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Franciscan Ministry
Friars Are a Last Resort for Poor and Homeless in Mississippi

As last Dec. 25 was approaching, Angela had only one wish – that the electricity in her trailer park home outside Greenwood, Mississippi, would be restored in time for Christmas. It was a promise she made to her 10-year-old son, a special needs child. But it was becoming more apparent that it would be a promise she couldn’t keep.

Hilary Brzezinski, OFM (center), who serves in ministry with the Benevolence Fund, an ecumenical consortium of churches in Greenwood, Mississippi, that helps the homeless and poor, stands outside St. Francis of Assisi Church with Mark Gehret, OFM (left), and Maxine Ford, parish secretary who helps administer the program.

The utility company had turned off the power when the single mother fell behind in payments after she left her job to care for her son. A friend suggested that she go to the nearby St. Francis of Assisi Church for help. She met with Hilary Brzezinski, OFM, who arranged to have the Greenwood Leflore Ministerial Association Benevolence Fund give the light of Christmas, literally, to Angela and her son. The Benevolence Fund sent the utility company’s payment center the $175 needed to restore the power – just in time for Christmas!

Angela is one of thousands who were helped last year by the Greenwood Leflore Ministerial Association Benevolence Fund – an ecumenical consortium of local churches, including St. Francis of Assisi, that provide 

families and individuals in one of the most impoverished regions of the country with food assistance, overnight emergency shelter at area motels, and partial payment of utility bills.

This three-pronged ministry to caring for the poor and marginalized was established 30 years ago by a group of area ministers, among them Franciscan friars at St. Francis Church, as a way to increase the Christian presence in the greater Greenwood community.

“When she was filling out the paperwork for her request, Angela was nervous that she’d be turned away because she is divorced. We told her that no one is turned away – people don’t even have to be regular church-goers to receive help. We welcome everyone,” said Hilary.

The First Presbyterian Church in Greenwood, Mississippi, one of 11 churches in the area that make up the ecumenical consortium, Greenwood Leflore Ministerial Association Benevolence Fund, that provides food assistance, emergency shelter, and help with utility bill payments to poor and homeless residents.

“The people who come to us are desperate. You can see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. They are facing impossible situations,” Hilary continued. “It often gets very emotional, bringing many to tears when they receive food, or when we help with a utility bill to keep their electric from being turned off, or turned back on. People are just so grateful.”

The sentiment of one recipient, “Leticia,” is a common refrain among guests: “The friars and the Benevolence Fund were a last resort for me and my family. It was either my kids starving, or having groceries from the food pantry to hold us over until my next paycheck.”

The Benevolence Fund is supported by 11 churches that belong to the Greenwood Ministers Association – among them St. Francis of Assisi, First Presbyterian, First United Methodist, Immaculate Heart of Mary, Nativity Episcopal, North Greenwood Baptist, St. John’s Methodist, Sycamore Street Church of Christ, Wesley United Methodist, West 

President Street Church of Christ, and Westminster Presbyterian.  The churches provide a monthly contribution to fund the program, relying on the generosity of private donors and their congregations.

Those seeking assistance from the Benevolence Fund range from families with children, single parents, couples, and military veterans – many of them homeless, all of them living in poverty. While they can drop into any of the Association’s participating churches, St. Francis of Assisi and North Greenwood Baptist both serve as the central hub to registering guests and tracking their requests.

In winter, the majority of requests are for help with unpaid utility bills and overnight shelter at the two local motels with which the Benevolence Fund has a contractual arrangement. Families with children receive two nights of motel shelter, while individuals typically receive one night unless there are extenuating circumstances.

“We receive hundreds of requests in the winter – people without a home who need to get off the streets and stay in a warm place for a night, and families and individuals who are displaced from their homes because of a fire or domestic issue,” said Hilary, noting that the high demand for emergency shelter sometimes overwhelms the resources of the Benevolence Fund – as it did last summer when the shelter program had to be temporarily suspended.

The Benevolence Fund also provides half the amount of outstanding utility payments, with a maximum allocation of $200 per household – although circumstances could warrant higher payments. Food-insecure residents are directed to the food pantry at the Church of Christ, where families are provided with meat, produce, canned goods, pasta, baby food and other perishables and non-perishables – including baby diapers.

“We are grateful to everyone who supports this vital outreach to the poor of the Greenwood community. This support is needed more than ever because the number of people in need increases every week,” said Hilary.

Content for this article compiled and written by Steve Mangione.

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