Huddled on a milk crate in the shadow of a church on North Avenue, Michelle Kasper knew she had hit rock bottom.
She was surrounded by drugs, violence, prostitution, poverty – and, in fact, her own life revolved around those very evils.
She was homeless, living on the streets and smoking crack daily.
But in the shadow of the church’s steeple, she remembers sitting on that crate about eight or nine years ago and feeling “an overwhelming presence of God. I knew everything was going to be OK, and I felt the most at peace I had ever been.”
She described that time as the first time she ever felt God.
“It was the worst time in my life, but I felt peace. I felt free from all the burdens I left. It was an overwhelming sense of peace. I saw the stars, felt the warm air and felt everything would be OK,” she said.
Things did not become OK overnight. In fact, Kasper, 39, faces daily challenges as she struggles to remain sober – she’s approaching the seven-year sobriety mark – and tries to rebuild a life for herself away from the streets.
Yet, she’s doing so with the help of her newfound Catholic faith – a faith that she said has brought peace to her life.
Kasper entered the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil this year at St. Gabriel Parish, Hubertus, a decision she made after seeing the way the two people who saved her from the streets live their Catholic faith daily.
Deacon Steve Przedpelski and Carmen Mojica, a certified social worker, run Franciscan Peacemakers, an outreach to women, men and children who engage in prostitution on the streets of Milwaukee.
As part of their ministry, they drive around the neighborhood surrounding Franciscan Peacemakers headquarters at St. Martin de Porres Parish, and try to meet people’s basic needs, offering bag lunches, personal care items, first aid and emotional support.
Many times, they said, they encountered Kasper while on their rounds, and many times, according to Mojica, she rebuffed their offers of help.
Like most of their clients, Kasper was abused as a child. She described her childhood in Oak Creek as dysfunctional.
After graduating from high school, she enrolled at Carroll College, and made it through three years before dropping out. She worked for an electronics company as a program manager, but when she was laid off in 2003, her life spiraled out of control.
She became hooked on drugs, exhausted her 401k retirement plan and, when she was desperately in need of money for drugs, turned to the streets.
Deacon Przedpelski and Mojica often saw her on the streets and spoke with her, but she continued to reject their help.
About seven years ago, however, she called Deacon Przedpelski out of desperation. He immediately dropped his plans – a date at Summerfest with his wife – to help her, and has continued to be there for Kasper in the years since.
With his and Mojica’s help, Kasper has her own apartment and dog, Francis, is enrolled at Mount Mary University where she just made the dean’s list with a 3.73 grade point average and where she expects to complete her degree in social work in 2018, and serves as client support specialist for Franciscan Peacemakers and helps with the organization’s soap and bath products business that raises money for the ministry. Once she graduates, she will take on a greater role at Franciscan Peacemakers.
“I laugh inside because (Kasper’s embrace of Catholicism) is not in my wildest dreams something I would have thought would happen having first met her on the streets,” said Deacon Przedpelski. “It is a blessing for me.”
Kasper was baptized Lutheran, and while her family was not overly religious, she grew up equating God with someone who doled out punishment.
“The church I went to viewed God as somebody mean,” she said, adding, “I thought God was a person who punished and there came to be a point in life when I did not believe in God.”
As she spent time around Mojica and Deacon Przedpelski, however, she felt drawn to their beliefs.
“Being around Carmen and Steve made me want to look into being Catholic,” she admitted, explaining she thought about it for about a year and a half before taking action.
Worried that people in the church would look down on her or judge her because of her past, she hesitated, but “I decided to do it based on how I felt when I saw how Carmen and Steve act on a daily basis.”
Mojica and Deacon Przedpelski belong to St. Gabriel Parish, Hubertus, and when she approached him with her interest in the church, Deacon Przedpelski suggested she enroll in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) program there.
Rather than being rejected for her past, Kasper has had an effect on those around her at the parish, according to Deacon Przedpelski.
“There’s been the reverse impact as well of people who did listen to Michelle and who were moved by her story,” he said, adding some of those individuals opened up to him about addictions in their families. “She gave them courage and opened doors for people.”
Learning about the Catholic Church and becoming part of the church has had positive effects on her life, said Kasper.
“I have more peace – I do have more peace – my prayer life is better. I have more confidence and it has given me strength to keep moving forward even though things keep coming up,” she said. “I have a better understanding that Jesus is always with us. I think for a while I was angry,” she said, describing how she felt God abandoned her or gave her more than she could handle, such as surgeries to correct damage done to her body over the years, trauma from various experiences and the pressure of school.
“I would question, ‘Why is God giving me this?’ but I’ve come to realize he’s not giving this to us, he’s not harming us, he is with us. I believe he is with me, otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” she said.
And it was Bishop Donald J. Hying who helped her come to this realization. A supporter of Franciscan Peacemakers’ ministry, Bishop Hying got to know Kasper through his visits to the center.
“He showed me how if there wasn’t a God, how would I get through everything?” she said. “There is something bigger than us, and it just brought a sense of peace knowing he’s right that there is something bigger than us, something bigger in us,” she said of the bishop who, even after he left to become bishop of Gary, Indiana, took the time to pray with her over the phone prior to her surgeries.
While Kasper said she has been inspired by Mojica and Deacon Przedpelski as they serve the poor and vulnerable, they are also inspired by her.
Mojica, who served as Kasper’s sponsor, described her as a “very compassionate person.”
She told a story of how Kasper was living in her own apartment, but was struggling to make ends meet. In an effort to help her, Franciscan Peacemakers gave her a basket of food for Thanksgiving.
“But what she did was cook it all up and put it in the hallway for families that needed it and she put the food in containers for two homeless guys she knew,” said Mojica, adding she has also taken pizza to the park to share with her homeless friends.
“She really inspires me,” said Mojica, “and when she has questions about faith, it causes me to think about what I am doing. She has a really deep spiritual side to her, and I see her reaching out to people like Jesus would.”