Retreat ‘rekindled’ faith

Kositzke, who identifies himself as non-denominational, said he believes he can learn from and teach others on the retreat that included meals, large/small group sessions, a witness talk by a formerly homeless person, time in nature, reflection and sharing. It was a weekend that “rekindled” his faith.

“I think this is a very good thing what’s going on, and what’s going on here right now,” Kositzke said of the retreat, adding it’s especially timely “because so many people are discouraged nowadays. (To) give them a little hope and to give them a little push, I think, in the right direction is the most important thing out there right now.”

The retreat, a cooperative effort between Ignatian Spirituality Project, a Chicago-based Jesuit ministry founded by Jesuit Fr. Bill Creed in 1998 that offers spiritual retreats to end homelessness, Gesu Parish and Marquette University Campus Ministry, is one of two types – day or overnight.

Tom Drexler, executive director of ISP, said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald, that the retreats are designed to free homeless men and women in recovery from addiction from “the junk, the bad choices, the tragedy, the trouble in their life that keeps them from entering into healthy, right relationships with one another and with God.”

Drexler was working at DePaul University when Fr. Creed, his spiritual director, piqued his interest about becoming executive director of ISP, something which combined retreats for the marginalized with Ignatian spirituality and 12-step recovery work.

“So often retreats are available for people with some disposable income and the disposable time, able to carve the time in their busy schedule, but retreats for men and women who are homeless (don’t) happen very often,” he said. “So I just thought what a privilege to be able to work within Ignatian spirituality with the men and women living on the margins.”

Formerly homeless speaker is ‘tangible sign of hope’

The cost to conduct the retreats averages about $2,500 – at no cost to the participant – if personnel from Chicago travel to the retreat city. But Drexler said that once the city can run the retreats on its own, and if it helps with fundraising like Milwaukee has, that cost decreases to about $1,500. Ideally, retreats involve about 12 retreatants, according to Drexler, with one being a formerly homeless man or woman who has made the retreat. “That person plays a really key role on the retreat because he or she is a tangible sign of hope, and if the retreatants walk away with anything, it’s a solid foundation of hope that things can change,” he said.

Drexler, who grew up attending St. Jude the Apostle Parish in Milwaukee, and who has been in recovery from his own alcohol addiction for more than 20 years, said the facilitators don’t have to be recovering from addiction or homelessness to be able to relate to the homeless men on the retreats. Facilitators and retreatants make the retreat and learn together.

“What we say is that everyone has brokenness in their life, everyone struggles with certain things that hold them down – maybe it’s an addiction to perfectionism, maybe it’s an addiction to control – but we all have areas in our life that we need to let go of,” he said, adding, “so, as long as you as a facilitator go and share that, go to that vulnerable point in your life, you’re going to be OK.”

Retreat serves to ‘repair the breach’

Gerry Fischer, associate director of campus ministry at Marquette University, was facilitator for the first men’s retreat in Milwaukee in April 2009.

“So, you do get something out of it, I mean, just in terms of your own personal reflection, but the other part of it that I think is essential is, and I like to throw this around, it’s the name of the homeless shelter … it repairs the breach,” he said, referring to the Repairers of the Breach, a daytime shelter and resource center for homeless people in Milwaukee’s central city.

“I think there’s so much separation in the world; we have these categories for people and who we should associate with and who we shouldn’t, and this (retreat) sort of breaks down that barrier. I think that we just recognize the humanity of everyone and the stories that people have – their life stories are not that different than you or I in that something similar, without the support of a family or something, could have happened to any one of us,” said Fischer, who spent a few hours on the Sunday of the retreat preparing a lunch for the homeless men. He was assisted by a few students involved in Midnight Run, a Marquette program where students serve the hungry and homeless.

This year, Fischer, who secured a $1,500 grant from an agency within Marquette for Milwaukee retreats, said he stepped down from his role as a facilitator to be part of the support team in charge logistics, e.g., contacting the shelters, arranging for transportation, meeting with the candidates, to let more “rookies” get involved, which is important to the future of the program.

“It’s a challenge, because you want your seasoned volunteers who have volunteered for you for a few years, who feel really comfortable with interaction with the homeless people and have heard some of the stories before (to join the team),” he said, adding that it’s important to give new people a chance, but to also keep the facilitating group small so that the focus stays on the homeless men and their forgotten “spiritual wounded-ness.”

“I think it’s an important piece, the spiritual piece, and I think that a big part of it is just getting the people out of the city – new environment, new group of people, some time and space to think, reflect and pray and gain support from one another,” Fischer said.

