Feeding Jesus’ friends

By Thomas Rozwadowski Even in the face of opposition Sacred Heart Father Guy Blair and other homeless advocates did not shy away from their mission: calling people to do what they were supposed to do for the poorest of the poor.

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Image: “IT'S VERY EASY to dismiss poor people. No one wants them around,” says Father Guy Blair, S.C.J. “People are scared it can be part of their lives. Just look at the economy now and the way people are losing their jobs.”

STARTING A FIGHT and finishing one are two entirely different things.

Father Guy Blair, S.C.J. learned that lesson the hard way when his ministry took an unexpected turn a few years ago during a debate over an “image problem” caused by his homeless shelter in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

A staunch homeless advocate, Blair opened the adjoining school and gym at his parish, St. John the Evangelist, to displaced locals during Wisconsin’s brutal winters. He then became a lightning rod for controversy when a vocal segment of the community and city council made this part of his life’s work a target.

Entering Jesus’ circle

While Blair never intended to become the face of homeless advocacy in Green Bay, he learned that his passion could turn him into a fearless leader. If someone had to look out for the ignored among us, he figured, it might as well be him.

“I had no plans for opening a shelter, or being involved in a controversy of any sort,” Blair said. “But it was a need, and I thought, how can we be a church and claim to be preaching the good news and not in some way reach out to these people? The very people who Jesus socialized with, ate with, wanted part of his life, the marginalized people of his time?

“I think that it’s very easy to dismiss poor people. No one wants them in their neighborhood. No one wants them around. People are scared it can be part of their lives. Just look at the economy now and the way people are losing their jobs. It’s an ever-present reality people don’t want to be confronted with.”

Blair frequently found himself sitting across from the homeless at dinner, listening to their stories, no uncomfortable detail left unspilled. “It moved me to realize that often the best gift that I can give to another person is just to listen to them.” Blair said. “I cannot save anyone. And you might think, well, as a priest, I should have had that revelation a long time ago. But sometimes I’ve acted in a manner where I’ve tried to save or convert people without realizing that’s the Lord’s business.

“So just listening to stories of people who no one else wants to listen to—because no one wants to sit down and hear what a homeless person has to say or where they come from. But telling their stories, that can be healing for them. In some ways, it was healing for me, too.”

Simple beginnings

The unique evolution of Blair’s ministry shows just how revelatory God’s work can be.

Father Guy Blair, S.C.J. talks with some of his fellow Priests of the Sacred Heart during a community meeting.
FATHER GUY BLAIR, S.C.J. talks with some of his fellow Priests of the Sacred Heart during a community meeting.

Growing up in the small town of Stafford Springs, Connecticut, Blair said the church of the 1950s and 60s was his boyhood community’s lone social outlet. Without shopping malls or movie theaters filling the gap, Blair spent a large part of his youth at church gatherings or volunteering as an altar server while learning about the “mystical body of Christ.”

In an ironic twist, he distinctly remembers it being suggested in eighth grade that he’d make a great priest—a recommendation he took seriously until he and a friend visited a high school seminary. Blair was so turned off by the “prisonlike” atmosphere inside he figured that chapter of his life had been officially closed.

His motivations, however, changed in high school when he visited the Priests of the Sacred Heart and saw how their devotion to service could bring about personal fulfillment. Never expecting to leave the comfort of a small town for a large metropolitan area, he nonetheless joined the Sacred Heart college program in Chicago. After taking final vows and studying at the Catholic Theological Union, he embarked on his first calling within his priestly vocation: working with the deaf community.

“I had met a deaf person as a child and was deeply inspired by this woman, who asked me if I could explain to her the Resurrection,” Blair said. “At that time, I was only about 12, and I said to her, ‘You’ve been a Catholic your whole life. How could you not know the meaning of that word?’ And she told me she was deaf, and had never heard a sermon or a reading from the scriptures, or prayers, or music at any of the liturgies she attended.”

Because his friend could communicate orally, Blair still didn’t realize what it meant to fully be without speech until he took an evening class for sign language at a Chicago community college. Working with the deaf became his primary focus while taking up residence in San Antonio, Texas—until, as God has often allowed with Blair, another door opened.

