MILWAUKEE — There’s a saying that when God closes a door, somewhere, he’s sure to open a window.
The adage certainly holds true in the life MacCanon Brown – a minister’s daughter turned writer and teacher, a Milwaukee transplant at risk of homelessness who herself became the executive director of one of the city’s best-regarded homeless nonprofits.
And so when, in 2013, a rift with the board of directors resulted in Brown’s termination from Repairers of the Breach, the daytime homeless shelter she had co-founded 21 years earlier, she didn’t despair.
“That was, of course, devastating. It had been my life’s work. I was dying a thousand deaths,” she told the Catholic Herald in an interview earlier this year at the Marian Shrine in Milwaukee. “But in my own prayer life, I was getting a different signal – that it wasn’t over.”
And it wasn’t. In spring of 2014, Brown and her supporters announced the founding of the MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary, which would serve the needs of Milwaukee’s Amani neighborhood, specifically the 53206 zip code.
Two years later, the MBHS has grown to over 200 volunteers and three part-time employees who organize weekly programs out of Hephatha Lutheran Church at North 18th and West Locust streets.
Additionally, on Sept. 17, MBHS signed an offer to purchase agreement for a five-story building at 2461 W. Center St., where Brown hopes to expand services to once again reach the scale of the work she did while at Repairers of the Breach.
“I have a commitment to the city of Milwaukee and its people – to the greater Milwaukee area – to do everything I can for the safety net, while I am still able and am still here,” said Brown, who turns 71 this year. “I am dedicating the rest of my life (to this).”
During Brown’s time as executive director of Repairers of the Breach, the organization became known throughout Milwaukee and the nation for its grassroots homeless advocacy. For many, Brown had come to be the personification of its mission – a humanistic, corporate-free ministry that, by 2012, reached close to 100 people each day with lunches, showers, clothing, fellowship, support, help seeking employment and more.
But in August 2013, what Brown now calls “a total schism” erupted between herself and the board of directors of the organization, resulting in her termination as executive director. The board alleged in court documents that Brown and five volunteers who supported her attempted a takeover of the ministry. An ensuing legal battle was settled several months later.
All Brown is free to say of the matter is that “it was based on a conflict between myself and that board over the future of the mission and vision of the organization.”
PO Box 80165,
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Donations of clothing, bedding and hygiene items welcome. For information, call (414) 305-8997.
She said that, following her termination, she briefly considered a career change, but the support of hundreds of friends and colleagues motivated her to remain in advocacy work.
“When that many people pray for you, it’s so powerful. I just kept getting stronger,” she said. “And then some people said, ‘Oh, when you get your new organization going, let me know how I can help.’ And I thought, ‘What?’”
Several of her supporters founded the MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary in March 2014.
She was against the idea of naming the sanctuary after herself, Brown said, but she was overruled. “(My supporters) felt that there was a legacy in that, and there was also the sense that people connect my name with a vision … that who I am represents something much larger than me or any individual,” she said.
Offering ‘the toolbox’ in Milwaukee’s food desert
The Amani neighborhood stretches from Capitol Drive to North Avenue between 15th and 35th streets. According to the United States Census Bureau, close to 50 percent of that area’s residents live below the federal poverty level. Unemployment is close to 30 percent.
Soon after the establishment of the MBHS, said Brown, it became clear this was the neighborhood on which she needed to focus.
“This is Milwaukee’s food desert. It is resource-scarce,” she said. “The poverty rate is the highest in Wisconsin. The incarceration rate is the highest in the country.”
Currently, Hephatha Lutheran Church is ground zero for the MBHS weekly programs, which include Sunday morning clothing distribution and free supper for neighborhood adults every Friday.
Diners are served beverages, entrees and dessert restaurant-style at their tables, and carryout is available for them to take to their families at home. Attendance has been steadily increasing, said meal coordinator Clare Peiffer, who estimated that every week 30 to 40 dinners are served at Hephatha and another 100 meals are carried out.
MBHS partner organizations are also present at the Friday supper, offering assistance in veterans’ services, financial coaching and employment assistance.
“We give the toolbox,” said Brown of the partner organizations’ offerings. “What we’re doing is a miniature of what would be a fully operational (organization) like it was at Repairers of the Breach.”
