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Jesuit Priest Founds Spiritual Retreat Program for the Homeless and Addicted

Jesuit Priest Founds Spiritual Retreat Program for the Homeless and Addicted

By Susan Pascal
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In 1998, Father Bill Creed SJ joined forces with Ed Shurna, former executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, to fashion an experience that would help build community, hope and transformation among those experiencing homelessness and addiction. The Ignatian Spiritual Project offers the homeless and those in addiction recovery the opportunity to change their lives. Ignatian spirituality and Ignatian retreats are an effective and important resource in laying a foundation of hope which can lead to further and long-lasting transformation.


 1. Tell us about the inception of the retreat and why you did it?  

I was asked by Fr. Dick Baumann SJ, my Provincial, to bring Ignatian retreats to the materially poor. I agreed that I could and would do that. Then I asked whether those who were homeless would be an appropriate group. “Of course,” he replied. I immediately phoned my friend Ed Shurna who had been working with the homeless for decades and who had been saying to me that we needed to offer them retreats. I told him that I had been missioned to offer adaptations of the Spiritual Exercises to those who were homeless and since I had done my doctoral project on the relationship between the Exercises of Ignatius and the Twelve Steps of Bill Wilson, we would focus on those who were homeless and addicted. During our first retreat at the Fullerton Cenacle in Chicago, Ed brought men who were homeless and I, with my long experience of retreats, drew up the format with Ed’s help. On the evening of the first day of the retreat, I went to the chapel to thank God for the day. I was in awe at what I had heard from the men as they shared their stories, their courage, their vulnerability and their hope. As I came out of the chapel, I encountered one of our team members who himself was in recovery. His response to my astonishment was: “These men have lost everything; their only hope now rests in God. You are witnessing them rising out of the ashes of discouragement and despair; this retreat is appealing to their hope in God.” This retreat in the fall of 1998 launched the Ignatian Spirituality Project.

2. What is Ignatian Spirituality and how is it beneficial to those who are homeless and seeking recovery?

Ignatian spirituality begins with a person’s experience and fosters reflection on personal experiences. Ignatius called that reflective process the Examen, now called the Examen of Awareness. In that reflection, Ignatius, after a prayer for light and then a gratitude list, invites a person to notice: what is the enduring effect of your various experiences, notice what pulls you down, what lifts you up, what makes you better, and how can you best respond by your attitude and action to each of the events of today, to each life experience. Every person quickly realizes that some ways of thinking and acting bring centered energy, a poised freedom, and especially an enduring peace, whereas other ways of thinking and acting bring the opposite: scattered energy, a disposition of turmoil and a discouragement often tinged with a feeling of powerlessness. Ignatian spirituality encourages this daily examen of awareness which fosters recognizing the differences and then choosing those ways of thinking and acting which lead to greater peace, on-going self-awareness, self-appropriation, and ultimately to be grateful givers. Ignatian spirituality seems especially helpful to those caught in addictive or compulsive behaviors. Historically, when Fr. Ed Dowling SJ first read about Bill Wilson’s Twelve Steps of Alcoholic Anonymous, he concluded that Wilson must have made the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. In truth, both the Exercises in the 1520s by Ignatius and the Twelve Steps in the 1930s by Wilson arose out of reflection on experience without any knowledge of the other. Both the Twelve Steps and Ignatian spirituality seem particularly helpful to those caught in persistently self-defeating and discouraging habits. As Ignatius says in his Introductory Observations to the Spiritual Exercises: “there is a twofold purpose to every spiritual activity – freedom from ‘inordinate attachments’ and freedom for better relationships with self, others and God  Those who are homeless and addicted benefit from a few spiritual exercises which invite them to be free from what binds them and frees them for claiming their deeper self, restoring significant relationships, and uniting them with God.

