A group of Portland-area Catholics has melded the spirituality of St. Ignatius with the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. They are offering the result to homeless addicts.
Leaders of the Ignatian Spirituality Project say the powerful combination helps those who have hit bottom open themselves to God and rebuild their lives.
Two-day retreats, with about a dozen participants, start with the story of St. Ignatius. The 16th-century Basque soldier was dejected after being wounded and then applied his military zeal to the Christian life. He founded the Jesuits.
“People identify with his brokenness,” says Jordan Skarr, associate director of Chicago-based Ignatian Spirituality Project. He came to lead the initial retreats before Portland volunteer leaders take over. Participants tell their own stories, which they soon learn are the venue in which God is addressing them.
“I think one of the things they all struggle with is shame and I hope they can come to realize and accept that, in spite of anything they may have done or experienced, they are still — and always will be — valued, worthy of dignity and love,” says Maureen Hovenkotter, Portland coordinator of the project. “They all come away from the retreat feeling loved and cared for.”
The Archdiocese of Portland’s Griffin Center in Milwaukie hosted the first two retreats, one in April for women and one in June for men. Participants were amazed to have their own comfortable room with a private bath.
“Ninety-five percent of the people have never been on a retreat before,” says Skarr.
The Ignatian Spirituality Project began in Chicago in the late 1990s when the Jesuits began taking St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises to people who are poor. Retreats now take place in 27 cities in the U.S. and Canada.
Those attending the Portland gatherings were asked to name their fears. One 32-year-old man said he is trying to cope with news that he has contracted HIV from sharing heroin needles.
A woman told her group she has dreams of a house with a white picket fence and getting her children back from the state. She admitted that when she is disappointed, she almost returns to heroin but has resisted for some time now.
“My life will never be the same again,” said another participant in the women’s retreat. A third woman ended up finding a job and an apartment in the weeks after the session.
At the men’s retreat, one participant explained his years of attempting school and work, always foiled by drug addiction. Another wrote a letter to his mother, explaining his resentments. The woman has been dead for 30 years, but the exercise was transformative.
Leaders are effected, too. One team member at the men’s retreat said he had been searching for a spiritual tradition and thinks he just found it.
Retreats include prayer, solitude and good food made by volunteer cooks. Participants go through a purification rite, using water to symbolize a washing away of habits and memories they wanted to release.
They write letters to God that organizers will later mail back to the writers as a way to keep the retreat spirit alive.
“It was really powerful,” says Mike Higgins, a theology teacher at Jesuit High School who volunteered at the men’s session.
A couple weeks after the retreat, participants and helpers gather for pizza and a time to check in.
“You hope they have a sense of community, a sense that others are in this like me,” Higgins says. “But you can’t expect too many miracles in a few days. You plant seeds.”
Organizers know the fruits of the retreat may appear soon, or years down the road. “We hope the retreat can be a spark,” Skarr says.
Agencies — Catholic Charities, Blanchet House and secular organizations — refer likely participants. To be eligible for the retreat, participants must be clean and sober and in treatment. They also need to have temporary shelter so that their minds and spirits will be open to the messages of the retreat.
The home office foots the bill for early sessions, but then local people need to start providing funds for lodging, food and volunteer training.
Hovenkotter says she is searching for a location that may offer retreat space for free. Her goal is to organize four retreats per year, two for men and two for women.
For more information, contact the Ignatian Spirituality Project, ispretreats.org, [email protected] or 312-226-9184.