A Walk Through St. James' Social Outreach Ministries

Pale shafts of winter light enter the Cathedral's skylight dome and slowly cross the surface of the white marble altar which stands solid on slate and granite above the relics of saints.

High above this table of our Lord, closest to that source of light, is a hand-painted message from the Last Supper of Luke's Gospel proclaiming Christ's presence: "I am in your midst as one who serves."

With a commitment to the poor and vulnerable in our community, parishioners daily bring those words new life. Through us, the light that sweeps over the altar in a day's stroke radiates beyond the Cathedral's walls into the dark night and helps ease the burdens and bring dignity to the lives of the least fortunate among us.

At four in the afternoon, Joan Collin, an elderly low-income parishioner, carries a bag of 10 egg salad sandwiches from her apartment to the rectory in the rain. "All I can afford on my budget are 10 large eggs, some mayonnaise, yogurt, and one long loaf," says Collin.

Her sandwiches are spicy, thick and rich. "I want mine to be really worth eating," she says. "I do my part. I can't join the ministry on the streets, or get downtown to the chapel to pray, so I pray here... and make sandwiches." At 7:30 p.m., Deacon Joe Curtis stops by the rectory, loads his trunk full of sandwiches left by many parishioners, and heads downtown to a small chapel at Second and Stewart.

Estella Clark has arrived on foot from the International District to join those gathering to pray as Joe and his companions head out to the rainy streets in Operation Nightwatch.

Two nights a month about 50 St. James parishioners volunteer for this program, which operates year-round. Tonight, Deacon Curtis, Rhodora Darang, a nurse at Harborview Hospital, and George Roberts, a retired train porter, are the core of this street ministry. It is their presence, face-to-face with the poor and homeless, that the sandwiches and prayers sustain.

At 8:15 p.m., the three companions begin their night's trek. Walking the blocks surrounding the Pike Place Market, they stop along the way to offer encouragement to those in need and information about where to get help: one young woman with two small children has fled her abusive husband; a man and his wife and kids from Wyoming just need a place for two weeks until he gets his first paycheck from a new job.

At 9 p.m., Curtis and his companions head back to the chapel to give the people in prayer a report. Then they continue on to Operation Nightwatch headquarters on First and Wall.

St. James parishioners are greeting new arrivals outside the entrance of this undistinguished storefront in Belltown. There is an odd calm to the night's damp air as those in the long line outside wait for their names to be called. This is a referral center. Every night, volunteers locate available beds in shelters throughout the city and pass out about 150 referral slips in a systematic fashion to the homeless waiting for a place to sleep. At Operation Nightwatch headquarters, sandwiches, coffee, and compassion are distributed in abundance. The only shortage is shelter space.

Deacon Curtis and volunteers Deacon Joe Curtis (L), Rhodora Darang, and George Roberts, Operation Nightwatch Volunteers.
"These are the uncanonized saints of St. James," says Curtis of the volunteers who return month after month. "Many are professionals with important jobs during the day," he says. At night they transform themselves into servants of the poor. Deacon Curtis has walked the Operation Nightwatch beat for 17 years. He says he's seen a sad evolution. "For years there were no children out here or very few," he says. "But now you see 10 to 15 infants and small children a night. The number of children affected is rising rapidly."

Before returning home after midnight, Deacon Joe Curtis drives by headquarters. The storefront is dark. All shelter beds in Seattle have been spoken for and he volunteers have gone home. By now, hundreds of homeless men, women, and children across the city have staked out mats lined up in rows six inches apart. With an acute respect for invisible boundaries, they've bedded down for the night. Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was one of the most challenging and inspiring religious figures of our time. She saw a Christ who took the side of those most in need throughout the Gospels, and asserted that His example challenges us to see the world in which we live through the eyes of the poor and powerless.

Dorothy Day's commitment to "community" and to Christ's message of compassion are the basis for the Catholic Worker Family Kitchen, housed in St. James' Cathedral Place Hall.

At 2 p.m., the van pulls up in front of St. James with food collected from grocery stores, bakeries, and restaurants throughout the city. On the spot, today's volunteer head cook, Nancy Hardy, designs a menu for 150 based on what has arrived.

As Nancy carries large bags of day-old bread through the back door to the kitchen, she hollers, "Looks like it's spaghetti again. That's okay, they love it," and laughs.

Parishioner John Webster puts down his newspaper to help. He's volunteered here for three years. Tonight he'll help prepare the meal and at 4:30 p.m. sharp, he'll be stationed above a bin of spaghetti with a large spoon again, ready to serve.

The Family Kitchen at St. James serves nourishing food and much more. Kathleen O'Hanlon, the kitchen's coordinator for 11 years, says the goal here is to create a warm, inviting place where people can come to feel safe, relax, and make friends.

"We are changed by these people," O'Hanlon says. "They keep us 'real' by teaching us about love, pain, and loneliness. Every day we break bread together with Jesus in our midst."

