Sister Connie Kramer leads retreats for homeless
Caring for the homeless in a city like Indianapolis often means volunteers taking blankets and food to those who live on the streets or in camps. Or, in the best of situations, it means coaxing homeless people into shelters and recovery programs. Most responses tend to the physical and recovery needs of the homeless. Rarer are efforts that feed the soul or spiritual needs of the person.
“That’s why the Ignatian Spirituality Project (ISP) is so important,” says Sister of Providence Connie Kramer, who directs the program in Indianapolis. “In ‘Joy of the Gospel,’ Pope Francis himself writes that the ‘greatest discrimination that the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care.’ That is why I am so committed to the work of ISP, an entirely volunteer program that offers retreats to persons identified by directors of shelter housing whom they believe will benefit from an overnight spiritual experience.”
Spiritual support for homeless
Founded in 1998 by Jesuits of Chicago, ISP is now an international interfaith program. Father James Farrell, Fatima Retreat House director, brought the program to Indianapolis in 2014 by dedicating funding to get the program started. That year, ISP offered one women’s retreat and two men’s retreats.
The program is now led by Sister Connie. It offers retreats and spirituality programs for people who are homeless.
“For 2015-16, we already have scheduled two retreats each for men and for women and are hoping to add a third if we can,” says Sister Connie, who also facilitates the women’s retreats with a team.
A typical overnight retreat consists of a welcome, a witness talk and small group sharing, reflections on fear and trust, a healing of memories, prayer service, writing a letter to God, art activities, solitude on the Fatima campus, and conversation about ‘where do we go from here?’
Reminders of God’s love
Women retreatants are concretely reminded of God’s love. “We give them shawls knitted by volunteers. As a team member puts it on the retreatant’s shoulders, all present say the name of the person receiving the shawl and add, ‘May you be enfolded in God’s love today.’ Women also receive heartstones which have recovery words like hope or serenity on them. Men are given wooden crosses.
During the closing prayer service, retreatants place their letter to God on the altar. It is mailed back to them three weeks later before they return to Fatima for a meal together and an evening of ISP community building which is scheduled for a month after the retreat experience. Sister Connie says, if retreatants show interest, she also hopes to add spiritual companioning and ‘tune-up’ components.
Sister Connie is grateful to the art department of Saint Mary-of-the- Woods College that is voluntarily providing the heartstones. She hopes to find a volunteer woodworker to make the crosses. Sister Connie needs many volunteers to help with ISP. She has created a guide that begins, “If you have a heart for the homeless, ISP may have a home for your heart.”
“I want people to understand that a spirit of mutuality is essential to this ministry,” she says.
Volunteer opportunities include writing letters of support, providing art supplies, knitting prayer shawls, offering transportation, and helping to facilitate retreats and the follow-up sessions. One can also help with fund raising or by making a donation.
“One can also become an ISP community member, who is willing to attend monthly meetings of community building, formation and education,” says Sister Connie.
Support in recovery
“The directors of shelter residences who recommend participants to us tell us that the recovery rate of those who participate in a retreat is very high. In 2015, I hope we can also respond to requests for one-day programs in Fort Wayne and Terre Haute,” Sister Connie states.
“Those whom I have met through this ministry have taught me so much. They are wonderful companions on my journey, pure gift. It is very profound to me to watch God do for people what they cannot do for themselves. If they are open and honest and willing – miracles will happen,” Sister Connie says enthusiastically.
Interested in volunteering? Request a discernment guide by emailing email@example.com.
(Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of HOPE magazine.)