DE PERE — A couple years ago, the Norbertine Center for Spirituality at St. Norbert Abbey offered a panel discussion on homelessness. Among the panelists was a young woman who was a guest at St. John the Evangelist Homeless Shelter in Green Bay. Tony Pichler, now co-director of the Norbertine Center for Spirituality, served as the moderator for the discussion. He recalls taking a group, including the woman, on a tour of the abbey in conjunction with the panel.
“We dipped our heads into one of the rooms,” he said. “To me, the bedrooms are pretty spartan; a bed, a desk, a lamp, a sink. When we looked into the room, this woman said, ‘Do people stay here?’ I said, ‘Yes, they come here on retreat and stay overnight.’ She said, ‘It’s so beautiful.’ That gave me inspiration to bring people who are struggling with homelessness to this type of environment.”
This year marked the second annual retreats for the homeless at the Norbertine Center. “Find Our Way Home for Women” was held in January. A men’s retreat, featuring the same theme, followed in February.
“We piloted the retreat last year for just St. John’s,” explained Pichler. “This year, we decided to expand it a little bit by inviting a contingent from St. John’s and a contingent from NEW Community Shelter (Green Bay). We felt like this could be a real bridge builder between those two shelters.”
Retreat participants are brought to the center at 8:30 a.m. on a Monday and stay until 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday. The retreat team, made up of seven people who are involved in ministry, developed the format by looking at the practices used by the Ignatian Spirituality Project of Chicago, which facilitates homeless retreats around the country.
“One of the things they said is that you have to watch your numbers,” said Pichler. “Fifteen people maximum is really what you want. That’s what we’ve done.”
The first morning features community building. During the afternoon of the first day, retreat participants work on their personal journey, including a timeline of their life where they can pinpoint important events.
“We do a healing of memories, a meditation, where they look at significant things that have happened in their lives, good or bad,” said Pichler.
Private time is built into the retreat. The participants value having their own bedrooms.
“We sometimes take for granted, especially those who go on retreats on a regular basis, the simplest of things like having your own room,” said Pichler. “They spend more time in the private room than most people on retreat. Many of them take really long naps. They use some of the other spaces as well.”
“They are so appreciative of the space, the calmness of everything,” said Paula Rieder, coordinator of pastoral ministry at St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in Oshkosh, who serves on the retreat team. “They are always feeling so rushed. They really enjoy having their own space and appreciate the food and hospitality.”
The evening program is facilitated by Tim Mayer of Artists for the Humanities, a recovery program for military veterans that incorporates expressive art. The homeless create an image that represents them personally in some way.
“They are introduced to a form of visual storytelling,” said Mayer. “… They don’t have a lot of control over their lives. This is a story they are going to tell on their own terms.”
The three circles of relationships — with themselves, others and spiritually — are the focus on Tuesday morning. Goal setting follows in the afternoon.
“They spend some time journaling and developing a plan, which they share with one another before they leave,” said Pichler. “We do a closure ritual and bring them back to the shelter.”
Follow up days, held two weeks after the retreat, look at how they are progressing with their goals.
“It’s been amazing, the success stories in terms of people finding jobs, more permanent housing situations,” said Pichler. “Some have gone back to school.”
Case managers at the shelters select the retreat participants. They make sure the people can maintain sobriety and are stable enough to achieve some level of success. The faith backgrounds of the homeless on retreat range from no faith to very faithful Catholics, said Pichler.
The retreats will continue. Combining St. John and NEW Community proved successful.
“One of the retreatants said that, when they came here, they were from two different communities and you could tell that,” explained Pichler. “When they left here, they were one community.”
Pichler also serves as ministry team coordinator at St. John. A team of approximately 20 ministers, including Rieder, commit to serving evenings during the 180 days the shelter is open. They have dinner with guests and provide a ministry presence.
“We have blue vests with nametags,” said Pichler. “We are not there to serve the meal or give out clothing. Our purpose there is ministry, to listen to their stories if they want to talk with us.”
Rieder said that she feels a stronger connection with the guests who took part in the retreats.
“We are all alike,” she said. “We all have a story to tell.
“Everyone should have an opportunity to go on retreat,” she added. “Why should it be any different for someone who is struggling with homelessness?”