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Desperate People Come To Catholic Charities, Leave With Help And Hope

Catholic Charities intern Katy Kettler, working on a master’s degree in social work from Kansas University, assists clients as they choose winter clothes — free — at Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph. The St. Francis Shop is one of the many services Catholic Charities provides at its downtown headquarters. (Kevin Kelly/Key photo)

By Kevin Kelly
Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Key

Teresa Davis. John Carter. Joan Brauninger. Winston Canady.

They all think they have the greatest job in the world. They work for Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, serving the greatest people in the world — the poor — and following the call of the greatest teacher in the history of the world — Jesus Christ.

“It’s 41,000 square feet of great,” said Davis, the facilities manager whose job is to keep all systems running smoothly in the huge Charities headquarters at 9th and Main in downtown Kansas City.

She’s a relative newcomer.

“I was offered three jobs,” Davis said. “One of the things that lured me to Catholic Charities was the Welcome Center. They can say we are required (to personally greet everyone who comes to Catholic Charities), but it is a perk.”

Carter said he feels the same way. He works maintenance. And he works it extra hard with special pride, not just because of the 125 people who work there, but because of those people who walk through the front door and into the Welcome Center for help.

“We want to show people that they have dignity, that they are people of God,” Carter said. “It gives my cleaning a purpose.”

Brauninger, the receptionist is both the first voice clients see when they visit and the first voice they hear when they call.

“I have the best job in the whole place,” she insisted. “I get to talk to everybody who calls and I get to talk to everybody who comes in. There are characters, and real people.”

Canady is a jack-of-all-trades when he is not shuttling the elderly on appointments, or to meals at senior centers on the Charities mini-bus.

“Oh, they are a lot of fun,” he said. “I get to be with them, and they are all having a great time.”

Well, they are all wrong, Deacon Dan Powers will tell you. He’s got the greatest job in the world.

Deacon Powers is the chief executive officer, the guy in charge of Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and he got to lead a staff of some 125 through one of its greatest transitions in the agency’s 136-year history — into a full-service, one-stop resource for Kansas City’s poor because of its move to the former Mercantile Bank building, with the space to talk, to move, and to provide services.

Take the new clothes closet for example, which accepts donations of gently used clothing for distribution to the poor.

“We had one gentleman who said, ‘I’ve never owned a suit in my life,’” Deacon Powers said. “So we brought him in here and found him a suit that fit him perfectly. Then we got him a shirt, tie, belt and shoes — the whole works.”

But that wasn’t all. The man had come looking for a job through Catholic Charities’ new Workforce Development program. Charities set him up for an interview for a warehouse job.

“He wore the suit to his interview,” Deacon Powers said.

“He came back and told us that when the receptionist at the warehouse called his name for the interview, he stood up. Then she looked down at her clipboard, looked back up at him, and said, ‘Somebody is getting hired today,’” Deacon Powers said.

He got the job.

That’s what Catholic Charities does, Deacon Powers said. A person may show up desperate. They leave helped — and with a gift they may not have had for a long time, hope.

That comes from knowing that somebody cares, and that begins when the person walks into the front door and takes a seat in the large Welcome Center.

They don’t just sit there. A Catholic Charities employee is there to make them feel welcomed, even to the point of offering a simple cup of coffee.

And all Catholic Charities’ employees take their turns in the Welcome Center, including the CEO.

“How are you doing? Can I get you a cup of coffee? Cream and sugar?” said Deacon Powers as he made the rounds of nearly a dozen people waiting in the Welcome Center.

One client declined the coffee. But when Deacon Powers left to fetch coffee for others, she shook her head.

“You always want to walk through the door of a place like this with your head down, ashamed,” she said. “Not here. They make you feel like they are happy you came.”

Big secret. Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph is very happy that the poor come to them, and are continuing to look for ways to expand and serve.

The Kansas City building is just phase one. Early next year, Charities offices in St. Joseph will move into a former United Missouri Bank building at 10th and Penn, smack in the middle of downtown.

“It’s going to be fabulous,” Deacon Powers promised.

Next up is Warrensburg.

“That’s a real small office now, and that will be our next move once we get St. Joseph up and running,” he said.

As if he needed a reminder of what the mission of both Charities and the entire church is about, Deacon Powers said he got it as he attended every major event that Pope Francis held in Washington, D.C., in September as a guest of Catholic Charities USA.

Deacon Powers said the pope also underscored to him the meaning of “deacon,” as the pope repeatedly underscored the important of placing the entire church at the service of the poor, the outcast and marginalized.

“It comes from the Greek word meaning, ‘to serve,’” Deacon Powers said.

“Pope Francis is a deacon. He serves like a deacon. He talks like a deacon,” he said.

“’Who are we to judge?’” Deacon Powers quoted the pope.

“When someone walks in our door, we’re all about helping them. It’s about the people who are in a bad place for whatever reason, and what can we do to help them,” he said. “Pope Francis exemplifies what Christ wants our church to be.”

Deacon Powers said he was particularly inspired by Pope Francis’ message to the joint session of Congress.

“On Capitol Hill, he talked about the greatness of America,” holding up the examples of Dorothy Day, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Thomas Merton, Deacon Powers said.

“His message was to lift America up to its greatness,” he said.

That transcends American political labels, Deacon Powers said, and it frustrates those who try to apply such labels to him, particularly those who see his advocacy for the world’s poor to be “Communist.”

“He had the best answer to that,” Deacon Powers said. “He said, ‘I’m not a communist. I’m a Catholic.’”

Pope Francis further elaborated in an April, 2014 interview with three communications students from Belgium: “This is the heart of the Gospel, and I am a believer. I believe in God, I believe in Christ, I believe in the Gospel, and the heart of the Gospel is the poor. And because of this I believe that the poor are the center of the Gospel of Jesus. This is clear if we read it.”

It’s crystal-clear to the people who work at Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, even though not all employees are members of the Roman Catholic Church.

“We aren’t all Catholic, but we all act like we are,” Deacon Powers said.

“We start every morning with prayer. We have a weekly rosary with the Divine Chaplet. Everything we do, we do around the Catholic faith,” he said.

“That’s why people want to work here, because we are Catholic,” Deacon Powers said. “They want to serve the poor in a way that no other faith-based agency is doing.”

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