Spiritual accompaniment of homeless persons: Kevin Kelly, SJ, on the Ignatian Spirituality Project

January 31, 2020 – Kevin Kelly, SJ, a former businessman turned Jesuit, co-founded the Canadian arm of the Ignatian Spirituality Project, which offers spiritual aid to those who have experienced homelessness. "You learn really quickly that while you may not have the same story as somebody who is on the street, your story is not that different." Completely passionate about his project, Kevin sat down with us for a powerful interview on the importance of spirituality, the need for everyone to inform themselves about the homeless in their region and the impact of the project.

Our network has grown to almost 30 cities across the US and Canada and includes over 800 volunteers serving over 2,000 retreatants a year through over 200 retreats. - Ignatian Spirituality Project

What is the Ignatian Spirituality Project?

It was started in Chicago by a Jesuit named Bill Creed. It's now in 30 different cities across the USA, but Toronto is the only city in Canada. I started ISP in Toronto 5 years ago. Ted Penton, who worked with ISP in Chicago, told me, "this would be a great project to start in Toronto,” so I worked with Ted getting it started here. We have a team of 16-18 volunteers working on the project which is run out of Regis College. Why? Regis College, in downtown Toronto, has homeless people around the building and the facilitators have a big interest in serving the marginalized and have a lot of education in spiritual direction.

photo: Regis College

ISP is a retreat for people who have experienced homelessness but who have taken the initial steps toward sobriety or recovery and now live in a transitional shelter. Many of them relapse and return to the streets, but from our experience, you need a certain amount of initiative to start to look at changing your life before this type of retreat will be helpful. In these retreats we see people addicted to drugs and alcohol who are looking to become sober and, as part of that recovery, are searching for a deeper relationship with what we call a “Higher Power” in the language of a 12-step program, like Alcoholic Anonymous.

The reason we look for that is that there are a number of people that end up living on the streets. Most have experienced some level of trauma and ultimately have issues with mental health or addiction, but are fundamentally struggling with mental health issues like schizophrenia. We don't serve that population. It's a very hard population to work with, with respect to spirituality. We would like to serve them, and we are looking at how to serve them in the future, but the population we serve ended up living on the streets because of a trauma that led to alcohol and drug addiction which usually made their life collapse. They lost their family and friends, they lost contact with them, or they were thrown out. They lost their job, they ended up on the streets because of a series of events where alcohol and drugs are a big part of their reality.

Now they have made the choice to look at sobriety. They have gone into detox and they have ventured into a treatment facility. We work with those treatment facilities when the individual is ready to start exploring spirituality because our feeling is that homelessness, whenever it comes to being, is a spiritual reality, not just a social or economic reality. These individuals have lots of support with respect to 12-step programs, to social workers, to housing support, but very few— nobody really— gives spiritual support, so our retreats are all about the spiritual aspects of somebody who is struggling and looking to turn their life around.

We work with individuals living in a residential treatment facility. They are often required to be in a 12-step program, so we use language which is really similar to that. We basically welcome them for a 3-day retreat, where they explore aspects of this spirituality. We don't talk about it as being religious.

In fact we say it's not religious, but spiritual. As I said, we use the language of a “Higher Power,” which is non-denominational; the idea that something is greater than ourselves. We concentrate on the 12 steps, which are focused on realizing that there is something greater in all of us and until we realize that and turn our life over to that greater power, we won't be able to find sobriety. So while we talk a lot about higher power and God, and we share in spiritual conversation, we are not forcing anybody to believe anything, as long as the person is open to explore their personal spirituality and their sense of higher power in their life.

Many come with a Christian background, but we also serve many atheists. A couple of Jewish people have come on retreat; also some Muslims and people who may have been Christian but who don't practice their Christian faith anymore.

photo: Regis College

Our retreats are in Cobourg, Ontario, at the Villa Saint-Joseph. It's run by the Sisters of Saint-Joseph. Every year we organize three men’s retreats, all run by men, and three women’s retreats all run by women, with about a dozen retreatants attending every time.

