St. Viator @ St. JamesSaint Viator students, Katie Crawford ’21 and Nick McCaulley ’19, wanted to step out of their comfort zones when they signed up for the Urban Immersion retreat last weekend. What they got, was a glimpse into what it means to be homeless and the chance to see the face of God in those they encountered.

They were among nine students, freshmen through seniors, who traveled to Chicago’s Southside and the Br. David Darst Center for Justice, Peace, Spirituality and Education. This was the third year Saint Viator’s Campus Ministry Department offered the retreat.

“I’m still haunted by hearing the women’s stories, of how easy it is to lose everything and how hard it is to get back on your feet,” Katie said of hearing the personal testimonies of two formerly homeless women.

“The experience really opened my eyes as to how strong people can be when life throws everything at them,” Nick added. “I really saw the face of God in them.”

The center’s stated mission is to challenge perceptions, by providing an engaging, reflective and brave space where people can explore issues of social justice. Its immersion retreat serves as an experiential learning experience, they add, to explore injustices and the reality of oppression.

One of the most memorable parts of the retreat was hearing from two women, one in her 30s and one in her 40s, who had been homeless. One had become homeless after becoming ill and not being able to keep up with mounting medical bills. The other story hit home with the teens. She described being kicked out of her family’s home when she was 14 and pregnant.

They learned of her resourcefulness, of how she slept in abandoned apartment buildings with her baby, whom she kept warm by wrapping up in aluminum foil, and how she walked more than two miles to steal food from Jewel.

Both women eventually found help and now serve as advocates for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, speaking to groups and lobbying in Springfield on behalf of the homeless. The baby, the teen worked to save now has graduated from college.

Another activity had the teens break into groups of four, and shop and prepare a meal, using a regular allotment from SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which came out to $1.50 per teen or $6 for one night’s dinner.

Katie and Nick’s small group made an omelette with brown rice and bananas. After eating the meal for dinner, they all agreed that it offered some sustenance, but they couldn’t envision living on it for long.

“It’s so disheartening that fresh produce and the healthy stuff is so expensive,” Nick said. “It just goes against what you inherently believe, that you should be able to afford food that is good for you.”

The next day, the teens worked at the food pantry at St. James Parish, located near Guaranteed Rate Field. All morning, they unloaded crates of food, bundled food packages and helped people pick up food. In all, they served 250 families or a total of 500 people.

“Typically, when you think of the food pantry, you think of dropping off food,” Katie said, “but here we got meet the people who are getting the food. We really felt like we were helping.”

Both teens described the retreat as “powerful” and one that motivated them to do more. For starters, Katie and Nick pledged to go back to help at the food pantry for the next food distribution — and bring friends with them.

Br. John Eustice, CSV, vice president of Viatorian identity and mission, brought the first group of Saint Viator students on the retreat three years ago. He continues to see its value, of giving students an in-depth look at poverty and then analyzing a response within the context of Catholic social teaching.

“As Viatorians, this is part of our mission,” Br. John says, “to help young people reach out to ‘those accounted of little importance.’ “

Our goal is to invite a genuine conversation about the world around us, raising awareness, challenging perceptions, and encouraging behavioral change that reflects the Christian social teachings of peace, justice, and appreciation of the dignity of every person and value of the earth.