By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published February 2, 2012
It began with a simple idea of providing candles to MUST Ministries for the homeless in hopes of keeping rats away while they slept in the streets. Just two months later, the response and support of the parishioners at St. Ann Church has turned into a full-fledged ministry to help the less fortunate.
When St. Ann’s pastor Father Tom Reilly was approached during a liturgy meeting with the idea of collecting candles for the homeless, the priest felt that there had to be something more they could do to help. So he recorded a video message to be played during Mass throughout Advent, encouraging members to get involved in this budding ministry.
“I applaud MUST Ministries for doing this, but at the same time I was deeply affected by the thought of collecting candles so the light would keep rats away,” Father Reilly said in the message. “What has happened to us, as a country, a state, and a world? … Sixteen percent of the homeless nationwide are veterans. In Georgia, that number is 8 percent.”
“These veterans are men and women who served our country and fought to keep us free,” he continued. “Many of them have returned broken because of their experience. These are the people Jesus is talking about when he implored us not to harden our hearts when we hear the cry of the poor.”
Father Reilly asked parishioners to light a candle and keep it burning in their homes to remember the plight of the homeless. Over the next week, thousands of candles were collected and distributed at a homeless shelter. Richard Campbell, a friend of the pastor, suggested that the parish also collect military backpacks and distribute them with some basic supplies to homeless veterans.
That blossomed into an idea to collect supplies, including thermal blankets, T-shirts, underwear, toothbrushes and toothpaste, among other things, and assemble 100 backpacks to be distributed.
“The idea of the backpacks was to create a kind of home away from home,” said Campbell.
Father Reilly, Campbell and Jack Busche, director of ministries for the parish, were amazed at the community’s response. Dentists and hotels donated hygiene items, while TexSport of Houston, Texas, supplied thermal blankets at a hefty discount.
What was even more encouraging, however, was the response of the parishioners. During the third week of Advent, St. Ann’s sent out an email to 3,800 people asking them to consider donating toward all or part of a backpack. A full-page ad was placed in the church bulletin, and during weekend liturgies the priests talked of the backpack project and the hope of being able to distribute 100 at a cost of approximately $9,000. Father Reilly staffed the welcome desk in the narthex during weekend liturgies and took donations.
The response was staggering. The first weekend, parishioners gave enough for nearly 700 backpacks.
“We didn’t realize the response would be as overwhelming as it has been,” said Father Reilly.
“This all happened within a two-and-a-half-week period,” said Busche. “It was only in the bulletin once.”
During Christmas week, the community gathered together to help stuff the backpacks. And it was not just St. Ann’s parishioners participating. The idea spread by word of mouth and people from Jewish and Protestant congregations came to help, Busche said.
“It was all one cause that people focused on,” he said.
The backpacks were given to parishioner Pat Edelman, who works with MUST Ministries and distributed the first 50 backpacks.
In January, another 50 backpacks were distributed, 25 to the homeless division at the Veterans Administration Hospital and 25 to the Atlanta Feeding the Homeless Project.
What started as Christmas-time ministry has now expanded exponentially into a year-round effort. The remaining funds that were collected over the past two months will support the ministry throughout the rest of the year.
“We want to expand this so that it is a year-long project,” said Busche. “We have enough now so that we can stretch this out for the whole year. And as we get back into Advent again, we’ll do another push to get some additional funds.”
“Each Advent we will continue to raise awareness of the plight of the homeless and see if we can continue this project for years to come,” wrote Busche to parishioners last month. “See, we can make a difference! Your generosity has made it all possible.”