He was a bit disheveled, wearing stained clothing, but surprisingly tidy. He spoke in a gentle voice – one that gave her great calm and enough encouragement to put mercy in motion.
“He opened my eyes,” Monica Cressin of St. Leo Catholic Church in Inwood said of Scott Fox, the first person she’d met in “tent city” – a secluded area occupied by homeless families and individuals in the Martinsburg area. She had gone to the South Berkeley spot with an acquaintance, who was filming a documentary on homelessness in America.
“When I went out to the site it was dark,” she said. “I had no idea where on earth I was going. We walked deep into the woods – seemingly another world. There I was a naïve woman, alone with strangers in a room of sorts with a metal garbage type can in its center and from it a pipe that stretched through a makeshift roof. This was their source of heat; in fact, it was the only source of heat out there.
“As odd and unbelievable as it may sound, I felt at peace talking to this man I would later learn was legally blind. Something had come over me that reassured me I was safe and needed to listen.”
If we all stop and listen, we will hear God talking to us, she said.
Sometimes it is our own thoughts and voices. Sometimes it’s the voice of another like Fox.
Since she was a child, she was taught Matthew 25:40, “Whatever you did to the least of my people that you did unto me.”
“Who’s to say someone like a Scott Fox isn’t Jesus in disguise,” she questioned. “He is respected among his community as the protector and as their minister. He is preaching God’s word, giving hope to people through the words Jesus taught us. He is fulfilling his call. Seeing his love and his care for the people on the street stirred my heart. I knew I had to do something. What, I didn’t know, but something.”
So, with the encouragement of her pastor Father Alfred Obiudu, she spoke to her fellow parishioners at the weekend Masses.
“I got up there with a mission to get a few people involved,” she said. “I told them about what I saw. The more I spoke the more tears came – it was so hard not to cry.”
Fast forward two years and St. Leo’s Homeless Ministry is 40 strong and growing.
Her volunteers of all ages, including the parish’s Boy Scouts, collaborate with other agencies, charities, and organizations that provide services to the homeless or services to prevent homelessness; help at Immanuel House in Martinsburg; make mats out of recycled plastic bags; and collect donations to purchase tents and sleeping bags and other essential items needed. While at Immanuel House, a non-denomination facility, volunteers serve meals, help people work on resumes, search job openings, do laundry, get haircuts, etc.
Cressin credits her mother for her compassion and work ethic.
“She is such a hard worker, always has been,” she said of her mother who is now 82 and living in the St. Leo Parish community.
Cressin was one of seven children of Walt and Marge Ruth. She grew up in Parkville, Maryland. They were a strong Catholic family often having their grandparents and other family members living with them.
“It was only a four-bedroom home, but we always made room,” she said. “For me being compassionate was our way of life. You learn through that closeness of family what love is really about.”
Each day Cressin recites a variety of prayers, but one dear to her is the Serenity Prayer she learned from St. Leo’s former pastor Fr. Paul Wharton now at St. Francis de Sales, in Beckley.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. Taking as Jesus did this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever and ever in the next.
“With this prayer God reminds me through our sufferings we become stronger if we give our struggles to Him,” she said.
“God is the reason I get up thankful every day. He gave me the strength to do what I am doing, and the guidance to know what to do and what to say to help that person in need.”
For more information on how to help the St. Leo Catholic Church Homeless Ministry or how to begin one of your own at your parish contact Monica Cressin at firstname.lastname@example.org