‘I Was in Need and You Helped Me’

By Fr. Justin Mathews

God calls us to share in His love, a love which expresses itself in acts of compassion for all who are broken-hearted and in need. In doing this, we become God's own hands. Such practical service changes lives and transforms our world, one person at a time.

Participation in God's compassion is more than a human rights issue. In taking up this task we work out our own salvation and affirm the "very good" that God has already spoken over each human being.

This awareness resulted in the founding in 2009 of a new Orthodox organization intended to help parishes better express Christ's love for the hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick and imprisoned. Called FOCUS (Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve), we link like-minded Christians who are working out their salvation by sharing with others, just as Christ shared of Himself without holding back "for the life of the world," becoming poor to make the poor rich.

Every person is a living icon of God, more worthy of our veneration than the holy icons we reverence in church and at home. FOCUS promotes the Orthodox practice of venerating everyone whom God has made by serving anyone in need. Our veneration through practical service helps to restore the perfect image of the Creator, both in the people we serve and in ourselves, as well.

Among saints of modern times, we draw great inspiration from the ministry and witness of Mother Maria Skobtsova, now recognized as St. Maria of Paris. "There is no doubt that the Christian is called to social work," she said, "called to organize a better life for the workers, to provide for the old, to build hospitals, care for children, fight against exploitation, injustice, want, lawlessness." She went on to say that this kind of Christian social work can only be based on love for our neighbors, not for career or material advancement, reminding us that we will be held accountable in the Last Judgment for our treatment of the hungry, imprisoned, naked and sick.

Her words strike the heart, especially when we consider the staggering statistics about the hungry and homeless in so many places. Here in the US one in 50 children is homeless. The unemployment line continues to grow & the number of Americans without jobs is overwhelming. It is estimated that 49 million Americans are now living without consistent access to adequate food, the highest count since the Department of Agriculture began tracking "food insecurity" fifteen years ago. Forty-nine million people!

FOCUS is trying to help answer God's call by doing all we can to meet basic needs for food, shelter and employment, with a special focus on providing resources to help people in need better care for themselves. The result is that we are witnessing many lives changed through the grace of God.

FOCUS stands not only for "Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve" but also for Food, Occupation, Clothing, Understanding and Shelter.

We are a non-profit charitable organization; contributions are tax-deductible. We serve those in need by providing aid through our programs and partners, supporting Orthodox Christian social action ministries, agencies, professionals and volunteers; and supplying parishes and others with the education, resources and training to initiate social action ministries in their own communities.

Our pilot program is in Kansas City, Missouri, where, at Reconciliation Services, we serve 14,000 meals a year with the help of 200 volunteers from local Orthodox Churches. Volunteers buy food, prepare meals and serve meals to each person who comes looking for food, refuge and often God. We stock our own food pantry and clothing closet, as well as provide counseling and case-management services. We also support neighboring social-service ministries through our FOCUS partner-ministry program. In 2009 alone, fifteen grants, totaling almost $50,000, were given to our partners. When you combine our ministry with that of our partners, we are now serving 425,000 meals a year at the cost of only $1.92 per meal.

Future plans envision establishing FOCUS centers in 50 cities and rural areas. The next center is slated to open in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area of Minnesota. We then hope to launch centers in Orange County (California), the Appalachian Mountain region, Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), and Chicago. We are humbled and eager to work as God's hands in a mission to restore living icons.

We are excited to see Christ in the work we do, as people eat wholesome food and earn a living again.

Tawana is a good example of a changed life. When she arrived at Reconciliation Services in Kansas City, Tawana was homeless and separated from her child, in part due to chronic schizophrenia. Our case management managed to secure her a place to live, meals served with love, and assistance to access public mental-health services. Tawana started turning her life around. Later she volunteered in the food pantry, and participated in our back-to-work initiative to recover her own vital documents such as Social Security card and state-issued photographic identification - without these, many doors are locked. Now she stable housing, is reunited with her son, and is prepared to get a car..

An organization like FOCUS is only as strong as the team and volunteers who keep it going. Our board is pan-Orthodox (made up of members from Greek, Antiochian, Orthodox Church in America, Carpatho-Russian and Serbian jurisdictions) is chaired by Charles Ajalat, co-founder of IOCC. Our advisory board is headed by the former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios. I serve as director. Prior to seminary, I worked with the Nashville Rescue Mission in Tennessee, which housed 1,000 homeless at a time and served 500,000 meals a year with the help of 10,000 volunteers.

Let me share one more testimony. This comes from our partner ministry, Abba Moses Medical Clinic, in Anniston, Alabama:

A 40-year-old woman came into the clinic crying. Her mother, who had dangerously high blood pressure, was in urgent need of help. Her daughter responded, giving up her job and health insurance in order to move in with her mom. In order to come to the Abba Moses Free Medical Clinic, she arranged for a neighbor to watch her mom. As she entered the clinic, she noticed a sign, "If you want the doctor to pray for you, ask." Relieved to be in a place where prayer was spoken of openly, she asked for prayer. Besides the support of prayer, she was provided with diet guidelines, an exercise program and blood pressure medicine for her mother. On the way out, she asked to borrow an Orthodox book. She entered with sadness but departed in joy.

And so it goes. We serve people who, like this woman, are not only worthy of our service but a blessing to us. She experiences God's love through us and we experience God's love through her; and we are all changed.

So we continue a mission to which we all are called. With great joy we press on. Each day, we anticipate God will do great things. God never disappoints.❖

Please consider helping us help living icons of our brothers and sisters in need. Donations can be made online at Checks can be made out to "FOCUS North America" and sent to Box 30117, Kansas City, MO 64112. Thank you!
Winter Issue IC 55 2010