- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2014

Four months into his papacy, Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop during his trip to Brazil for World Youth Day. At the Cathedral of Rio, a large audience of young people waited expectantly in the July rain.

Speaking informally, Francis told those gathered to shake up things by fighting for their values and beliefs: “I want the church to go out to the street!”

For the Denver-based mission Christ in the City, that model has been followed for years.

“Go out, look personally at people,” said Executive Director Alejandro Bermudez. “Look for the person, and that’s what Christ in the City is about.”

Founded five years ago by Catholic Charities Denver, Christ in the City embodies “loving until it hurts in order to serve those most in need.”

Its young missionaries serve from a few weeks to an entire year.

The Catholic outreach project melds easily with the people-first approach of Francis, who Thursday marked his first year as pontiff.

Dubbed the “slum pope” because of his work with the poor, he is the first to choose the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who chose to live in poverty.

Francis made headlines just weeks after his election with a Maundy Thursday Mass where he washed the feet of two women, a ritual traditionally reserved for men.

Asked about homosexuality, the 77-year-old Argentine native replied, “Who am I to judge?” His response registered applause and shock among the faithful.

In May, Francis is scheduled to visit the Holy Land.

Christ in the City takes a literal approach to Francis’ words with its homeless task force.

“We go and meet the homeless where they are,” said Mr. Bermudez, 53, who has helped lead the mission for three years. “We look to start a relationship so we can go and become their friends, gain their trust. Little by little, friendship leads to conversation. Conversation leads to questions about their life: Why are you like this? What can we do to help you?”

It was the writings of Pope John Paul II — who is to be canonized in Rome next month with Pope John XXIII — that inspired Mr. Bermudez to start the homeless task force.

Mr. Bermudez said the beloved pope wrote that humanity needs to be concerned about areas where poverty is rife, even in America.

“Going around Denver, I saw a large number of homeless lining up for lunch,” Mr. Bermudez said. “The lunch being provided was a very professional lunch. It had all the calories, vitamins, but that was not changing the nature that they were homeless.”

Under the direction of Adam Ureneck, missionaries lay the groundwork for relationships with homeless people, which they hope will develop a desire to get help for whatever put them on the streets.

“Super bafflingly simple, is normally the reaction we get,” Mr. Ureneck said. “Create personal relationships with the homeless.”

Last year, the task force reached out to about 1,500 people and got roughly 50 of them into permanent housing, Mr. Ureneck said. About 19 of them are maintaining substance-free lives.

Nonprofit success often is measured by the number of participants or the tally of donations. The task force leaders, however, assess the quality, not quantity, of help the missionaries provide.

“I think the nonprofit world is very much driven by numbers and results,” Mr. Ureneck said. “It makes them accountable, but on the flip side, people become numbers, people become results. The people who may need help the most become the liabilities.

“To have your boss say, ‘Look, that’s great, we just need one guy, one woman, that’s success,’ that was really liberating,” he said.

On a recent Saturday in Denver, 300 homeless people lined up in Lincoln Park, next to Colorado’s gold-domed state Capitol, for hot, homemade dishes, many donated by local parishes.

As her two children climbed trees and played with blocks and Frisbees with some of the missionaries, Sommar Morrow explained that her family has moved three times since they arrived in Denver a year ago.

“We lived in Fort Collins before this, and they really don’t have resources at all for homeless people,” said Ms. Morrow, who has lived in transitional housing for six months and worries about being evicted. Christ in the City missionaries are “really understanding and trying to help with as many resources as they have.”

Michael Malloy, director of case management for Samaritan House at Catholic Charities, said his organization has worked with Christ in the City for several years. He jokingly referred to the missionaries as the “Catholic special forces.”

“I’m not going to say that they’re fearless; they just want to reach out and help as many people as they can,” Mr. Malloy said. “They’re meeting people where they’re at. They show you the doorway without pushing you through. They let you make the choice yourself.”

As Francis starts the second year of his papacy, Mr. Bermduez said, Christ in the City will continue to approach its mission in the pope’s example, along with those of its other patrons: Mary, John Paul II and Mother Teresa.

“I am looking to a very exciting year for the Catholic Church thanks to Pope Francis,” he said. “I think this pope is radiating this message: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

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