We also have transgender individuals coming to either retreat. They identify with whatever gender they choose to identify with and they participate in that way. A lot of the realities of men and women on the streets, as I said, are coming from abuse (physical, emotional, sexual) and there are a number that are dealing with challenges tied to sexual orientation and gender identity, so their abuse came along with those struggles.

We are really open to receive whoever is sober, at least for a couple of months, and open to exploring spirituality in a spiritual but non-religious setting. We also run follow-up retreats, kind of a monthly meeting with men and women who have been on the retreats and want to continue having some aspect of spiritual conversation within a community. That is just getting off the ground, because this population is quite marginalized in the sense that they will often return to living on the streets— at least at some point—although people that participated in our retreats are more likely to stay sober and to actually find better housing. It’s a very precarious group to stay in contact with.

Who can benefit from the Spiritual Exercises?

The Spiritual Exercises are valuable for other non-Catholics, or maybe even non-Christians. Why? It is again because God, I believe, regardless of what you believe, is acting in all of our lives and is found in all aspects of Creation in our world. Whether we are conscious of that or not often depends on what a person's experiences have been, if they have a religious tradition, or how they identify and see God. The Spiritual Exercises help us to connect very concretely with Jesus Christ in Gospel contemplation and with a personal relationship with God, but it's not exclusive, I think, to these names.

People, I believe, are generally very spiritual, whether they acknowledge it or not. Every human being has an existential question around why we are here, where we are going, what is life all about and I think the Spiritual Exercises help to explore those things.

So we talk about them, as I said, in a non-specific way around the Catholic tradition, but we encourage people to explore this in ways that they are comfortable with.

We do a lot of exercises that are very similar to those that Saint Ignatius established. Things like fear and trust. We ask a question and there is an exercise in every retreat: "what is a fear you have overcome.” For some people, that fear (because of abuse as a child) is the dark and sleeping in the dark, but with time, and maybe therapy and support, they recognized that they could sleep in the dark and that it's not a dangerous place. That's a fear they have overcome. We also ask them to describe a fear that they still experience. For many, that will be a relapse. While they have been sober for 3 or 4 months, their greatest fear is that they will relapse and return to the streets. With or without an acknowledgment of God, but with support and trust, we start to overcome fears and find trust in others whom we may not have felt we were able to trust before – trust in ourselves, and trust in a higher power. That's a movement away from fear, toward a recognition of the presence of God and trust in our lives. Ultimately, all our exercises help to open a small window for an individual who had never felt love, either to love themselves, to feel the love of others, and most hopefully, to feel love from God.

photo: Regis College

How can you link the ISP with the Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAP)?

We're working with a marginalized population and with the Spiritual Exercises. Both of those are fundamentally related. Another reality, which is quite tragic, is that we also work with a lot of young adults. Many of the people coming in our retreats are in their 20s or 30s. It used to be that the population living on the streets was older. They tended to be alcoholics and you can survive with alcoholism.

What we are seeing now is, with the opioid crisis and with drug realities, people living on the streets with drug addictions are much younger, they are bodying out much sooner. Really sadly, that is a big part of the population that we serve, which again is not maybe how the UAP are seeing a younger population, but it is a reality of what we are facing. And these people will die, and do die. If they are not receiving some level of treatment and sobriety by their mid to late 20s, they often will overdose and die.

So things are changing dramatically as to this population on the streets, and for us that means they are a younger population. Mostly this group has very little experience of anything religious in the sense of a traditional understanding of what the Catholic Church or whatever church is. They have never had an experience of God in that setting, which is a good thing, because more often than not they are more open.

Some of them come and are on the streets because their families are really religious and kicked them out because they were not following their beliefs— for example somebody struggling with gender or sexual orientation. The older population often also have a very negative experience of churches. Either they were abused, the church was a place of fear, or God was somebody that they never felt love from… there is a negative image of God.