3. Talk about your retreats. 

An ISP retreat follows the basic framework of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola in that we focus on the lived experiences of each retreatant and the often competing movements in our heart: fear vs trust, isolation vs communication, disrespect vs human dignity. On an ISP retreat, an atmosphere of respect and trust is established in the first few ‘spiritual exercises.’ Then a credible witness openly shares about “my life before using, my life of homelessness while using, and my life now in recovery.” Then the retreat invites each person, team members as well as the twelve retreatants (we keep it small purposely), to look and listen to “my life.” Notice, reflect, talk with God, decide what and who you need to trust now during the retreat and what you need to take with you from the retreat. The 27 hour ISP retreat follows the same pattern wherever the retreat is held and is THE retreat offered year round. A monthly follow up Day of Prayer in most cities introduces retreatants to the larger ISP community and to one-on-one spiritual accompaniment; these help retreatants maintain their focus.

4. Can you give us some success stories?

Tom Drexler, ISP Executive Director for more than ten years, shared this story recently:

‘For a few weeks now, at one of the Spirituality and Recovery groups we facilitate at various shelters throughout Chicago, 'Dave” (not his real name) had been sharing how his life slowly fell apart. One misfortune followed another as one bad choice led to the next. Eventually, he lost it all – job, friends, self-esteem, family, and finally hope. As the spiral downward progressed, it became harder and harder to break away from those things keeping him from healthy relationships. Once he hit the streets, fear became the driving force in his life as he lost the freedom to choose that which is life-giving rather than all the junk in our lives that keep us from loving relationship with God, others, and self.  The ISP facilitator of his group encouraged Dave to go on the upcoming ISP retreat. The facilitator knew he needed a safe space where he could take small steps to begin to trust sharing his story in all its pain and brokenness. Anyone who has ever been on an Ignatian retreat knows that when we make the slightest movement and allow God into our lives, grace abounds and transformation begins. Dean Brackley, in his book “The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times” speaks of 'getting free” to love. He writes in the introduction to the first section: 'To respond to our world we must get free to love. That involves personal transformation, which includes coming to terms with the evil in the world and in ourselves, accepting forgiveness and changing.” This is exactly what Dave experienced. By sharing his story, honestly and openly, he came to terms with the brokenness in his life (the evil, the sin) and accepted for the first time, in a very long time, the forgiveness that God unconditionally offers each one of us. With that forgiveness, the stone was rolled back and he could once again experience the Easter resurrection. Dave was ready to love again.”

I, Fr. Bill, last weekend visited a shelter in Chicago to join in a card game hosted by an ISP witness and friend who has been sober for 4+ years. We relaxed together and celebrated the bond of sobriety, friendship, and our mutual reliance on God Who continues to invite us to reach out to those in need.

5. How has your program expanded over the years?

Our first ISP Retreat took place at the Fullerton Cenacle in Chicago in 1998. With help from friends, I formed a small board for advice, and in my spare time (since I had two other ministries) brought our ISP team to Cincinnati, Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis. Our team consisted of a most credible and articulate witness, Wayne Richard, who was in recovery from homelessness and addiction, another volunteer (often a young Jesuit or layman), and me. After several years we established an ISP retreat for women which took off with excellent communication, collaboration and coordination by women for women in our ISP cities. In the summer of 2005, the CEO of an anonymous foundation in Manhattan NY read in the Catholic Prairie Messenger in Saskatchewan, Canada my article in the Chicago Catholic newspaper “The Homeless have a Spiritual Life” which had been picked up by the Catholic News Wire Service. The foundation leader said: “You are in eight cities with plans to expand; if you form a National Network, our foundation will give you a substantial grant to set up a national office.”

ISP created a national network and hired its first staff – Jordan Skarr and Katie O’Sullivan, both part-time graduate students in the MAGIS program at Loyola U in Chicago–who set up the ISP office. In 2008, ISP hired its first full-time Executive Director, Tom Drexler. Tom has moved ISP into the mature organization it is today with an infrastructure. policies, training and formation procedures and protocols, etc. Our ISP Board of Directors functions through committee work to foster best practices. As of July 2018, we have retreat programs in 30 cities across the United States and Canada, relying on the generosity of 800+ committed volunteers who have been taught about homelessness and addiction and who practice Ignatian spirituality in their lives. The ISP leadership team numbers six persons, a lean but effective team which last year organized 130 retreats.

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This piece was featured in the July 29th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver's free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.




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