for somebody to reach out to a complete stranger and share what’s going on in their life, then we get to witness God work.

Marlene Julian, Stephen minister at St. John XXIII Parish in Fort Collins

“Being a Stephen minister has added so much to my life,“ she added. “It touches my heart every time I meet somebody. I’m amazed at how brave people are and how courageous it is for somebody to reach out to a complete stranger and share what’s going on in their life, then we get to witness God work. My faith in these last 13 years has just grown so much.”  

The Stephen Ministry not only recruits its caregivers to help as volunteers, it also guides and prepares them so that when they meet their care receiver, they know how to listen, pay attention to their needs, and guide those who are going through difficulties in life. To be part of the ministry, it is necessary to complete 50 hours of training, where various topics are taught, ranging from ‘grief ministry skills’ to how to recognize when an individual needs additional professional help.  

Among the numerous services that the ministry offers, its caregivers are trained to support people who are going through illness, family changes, depression, death of a loved one, divorce, loss of employment, financial difficulties, questions of faith, among others. Caregivers meet with people in need as often as necessary to provide emotional support, at no cost. 

Liz Hollowell, leader of the Stephen Ministry at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Fort Collins, knows that the work she does in her ministry is just God working through her. 

“I just can’t tell you how much it has changed my life,” said Hollowell. “With my very first care receiver I remember she said to me, ‘You’ve helped me so much!’ and I thought ‘But I didn’t do anything.’ It’s really the Holy Spirit working through you, listening, and letting them talk. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger.” 

For more information on the Stephen Ministry, visit: www.stephenministries.org.

Social Ministry 

Parishes are also there to help with some of the more mundane yet still pressing needs that people may have. Robert Fisher is in charge of the Social Ministry office at Holy Ghost Parish in Denver, and much of what he does is help Colorado residents get essential paperwork and identification; things that are a necessary part of everyday life. 

“Today, I’m primarily known around the city for helping with identification,” Fisher told the Denver Catholic. “So if they need a Colorado state I.D. or their license, I can pay for those through donations. If they’ve had one before, it’s pretty easy to get another one, and if they haven’t then we help them getting the other documents, too. The other thing we’re known for is birth certificates. I’m one of the few that does out-of-state birth certificates. 

“I’ve also just recently started helping with Social Security cards because they’re not doing in-person [applications],” he continued. “They’re now doing applications through the mail, so I’m able to do that with them, just fill it out and mail it in for them.” 

Among the other services Fisher provides with Holy Ghost’s social ministry office, he helps newly-employed folks get the proper tools they need to do their job and assists with prescription medication payments. 

Holy Ghost Parish stands as a “field hospital” in the midst of Downtown Denver. It is home to a very active social ministry that helps people get essential documentation, tools, meals and more. (Photo by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic)

“[For] people who have a job and can show it or prove it and just need a little bit of tools to help them perform the job, I can help pay for those,” he said. “And I can [help] pay for medication for individuals if they can provide proof that it’s prescribed.” 

While these services may not seem like much and perhaps even unusual for a parish to offer, they’re very helpful for people who have moved to Colorado from out of state, whom Fisher said make up most folks seeking his assistance. 

“That’s probably the biggest group that I get that need help, is those that have moved in,” Fisher explained. 

Another staple of the ministry is the sandwich line and serving other meals to those in need. Free meals are not too difficult to come by in Denver, Fisher said, but he recalled that when the COVID pandemic first hit, he did notice an increase in the demand and the amount of people coming to Holy Ghost for a meal. This is partly because due to social distancing protocols, some of the usual places had to temporarily shut down. 

“Once COVID hit, a lot of places stopped and we were one of the few that kept going,” Fisher said. “We were able to change some things around and had guys distance six feet. And we were serving what was the most that I’ve seen and heard about, which is about 100-150 a day. The average now is 30 to 40 a day, and before COVID, the average was 60 to 70.” 

Before working for Holy Ghost, Fisher was a missionary for Christ in the City, where he did outreach to the homeless and others in need. He is grateful for the opportunity to continue helping those in need and forming relationships with them, which is the best part of his job. 

“I think I just find the most joy hearing from them and talking with them and just sitting with them, especially when they don’t need something, because that’s when they’re just searching and they’re open,” he said. “They’re open to sit down and share or talk. We can just have a conversation. That’s what I love the most.” 

‘Standby’ Ministry 

When the COVID pandemic hit in March and the world shut down in the months that followed, Father Peter Wojda noticed something very peculiar: Nobody seemed to need any help. 

“It wasn’t exactly what I expected,” Father Wojda, pastor of the Catholic parishes of Grand and Jackson Counties, told the Denver Catholic near the end of October. “I set up a charity account and I let people know so they could start donating to it because I figured we’d have people that were losing jobs and whatnot.” 

However, a grand total of just two people came seeking help over the past eight months. 

“I had one person come looking for a hotel room, and they’re not a parishioner, they were just kind of passing through, and then someone else passing through, when their car broke down, one of our parishioners sold them a fantastic vehicle for dirt cheap and we helped out with that as well. That was it in the last eight months.” 

A similar thing happened when the East Troublesome Fire hit Grand County and forced the residents of Granby and the surrounding mountain towns to evacuate. The parishes went on “standby,” so to speak, and were available to help with whatever was needed. 

The remains of a home burned down by the East Troublesome Fire. (Photo courtesy of Father Peter Wojda)

“I know of three parishioners that lost homes,” Father Wojda said. “As far as I know, all of our parishioners evacuated safely and found housing with family or friends. I know there are people who escaped with just the clothes they were wearing, but they didn’t come our way. I have been asking around but everyone I talk to have been doing relatively well. The community in the county was amazing, with lots of people helping other to evacuate homes and ranches.” 

Despite many of the material needs in the wake of the fire being met, Father Wojda said the parishioners up in Grand and Jackson counties found other ways to help, especially on the nights when the temperatures dipped to below freezing. 

“The sheriff asked for help from some of the tradespeople like plumbers and stuff and he got 40 or 50 people, including a couple of our parishioners, to go up with his officers to try to shut off water in the homes to prevent further damage to homes that may have actually survived,” Father Wojda said.  

It’s been impressive to see the willingness of his parishioners and others from the local community to step up and help, Father Wojda said.  

Parishioners of the Catholic parishes in Grand and Jackson counties helped out however they could as the East Troublesome Fire raged in surrounding areas. (Photo courtesy of Father Peter Wojda)

“[There’s been] so many people just saying, ‘oh, I can do that,’ and showing up, not getting paid or anything, but [they] just recognized this is needed,” he said. “I’ve seen that in many different ways. In that sense, it’s been really good … [it’s] one of those things where I feel like it’s almost a shame that we need these big crises and tragedies for us to become who we’re supposed to be. But it’s beautiful.” 

Father Wojda expects the most pressing needs to become more apparent in the aftermath of the fires. Until then, the parishes remain on “standby,” ready and willing to help however they can. 

“The more difficult part will be working with the people who lost their homes, next week, next month… that kind of thing,” Father Wojda concluded. “In my mind, that’s going to be where we are doing more. We’ve been getting a list of people to call and we’ll be trying to keep in touch with them and taking more initiative in that way.” 

Rocio Madera and Aaron Lambert contributed to this report.  

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.