But the younger population are quite open to receive a new view of spirituality, so we have kind of two populations, and we adapt. It’s the same exercises. We are just careful with the language we use. Depending on the mix of the population there, oftentimes we use both. At the same retreats we also meet people who are interested in exploring a spirituality that they had never had an experience of, versus helping others to see God in new ways.

Is it difficult to approach these people?

It was really difficult. We learned a lot in the first couple of years. The biggest aspect of the retreat is recognizing that every facilitator there participates just like a retreatant.

While we led different sections, all of it is group or one-on-one sharing, so you learn really quickly that while you may not have the same story as somebody who is on the street, your story is not that different. We all struggle with being unloved at times; we all struggle with brokenness and our weaknesses.

Oftentimes their stories have gone much further than mine may have gone but these individuals are incredibly relatable. Every time we are there the experience of the retreat reinforces how blessed we are not to be in the position that these individuals are, but you look and realize that you could have been in that space. They look at us and see the brokenness that we see in them. So we are equal. It's an incredibly humbling experience and that is something powerful in my own spiritual experience, in my own relationship with God, and how I have come to learn and understand Him. It’s an incredible privilege being a facilitator, and we learn, experience and share as much as anybody else on the retreat would.

Can you give an example of a "success story"?

One example is Duncan, who is a facilitator now, but was a retreatant on one of our first retreats. He was 4 months sober when he first came to our retreat and he loved the experience. He participated in a couple of future retreats as a witness (somebody who has been on a retreat before and who shares their story in a more structured way, in a part of the retreat called the witness talk). He has now been sober for over 5 years and is one of our main facilitators on the men's retreat. This is an example of when you engage people in the community, in spiritual conversation, support them in their sobriety, in their growth, and in having a relationship with God, you see incredible changes in their lives.

Duncan is an amazing guy. He works with me on fundraising. We go around and he tells his story and people are in awe of him and give money to support these retreats and to support the project.

I am very open about being a Jesuit. Most retreatants don't know what that is, so I say that I am going to be a priest someday. People know what that is and, of course, that brings a tremendous challenge to people in today's society. Priests are far from being moral or spiritual leaders for many people, which is obvious when we see the abuse crisis. So it takes me a long time to gain the trust of people that may have been concerned about that, but by the end of the weekend they are pretty open to me and my thoughts. But Duncan was a boxer. He looks tough, he lived on the streets for years, he lived in shelters, he was an alcoholic, so he can talk about what alcoholism did to his life, how he goes to an AA meeting every week and how he has been sober for 5 years. He has lost contact with his children and has not seen them for over 20 years. He is a really relatable individual because the others there have different but similar stories with  relatable factors, so they trust him immediately. Because Duncan and I are such good friends, he can say,  “I like this guy,” meaning me, "and I learned a lot from this guy.” That is how trust gets formed.

The Ignatian Spirituality Project team for the Toronto region. Photo: Regis College

How can Jesuits and their colleagues in Canada grow their work with marginalized people, even if it’s not with the ISP?

Number one, I would love to see ISP in Montreal and Vancouver. I am already working with a team in Montreal to potentially get it started and I am working with a team in Victoria that is looking to work with a couple of parishes in Vancouver and set up the project in Vancouver and Victoria. But with a team with some perseverance and training, it's possible to move this project to other cities.

Secondly, we need financial support. It cost us about 25 000$ a year to run the retreats. We would like to expand the number of retreats.

Thirdly, there is a lot of literature on this project, you can read it on our website, for example. You can bring somebody like me to a talk in a parish or at a school to explain what we are about. But ultimately, its about awareness of who lives on our streets. People want to help, but do not understand the reality of the people who live on the streets. The more people who understand how we can help these populations and, with spiritual support, learn about them, the more we can change. Praying for an organization like the ISP or praying for these individuals, that has an impact on these people's lives for sure.





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