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"With the Poor:" FOCUS Executive Director Fr. Justin Mathewes Reflects on First Two Years

Just over two years ago, twenty Orthodox leaders from various jurisdictions gathered at the invitation of Antiochian philanthropists Charles and Marilee Ajalat, and the Orthodox Vision Foundation. That meeting laid the foundation for the subsequent launch of FOCUS North America (Food, Occupation, Clothing, Understanding and Shelter), a coast to coast network of Orthodox Christian outreach ministries.  

Since its inception, FOCUS has steadily added partner ministries ranging from homeless shelters to medical and counseling centers. On April 3, FOCUS Orange County was awarded the Community of Faith Award, an honor endorsed by the California State Assembly. By the end of 2011, the organization hopes to increase its number of directors, partner ministries, and student volunteers in the Youth Equipped to Serve (YES) program.

Executive Director Fr. Justin Mathewes studied business as an undergraduate and subsequently earned a masters degree and was ordained at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Chrismated in an Antiochian parish, Fr. Justin currently serves at a Serbian parish near FOCUS headquarters. With the Lenten season as a backdrop, we asked Fr. Justin to reflect on his first two years at the helm.

1. Since 2009 you've working to make FOCUS a reality and not just a list of organizational goals. What is the most important thing you've learned?

The most important thing I am learning through our ministry together is that the only person we can attempt to change is ourselves. In these last two years I have kept the basic Orthodox Christian spiritual principle before me of St. Seraphim of Sarov: “Acquire the Spirit of peace and thousand around you shall be saved.” We cannot change the behavior of others or “save” anyone. Therefore, FOCUS NA is not a ministry FOR the poor but WITH the poor. In other words, we “commend ourselves, each other and our whole life unto Christ our God” and the order of this prayer is important, say the Fathers and the Scriptures. First I commend and entrust myself to God and His mercy and strive to grow in His likeness, then I become a ready instrument of His healing and mercy. It is only in being united to Christ myself and struggling against my impoverished, selfish nature that I become willing to be WITH the poor and the neighbor in need . And it is then that God extends his mercy through us to bless and touch others around us. Throughout this Lenten season we have prayed fervently, fasted, given alms not so that others might benefit from our sacrifices but so that we might have a stronger relationship with God and be more surely grafted to His Body and His ministry, for the life of the world and its salvation.

2. There are so many ways to minister to the poor and marginal of our society. How did you come up with your five pronged approach (Food, Occupation, Clothing, Understanding, Shelter), and how has this actually worked out for you "on the ground?"

In Matthew 25 the Lord admonishes us to consider others as Christ in our midst—the stranger. In hunger, thirst, nakedness, sickness, loneliness, and imprisonment we find the stranger, our neighbor and our Lord. Motivated by the Orthodox Christian tradition, we work to establish FOCUS NA ministries, especially FOCUS Centers, to live out this mandate in a way greater than may be possible by any one parish. A FOCUS Center is a local office of FOCUS NA run by a full-time Director with the support of a dedicated ministry leadership team that mobilizes volunteers, resources and partnerships within a community to provide vital services to working poor and homeless people in a given area.

FOCUS Centers provide:

• Food—hot, nutritious meals served family style, food pantries in conjunction with the USDA and other food banks, nutrition services, emergency supplies and community gardens

• Occupational Training—job preparedness, employee assistance services, computer skills, resume writing workshops, social-entrepreneurial initiatives, and community re-entry services

• Clothing—working clothes wardrobes, clothing closets, care kits and material aid

• Understanding—clinical social work counseling, mentoring, fatherhood initiatives, life-recovery classes, drug and alcohol recovery programs, Orthodox Christian spiritual life classes, community building activities, and money management workshops

• Shelter—home repair for the elderly and disabled, domestic service and discipleship retreats, rapid transition to housing referrals, and rent/utilities assistance

Traditionally charities have picked one of these critical categories and focused all their efforts in that area. But life recovery is never about one issue. It is complex and requires hard work because each area affects another. That is why FOCUS NA has intentionally structured its centers to approach life recovery holistically, choosing to walk hand-in-hand with a single person over many miles of life recovery, rather than walking with a crowd a short distance to the next stepping stone.

3. Does it make any difference to you or to the people you serve, that you are an Orthodox organization? 

It matters that we are an Orthodox organization but perhaps in ways not always obvious at first. Following the model established in FOCUS Kansas City-Reconciliation Services and that of Archbishop Anastasios in Albania, our approach is to expose people to our faith, not impose it upon them. Therefore, we serve anyone who comes through our doors without partiality and our approach is shaped strongly by the Orthodox Christian tradition of hospitality. Those we serve are not our “clients” they are our “guests.” Calling someone a guest assumes that there is a relationship, even a friendship. So much of Christ’s ministry was done across a table with ample food and good conversations. So rather than a “soup kitchen” where people walk through a long line to get a plate of food and move on, we serve our hot nutritious meals family style and train our volunteers to sit, eat, listen to and talk with our guests. This “being with” our guests provides us all with an opportunity to learn from each other, walk together and establish meaningful relationships that can lead to life-recovery. We strive to treat each person as a living icon of Jesus Christ himself and treat the poor especially, the living icons that adorn the church of the world, with the same profound and authentic veneration that we treat the icons of paint and wood inside our churches. Those we serve tell us that all of this makes a difference to them and that is why they often return to our FOCUS Centers for the help they need.