At the first of the month, those on government assistance receive their checks and food stamps. This is when the food lines here are short. But the government stipend doesn't always stretch, and as the month wears on, attendance here rises. At the end of the month as many as 170 show up for a free meal. There are regulars here who have come every day for as many as 15 years. Duane, a soft-spoken gentleman with light gray whiskers, begins his daily trek from Jefferson and 12th punctually at 4 p.m., and waits in a chair against the wall until dinner is served.

"When I get done paying the rent and the bills, I have no money left," Duane says. "That's why you see me in this line." His hands are folded over the crook of a cane. "I like it when they pass out flowers. They do that twice a week, you know. I like the yellow daffodils. I put sugar in the vase and they sometimes last two weeks."

James, sitting next to Duane, nods in serious agreement. James wears a baseball cap with his name on it. He brought his friend, Al, in the wheelchair. "It's hard to pick up Al," he says. "I have to push him up that hill." James takes off his hat and runs his fingers through invisible hair. "But going home is easy. I just hang on and let him roll!"

Robert ceaselessly taps his cane on the floor's linoleum. "When are we going to have spuds again, Nancy?" he asks. "I like that turkey gravy." Robert goes to the library often and visits the art museum once a week. He's dressed in distinguished gray with worn, brown leather shoes. He says he's been coming to St. James' Family Kitchen for five years because he doesn't like eating alone. "I'm here because I'm lonely," he says, "so I come where the lonely come." The Family Kitchen embodies the example of Jesus. The last are first and take their seats at the table while the able-bodied serve, wait, and clean up. Gingham tablecloths are taken up and sleeping mats are laid in the gaps between the tables as another St. James social outreach ministry takes over Cathedral Hall. Winter Shelter provides a place for 10 homeless men to sleep for the night.

St. James is a preferred destination for men who know the ropes. Compared to other shelters in town, this large room offers some privacy, more space between mats, and more important, a healthy hot breakfast is served in the morning.

The Winter Shelter is operated by parishioners during the months when it's guaranteed that the city's shelters will overflow. Because a small volunteer staff is on duty to make beds available here, 10 fewer men are sent back to the streets.

St. James Cathedral has been a beacon of light high on the hill for nearly a century, and its tower bells have always called out a welcome invitation to those in need.

In these high-pressured, challenging economic times, more homeless, more mentally ill, more immigrants, and more families in crisis come to the church seeking God's compassion than ever before.

They often come on Sunday. In response to increasing demands for emergency aid when many social service agencies are closed, a ministry called Doorkeepers was established. Doorkeepers are parishioners who wear blue name tags and make themselves available following weekend masses to listen with a healing presence and to connect those who come seeking help with services in the community. Working in association with Seattle Mental Health Chaplaincy and nine First Hill churches, Doorkeepers seeks simply to open doors.

Many St. James parishioners have answered the call of The Society of St. Vincent de Paul. They visit the homes of those in need, offering food vouchers, chore assistance, and information about available services within the community. This ministry, founded over 100 years ago by a recently beatified layman, gives relief to those suffering from bleak urban poverty. Seattle's chapter of St. Vincent de Paul has been active at St. James since the 1920's.

"Do you know what it's like to be afraid and running with three little girls in tow and not know where you're going?" Susan fled her violent husband two years ago. She and her three daughters, ages one to five, spent the next several months in crisis, going from one homeless shelter to another. Finally, she connected with the Homelessness Project.

Providing a home for a family makes no sense without addressing the reasons why they became homeless. That's why the Homelessness Project works. Through this ministry, St. James parishioners help guide families from crisis to independence. A Cathedral parishioner provides a house in a neighboring community as a transitional home. Through donations, the St. James Social Justice Committee furnishes the house, and provides the family with basic necessities. A case manager, provided by the Church Council of Greater Seattle, connects the family with services in the community, such as health care, child care and financial assistance, and monitors their progress weekly.

"We feel so lucky," Susan says. "It is our little home. The girls and I planted flowers in the front yard and in the summer we had a little inflatable swimming pool in the back yard. After not having a home and neighbors for so long it is so healing." Susan's was the second family the St. James program benefited. During her 15-month stay, Susan earned her general education degree and entered a vocational training program to become a medical assistant.

This fall, the real victory took place. Susan moved her small family into permanent housing. "I will always be overwhelmed with the empathy I received from the people at St. James," Susan says. "Though me and the kids have moved on, I want them to know that they offered the help I needed to get back on my feet. The people there are a godsend and I will never forget them."

On Sundays, incense rises to the light of the dome like a gentle prayer. Passion for God is declared with the peal of clarion bells, in elaborate processions, by a radiant choir. At St. James, such devotion is also proclaimed in the weekday making of an egg salad sandwich, or a batch of spaghetti. God is served when someone in need is given a warm meal, a place to sleep for the night, or a chance to change their lives.

As the dome's light diminishes, the altar settles into darkness. But white marble does not sleep. The luminous table appears vigilant and steadfast, suspended in dark air. At the center of our gathered assembly is the ceaseless light of Christ.

Jackie O'Ryan is a Cathedral parishioner, writer, and the Public Affairs Director for Catholic Community Services.

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