Spiritual Directors 'Widen Horizons' to Serve Poor

By Berggren, Kris | National Catholic Reporter, September 16, 2005 | Go to article overview

Spiritual Directors 'Widen Horizons' to Serve Poor


Berggren, Kris, National Catholic Reporter


Jesus himself, it could be argued, was the first spiritual director in the Christian tradition--and he worked largely with the marginalized, not the affluent, inviting people considered unclean, unworthy or uncivilized to know God's love and care for them. Today, spiritual directors' hourly fees range from $25 to $85--usually on a sliding scale--and while many do pro bono work, spiritual direction remains largely the purview of the privileged.

But the pursuit and practice of spiritual direction is moving back into the margins as spiritual directors and retreat centers reach out to populations that have not traditionally been able to access or afford personal care for their souls, including the homeless, exoffenders and low-income immigrants.

"I think we often forget that people in crisis, which these people are, are in more need of spiritual journeying and nurturance than the rest of us on a bad day. To live in a constant state of upheaval, you really need to have some spiritual sustenance for yourself," said Janet Corso, a spiritual director and administrator at Mariandale Center in Ossining, N.Y. The center, sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of Hope, offers periodic retreats for homeless men and women, and female ex-offenders. "I can't say it's a trend, but it's something that could grow in the future. I think trained spiritual directors need to widen their own horizons."

Only 15 of the 5,000 members of the professional association Spiritual Directors International identify work with the poor or homeless as their primary focus, according to Liz Budd Ellmann, the organization's executive director. However, she noted that interest is growing among spiritual directors in formation to work with people on the streets or in prisons."

"Rather than an emerging trend," said Ellmann, "it's returning to the roots of the purpose of spiritual direction, which is to connect us to the holy and our prayer life and God, and that ends up in service."

No appointments

Some spiritual caregivers have followed in the master's footsteps, finding those in need wherever they are. They may offer a listening ear and gentle encouragement along with a bowl of soup, clean socks or a warm coat--or as is sometimes the case, needle exchange and condoms.

"People on the margins don't come in and sit down and make appointments," said River Sims, a priest of the independent Apostolic Catholic church who works primarily with homeless youth in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. "The kids I work with are the ones that fall through the cracks; for the most part they will stay [on the streets] until they die. What I try to do is help them know God in their experience. It's about being with people and their stories; being with them and holding the hope of the resurrection for them. These guys, their story is often very painful. Their previous experience of church is often that they hear they will go to hell because they're gay or because they use drugs."

Some spiritual caregivers create a separate space for the sacred amidst the chaos of rough neighborhoods. In Vancouver, British Columbia, Sister of St. Anne Lorraine LaMarre and spiritual director Kathi Bentall founded the storefront Listening Post at the corner of Main and Hastings, a well-known center of the drug trade. Lamarr's order subsidizes the rent and utilities through their Esther's Dream fund. The facility is staffed by about 20 volunteer spiritual directors who rotate shifts in pairs from noon to 5:30 p.m. five days a week.

"We don't provide incentives [like] coffee, food or clothing," said Bentall. "It's about people wanting to further their spiritual or healing journey and needing a place outside the chaos of streets. There is a circular area with floor pillows where people can pray or meditate, whatever they practice."

A weekly Buddhist meditation circle and Christian centering prayer group meet at the Listening Post as do occasional First Nations (that's Canadian for Native American) spiritual circles.

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