This past Sunday, I celebrated Mass at Saint Norbert parish in Paoli. The first reading was from Isaiah 58: a passage that led to the birth of Bethesda Project, a ministry to the homeless in Philadelphia. Some 35 years ago, the leadership of the “Body of Christ Prayer Community” (a group of close to 300 people who met every Wednesday in the Abbey church to praise and thank the Lord) were sharing over this text when they came to a simple realization — finding the time to praise the Lord was but half the story. They also had to take the initiative to “feed the hungry and shelter the homeless”. Our own Father Domenic Rossi and a wonderful woman named Phyllis Martin, who would eventually become an Abbey Oblate, were among those leaders, who proceeded to share their insight with the full group. Soon the community was sponsoring a shelter for a dozen homeless women, that the Mercy Sisters had set up in the upper floors above the “Ugly Pub” in center city.
Three years later, what was now called Bethesda Project, helped by a $ 20,000 grant from the Abbey’s tithing fund, purchased an old house near 11th and Spruce and moved the ladies to a lovely facility that still is going strong. Indeed, the house on Spruce Street is one of five “permanent residences” (serving over 120 women and men who are no longer homeless) that are matched by a series of “overnight shelters” (that provide a safe haven for close to 300 men one night at a time), all interconnected as part of Bethesda’s mission “to seek out the abandoned poor and be family to those who have none”.
For most of the last twenty years, I have been blessed to serve on Bethesda’s Board of Directors– and one of my greatest joys as a priest has been to preach on behalf of Bethesda at area churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Not surprisingly, a little bit of this story was the way I opened my homily this morning on Isaiah 58.