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Jesuits lead retreats for the homeless

By Agnieszka Krawczynski
The B.C. Catholic

07/29/2015

VANCOUVER (CCN) — Spiritual retreats shouldn’t be limited to the middle class, said Ted Penton, a Jesuit in formation.

He leads retreats for homeless people through the Ignatian Spirituality Project (ISP), which runs in 27 North American cities. Penton visited Vancouver July 11-17 to see if it could be next.
“It’s a narrow demographic coming through the doors (of retreat houses): people who are middle class, people who have some money,” he said.

“Wouldn’t it be great to reach out to a different population that has both a vibrant spiritual life but also real hunger to deepen that and a real need to find some direction in their lives, to find some hope, to find that foundation of love that is going to be at the basis of any long-term recovery?”

Each year Penton, who entered the Jesuits in 2009 and hopes to become a priest, facilitates about 12 overnight retreats and a few day programs for the homeless. Retreatants must be at least two months sober to join.

“The 12 steps parallel very closely the Ignatian spirituality. Working with people who are in the 12-step program is great. They are already on that spiritual path. The 12 steps are spiritual through and through.”

ISP was founded in Chicago in 1998. The first and only Canadian city on board is Victoria, B.C.

“It really is a true support for people as they want to journey toward new places and new lives,” said Margaret O’Donnell, the executive director of Oasis Society for the Spiritual Health of Victoria.

Her organization offers meals and retreats for people on the street. About six years ago she realized that “if any of these folks start to do well and get on their feet, they are going to need something more solid than what we’re doing here.”

They decided to try Ignatian spirituality three years ago and found it resonated with their retreatants.

Penton held a sample retreat for about 15 people, including those who minister to Vancouver’s less fortunate.

“People in the Downtown Eastside who come into early recovery are often well experienced with God having kept them alive in the streets,” said Judy Graves, a well-known advocate for the homeless.

“Often they find it difficult to integrate their spiritual past with the miracle of the present and the terror of the unknowable life ahead.”

Chris Chiu, a spiritual director with the Jesuit Spirituality Apostolate of Vancouver, called it a “wonderful and powerful experience.”

“The retreat helps people become aware of their inner life. They can then begin to notice the hurts and the yearnings in their soul: the desire for meaning, the need for healing and forgiveness, the longing for the divine.”

City in Focus, a Christian non-profit, facilitated Penton’s visit. Director of ministries Louise Tischhauser hopes “this style of retreat, tailored to provide a place of safe spirituality for those on the margins in our society, will find a home in Vancouver.”

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