Providing food and shelter

With a San Antonio homeless community well in the thousands, Blair became an expert sandwich-maker while feeding those who would arrive at the rectory door of San Francesco di Paola Catholic Church looking for a daily meal. He eventually spearheaded a program whereby parishioners would make sandwiches for up to 200 people each day. That led to a food pantry and other volunteer initiatives aimed at providing short-term relief for those wandering the streets.

His homeless ministry in Green Bay had a rather innocuous start when his religious community sent him to St. John’s, the oldest continuous parish in Wisconsin, roughly four years ago. The Brown County Housing and Homeless Coalition invited Blair to a meeting, and when the discussion centered on the lack of a church-sponsored shelter in the city, a light bulb went off in Blair’s head. Remembering the impact his church had made in San Antonio, Blair offered the empty school and gym at St. John’s as a homeless haven, perhaps naively so.

“It was opened for people who were not acceptable at other homeless shelters,” he said. “So these are people with severe emotional problems, alcohol and substance abuse issues, people who had adopted being homeless as a lifestyle.

“Look, we don’t operate like a bed and breakfast. We don’t just give them dinner, a place to sleep, and have them leave in the morning. We do the laundry for people with clothing, offer toiletries, help them find apartments, jobs and Social Security benefits, disability benefits. We help veterans get in touch with the benefits they are legally entitled to as well. Sometimes we help people find other family members. Case management is a strong component in the shelter outreach program. And it’s a heck of a lot of work.”

Not in their backyard

Now in its fourth season operating from November to April of each year, the shelter had its rough spots while getting volunteers and community members to pitch in. But it largely operated without much interference until the summer of 2007.

Concerned about reports of police problems at the shelter, members of the Green Bay City Council became dissatisfied with the state of St. John’s, putting Blair in the eye of a public firestorm that, in his estimation, was more about the shelter not “fitting into the plan of a glittering downtown with condominiums and a riverwalk.”

City leaders refused to issue a conditional use permit to allow St. John’s to open for another winter, and when Blair began preparing to defy them, officials intimated that they might fine St. John’s up to $600 per day for violating city zoning rules.

After the debate began to play out publicly, intervention from the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay and former Milwaukee (now New York City) Archbishop Timothy Dolan allowed an olive branch to be extended. The shelter could remain open and Blair would remain involved in day-to-day operations.

In essence, the city pushed, but Blair pushed harder. And while there are still “rumblings and grumblings” about St. John’s, with the diocese assuming responsibility for the shelter the issue is no longer the political hotbed of controversy it once was.

“He certainly didn’t enjoy that, but he knew it came with the territory,” said Tony Pichler, who has worked with Blair on the Board of Trustees at St. John’s while serving as the diocese’s director for Lay Ministry Formation.

“I don’t want to get too dramatic about it, but he’s very much like a prophet from the Old Testament. He called us back, called people back to a relationship with God, to do what they were called to do. In a sense, he was calling the city to do what it was supposed to do for the poorest of the poor. He was calling the diocese, the church to do what it was supposed to do: to feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless.” With more than 500 volunteers at the shelter, Pichler said it’s evident that Blair’s passion for the cause has touched community members in a profound way.

Anyone can lose dreams

A soft-spoken man who nonetheless minces no words, Blair’s concern for the homeless has a family connection, too. Unbeknownst to him at the time, his own parents were homeless for a short period in the 1980s. Blair prefers not to go into details but says that circumstances forced his parents to be on the move and live out of their car because there were no outreach programs or shelters at that time. Blair often thinks back on the matter and realizes that a helping hand must always be extended. “Anyone can lose dreams and lose hope because of circumstances beyond their control,” he explains.

As he looks ahead to his ministerial path today, he describes it as coming out of a 59-year “stupor.” Even as the church changes around him and times get tougher on one-priest parishes like his, he appreciates how age has helped open his eyes to what he calls God’s “true work.” “Now I understand that working with people, and particularly people who are needy, truly feeds the spirit.”

Plenty of deaf Catholics and countless homeless people on the cold streets of Green Bay would say Blair’s insight is their good fortune.

Thomas RozwadowskiThomas Rozwadowski is a reporter for the Green Bay Press Gazette.

2009 © TrueQuest Communications

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