One partner organization is St. Anthony on the Lake Church, Pewaukee, who at the beginning of Lent chose the MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary as one of its six “Partners in Mercy,” organizations that the parish’s human concerns committee has specifically selected.
“We want to go beyond just giving somebody a check. We want to develop a relationship,” said Tom Bohmann, a member of St. Anthony’s human concerns committee.
Today, he coordinates the delivery of fresh produce to the MBHS Sunday clothing distribution. During the summer, the produce is harvested from a special “Amani Garden” maintained by students at Milwaukee University School; during the winter months, it is donated from excess inventory at Outpost Natural Foods Co-Op.
Minister father inspired Brown
In a way, ministry is the Brown family business. Brown, born in 1945 in Iowa, is descended from three generations of Protestant clergymen. She was raised in a United Methodist parsonage, an upbringing that would come to shape her worldview.
“My parents were always treating the hundreds and hundreds of people that (came through) our living room the same, whether they were senators or prostitutes. They always showed everyone love and respect,” she said.
Homeless advocacy was not something she chose. Rather, she says now, it seemed to choose her. When she moved to Milwaukee in 1986, she was close to homelessness herself, and the community at St. Ben’s Meal Program welcomed her.
She later became involved in the Benedict Institute for Urban Ministry and, with her financial situation becoming more secure, she made a vow to do all she could to help those who were homeless or at risk of being homeless.
The same year she helped to found Repairers of the Breach, Brown converted to Catholicism.
“All the doors that were opening were Catholic,” she said of that time in her life. “I prayed about it and I just really couldn’t help but notice it.”
She names Dorothy Day as a significant influence in her conversion to Catholicism and cites daily prayer and meditation as “vital aspects of my work.”
Brown has joint membership in Ss. Peter and Paul and St. Benedict the Moor parishes, both in Milwaukee. She has dedicated her life to “working in the Calcuttas of Milwaukee … as a warrior and protectoress of our brothers and sisters who live in despair, who are the American untouchables, the broken-apart … those lost on paths of destruction.”
The second primary conversion
At the MBHS, as at Repairers of the Breach, Brown has exhibited a knack for uniting the so-called “haves” with the “have-nots,” although she has made it her life’s work to break down such distinctions.
“The people who are outcast are more equipped to unify our society than the people who are supposedly key leaders, movers and shakers,” she said.
“You always go down and say, ‘I want to give. I want to fix,’” said Bohmann, a former Repairers of the Breach volunteer who credits Brown with motivating him to become involved in service to the poor. “And that’s not the idea. It takes a while to get used to the fact that you just need to be there … to get beyond that and just spend some time with the people.”
At the weekly Friday community dinner, said Peiffer, also a parishioner at St. Anthony, conveying dignity to their guests is as important as serving them food.
“We want to bring them (parishioners) down to the city and meet the people instead of being afraid and basing their opinions on what they read in the paper, or stereotypes in the media,” she said. “I’ve seen so many people just drop that guard once they actually meet people face-to-face that are from a different background or live in a different part of the city.”
Brown calls that moment “the second primary conversion.”
“We have a conversion where we give our life to Jesus … (and) we allow that the Holy Spirit fills us and is our primary guide in our life,” she said. “But the second conversion that’s been missing for so many people is the conversion that happens when you are with the poorest of the poor and you see each other as ‘we.’ Something amazing happens. Those who are in the culture of abundance, the culture of stability hunger for the kind of transformation that happens when you are in a oneness with the poorest of the poor.”
Finding a home for the MBHS
Brown and the MBHS have until Dec. 23 to raise the $175,000 needed to cover the cost of the building on West Center Street.
“We really are optimistic about meeting that goal,” said Brown in a phone interview with the Catholic Herald. “Pledges are starting to come in. We have had hundreds of people of faith praying that we get that building – especially people who have taken tours and could really see the vision of our work there.”
Once the building is purchased, Brown said that they hope to develop it one floor at a time.
When it is completed, it will be “a life-giving center,” she said.
“This place will be a mecca of solidarity – just as in my previous work, where we brought many, many faith-based groups to be in solidarity with the people who are homeless and impoverished,” she said. “We believe this will be a place where miracles will happen.”