‘Poor deserve beautiful things, too’


Beneath the spires of the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians at Holy Hill, participants in the May 1-2 retreat for homeless men, wait in the lunch line. The retreat was a cooperative effort between Ignatian Spirituality Project, a Chicago-based Jesuit ministry, Gesu Parish and Marquette University Campus Ministry. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)

Jordan Skarr, associate director of ISP, who came from the Chicago office to lead the retreat weekend, said that no one goes into the retreat without being changed. He equated the importance of the retreats for the homeless to a story about Dorothy Day’s comment to angry staff at a shelter where she worked and their reaction when she gave a diamond ring to one of her friends there. “‘Well, the poor deserve beautiful things, too,’ and I think in some ways, that’s why this is important to me because on one hand, the economic status shouldn’t really impede you from going on a retreat, shouldn’t impede you from being a part of something that’s meaningful, being a part of community, being a part of really beautiful places in the world,” he said.

“And I think, too, on the retreats, you’re really being a part of the solution. You’re really offering this great spiritual tradition to folks that are maybe coming to understand themselves and their relationship with God in a new way for the first time, and I think that’s – that’s really important.”

During the last large group session at Holy Hill, smiles spread across many of the men’s faces as they filed into a small room, some carrying miniature bags of chips, one with a Diet Coke and a few more sipping on small cups of coffee. The friendly chatter and uplifting atmosphere didn’t resemble lost hope, sadness – words associated with homelessness.

Purpose is to be light for others

The men took their seats on a dark blue couch and other pieces of furniture arranged in a circle as Skarr reflected on the purpose of the retreat.

“We want to spend just a little bit of time thinking about how we can take what we’ve learned here – how we can take maybe, in some ways, how we’re different or what we’ve learned or how we’re feeling – and how we can take that back because the point of the retreat’s not to stay on retreat, but to go back better and to be that light for others,” he said.

After listening to Wayne Richards, a formerly homeless man attended a retreat, turned his life around and is now part of the retreat team that travels to different cities, retreatants were left to ask themselves what God is speaking to their thoughts and where he’s inviting them to go in their lives.

While the retreatants broke off into the last small groups session, Luke Hornof, a Marquette University junior and part of Midnight Run’s coordinating team, stood at the charcoal grill outside flipping burgers and hot dogs in preparation for lunch.

“Just as we go on retreats and experience that and, grow as a group … why shouldn’t homeless men have that same opportunity?” Hornoff, who spent a few hours on Sunday as a volunteer cook, said. “I think (what) I’m going to find, just by talking to some of them is that, you know, their experience is going to be a lot like ours and just we’re all I don’t know – we’re all the same.”

Sullivan Oakley, also a junior on the Midnight Run coordinating team, said that helping was a nice break from studying, and that her reflection on the “beautiful” drive made her think about how nice it was to get out of the city.

“Even more so, how amazing it must be for these men to get out of the city, kind of where they’re surrounded all the time in a place where there’s like a lot of life going on, but also a place that’s kind of messy sometimes,” Oakley said about one aspect she found important to the retreat. “But just to come out here and relax in this beautiful weather and just be able to kind of form relationships and have some peace out here is amazing.”

Oakley noted that the retreat serves more than the men’s physical needs.

“It caters to a different kind of need and really respects the human dignity and the needs of the poor just beyond their material needs, and (while) giving them a meal and, you know, a place to stay, while all well and good, their spiritual needs need to be cared for,” she said. “… they need to be in conversation with us and kind of taking part in those type of reflective activities because it’s just really important for their own personal development, and that’s something that I think gets looked over and ignored among the marginalized.”

Retreat helps put problems into perspective

Darrick Nathan, 46, has been homeless for almost a year. He came to the retreat from The Guest House. He sang and danced as he waited in line to fill his plate with food, making some of the men nearby smile.

“I love to get everybody smiling and, you know, keep it going,” Nathan said in an interview with your Catholic Herald. “It makes the day go by and it makes people laugh, and, you know, get the goodness in them – it just rubs off on them.”

Nathan’s trouble with alcohol – he once drank a pint of tequila and a 12-pack of beer in one night after a fight with his daughter – helped him spiral toward homelessness.

“Just went all the way misery with it, you know, just drunk all my problems up,” he said.

First he was sent to the Rescue Mission, before he went to The Guest House, or, what he considers “the best thing that has ever happened to me,” and what gave him the chance to attend the retreat that put his problems into perspective.

“You get to hear someone else’s problem that’s a little (more) serious than yours, you know, and so some problems are worse off than others, so, you know, and sometimes you think about it, ‘Whoa, my problem ain’t nothing compared to what his is. I don’t want his problem, I’ll stick with mine,’” Nathan said, adding that others’ stories will help him not to make the same mistakes.

Nathan, who identified himself as Christian, said his goal is to finish The Guest House’s program, get a good job that he can retire from and an apartment to come home to, maybe even get married – if that’s in his life’s plan – so he can “do what regular people do.”

The homeless men’s retreat gave Nathan and others a break from the city noise, but he said it also re-focused his life.

“For these two days that I’ve been here, I’ve enjoyed myself – the peace and quiet, to sleep in my own room for a change and it brought me back to reality that I am who I am, you know, to keep doing what’s right,” he said, speaking in between puffs on a cigarette. “I feel a lot better about myself. I felt good at first, but I feel 100 percent better now ‘cause I know where I want to go.”