We are also excited to create opportunities for the Church and the faithful, especially those called to social ministry vocations, to apply our ancient and rich faith and theology to modern complex social problems and to discover new facets of an emerging authentic North American Orthodox social-praxis.

FOCUS NA is nothing innovative in the 2000 years of Orthodox Christian tradition (St Basil’s monastery rule, St. Nicholas’ care for poor children, Mother Maria’s hospitality houses in Paris, St. John of Kronstadt’s House of Industry, etc). Although the significant needs of the thousands of people we now serve daily demands the more robust scope and scale only possible in a FOCUS Center where Orthodox Christians can unite together to serve, FOCUS NA’s ministry is not unlike that already undertaken by so many Orthodox parishes. With the blessing of the hierarchs who invited us to establish FOCUS ministries in their regions, FOCUS NA is a tool the Churches in many cities are using to create opportunities for Orthodox Christians to live out their faith together by meaningfully addressing the needs of the poor in their local communities as the Orthodox together; and in many places the city and others are taking note.

Lastly, just as a home owner always cares more for his own home and neighborhood than a renter, so also FOCUS NA donors and volunteers feel it is important for Orthodox Christians to establish and operate our own ministries for the poor in North America. Truly, it is a good and proper thing for us to volunteer and donate to other ministries not operated by the Orthodox Church. However, many have experienced great spiritual growth personally, in their families and in their communities by working with FOCUS NA to establish and operate a FOCUS Center.

4. You started in the midst of the biggest American economic downturn since the Great Depression. How has that impacted your work?

There was and still is a note of urgency; faced with the worst economic environment since the hard times that forged the “greatest generation” and in spite of all the difficulties and objections to starting in that season, it became clear that there was no other choice. The Orthodox Church and faithful could do more to help our needy neighbors in this difficult time and FOCUS NA was born out of the earnest desire of faithful from all Orthodox Christian jurisdictions to do all we could to help the poor especially given the times.

Here are some hard facts:

• American leaders, policy makers and social action groups received a wake-up call last year when the Department of Agriculture reported a record high 49 million Americans “who lived in households that lack consistent access to adequate food.”

• In July 2010 the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty revealed a 26% increase in the need for food assistance, with 25% of those needs going unmet.

• Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that for the first time since 2007 there were more job gains than losses at the end of 2010, the unemployment rate for the United States as of March 15, 2011, was a shocking 9.5%. And unfortunately many working people still can’t afford to pay their bills.

• The Working Poor Families Project estimates that one out of three families in the U.S. is considered “low income.” And, according to the Project, the number of working poor families continues to increase at a staggering pace, with 45 million people, including 22 million children, living in low-income working families. That is an increase of 1.7 million people since 2008.

A recent “60 Minutes” broadcast revealed the great difficulties facing people who have found themselves flung into poverty—hungry, without work, no money for basic needs including clothing and school supplies, alienated, misunderstood and homeless. This video is a reminder to us here at FOCUS of why we exist, why we do what we do, and how great a calling it is. 

5. You are functioning as an umbrella for ministries around the US. Who can become a FOCUS partner? What kind of support do you provide, and how does this further the work of Orthodox philanthropy in local communities?

The primary thrust of the ministry of FOCUS NA is to establish operational ministries to serve the poor by mobilizing the Orthodox Christian volunteers, resources and other partnerships needed within a community to provide vital life-recovery services to working poor and homeless people in a given area in North America. But FOCUS NA also supports,as we are able, existing Orthodox Christian ministries serving the poor in parishes and other settings. FOCUS NA provides technical assistance, best practices, ministry models and resources to help build the capacity of existing ministries and to initiate new Orthodox social action ministries. These ministries are called FOCUS Partners. In the last two years FOCUS NA has given away $50,000 per year to FOCUS Partner ministries serving the poor effectively. Each FOCUS NA ministry shares in the ministry of the whole, including FOCUS ministries in around the country and helping to support existing FOCUS partners. FOCUS NA never wants to replace existing parish ministries but rather to augment, undergird and support them such that more poor are served by the Orthodox Church in North America and more faithful are engaged in life transforming ministry with the poor together.

6. Highlight for us one initiative that is particularly near to your heart.

The need for occupational assistance is especially great and we consider it a core goal of FOCUS NA to offer our guests an opportunity to move from a place of great need to a place of life recovery and self-sufficiency. This ultimately means jobs and job readiness. The newly launched FOCUS ReEngage Program provides a comprehensive job readiness and workforce development initiative through FOCUS Centers. FOCUS ReEngage is built upon proven social work principles and a strong Orthodox Christian foundation with the goal of those who complete the program being ready to get a job, with the skills to keep a job, and with the necessary life skills to further their own life development

7. If you could hang one sentence in the fellowship hall of every Orthodox parish in America, which would tell us something we really need to hear, what would that sentence say?

Jesus Christ came to our streets for our salvation and commands us to “depart in peace” to the same streets “for the life of the world and its salvation.