Three Vancouver women have left career and school behind to serve the homeless.
This fall, the trio pledged to devote one year to full-time street outreach, prayer, and faith formation and have so far found it life-changing.
“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” said Nicole Fredrickson, a member of Catholic Street Missionaries. In November, she and two others embarked on CSM’s One Challenge – the challenge of spending one year in full-time missionary work in Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhoods.
Fredrickson was raised Catholic but abandoned her faith in her early 20s to dabble in other religions. By the age of 23, she was unsure what to believe and ensnared in an abusive relationship.
“It left me very broken.” After two years, she managed to leave the relationship only to enter another season of despair at the death of a close friend.
“What stood out for me most was his love for the homeless and his wanting to help people on the streets,” said Fredrickson. “It was painful to hear of his passing,” but the death also triggered something in her.
Her priorities, previously focused on making as much money as she could, were starting to shift. “I wanted to give up worldly endeavours.”
So, when a friend introduced her to St. Mary’s Parish, which has been running an active street ministry for 14 years, she joined and started volunteering with CSM once a week.
“Homeless outreach helped to heal me,” she said. “Instead of focusing on my own problems, I was working with people who were in much worse conditions than I had been in.”
When One Challenge launched this fall, it was a natural next step. Now and until next winter, Fredrickson will spend every day on the streets, giving away cookies and juice, warm clothing, and other items to the less fortunate. If they are open to it, she’ll chat and pray with them too.
One Challenge is a pilot project of CSM, which foundress Mildred Moy says if successful, may become an annual effort. The missionaries spend 18 hours per week reaching out to the poor on the streets and another 18 hours per week in prayer and silent contemplation.
The program also includes faith formation activities, including talks by various priests, spiritual reading, and attending Bible studies. Fredrickson said she always spends one hour in silent prayer before going out to the streets.
Fellow missionary Fehintola Okunubi joined One Challenge as a break between post-secondary studies and a career. A recent health sciences graduate, Okunubi was deciding what to do with her degree when Moy’s new initiative fell into her lap.
“I’m trying to figure out my plan in life and it was the perfect gap year thing,” she said. The timing fell into place and she “felt like I was called to do it.”
One Challenge relies on donations, financial and physical, to serve the poor. During the winter, the group has been giving away socks, coats, and sleeping bags, all donated by supporters. Lately, members have been giving away Comfort Coats – coats that can convert to sleeping bags, invented and sewn by the Helpers of Sts. Joachim and Anne in South Surrey.
“We have candies and we give them to people, but the candies are not what we are giving,” said Okunubi. Smarties and Comfort Coats are only an opportunity to start a conversation, build a relationship, and open possibilities of adding a bit of hope in someone’s life.
“We don’t force our faith down their throats,” she said. Sometimes, upon hearing that they are a Catholic group, a homeless person will take the candy or other items and walk away. But others are attracted by the small group of volunteers.
One couple said, “We just had something really traumatic happen to us, so you are an answer to our prayers,” said Okunubi. “One day, there was a guy telling us: ‘Yes, God is love!’ No day is the same.”
Fredrickson, Okunubi, and third missionary Teresa Do hosted a large group of supporters at a dinner and fundraiser for One Challenge Dec. 6. Their many fans include the charitable organizations Covenant House, Luke 15 House, Madonna House, the Helpers of Sts. Joachim and Anne, as well as many priests, Vancouver parishioners, and others.
“Everything I do, I do what I think God wants me to do,” said Moy, who came up with One Challenge during a silent retreat. “I don’t have a long-term plan. Everything is God doing it. So next year, I don’t know if there’s a One Challenge. We’ll see what God says!”
CSM is a branch of St. Mary’s Street Ministry, which was founded 14 years ago to serve prostituted women and has since expanded to reach the homeless, poor, and addicted.
It enjoys whole-hearted support from Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, who once slept in a cardboard box in a parking lot with other missionaries from St. Mary’s to raise awareness about homeless youth.
More information about CSM is available at www.catholicstreetmissionaries.org.