The Friars and Sisters of the Poor Jesus provide food and friendship to society's most marginalized.
There is a 4-sq-mile area in the city of Los Angeles that contains more than a tenth of the city’s 53,000 homeless. Known as Skid Row, these streets have the largest stable population of homeless people in the United States, between 3 and 5 thousand. These people are in dire need of assistance, and while there are plenty of noble charities that offer aid — Lovers of the Holy Cross, Mary Queen of Heaven Missionaries, the Religious Sisters of Charity and the sisters at the Good Shepherd Shelter — it never seems to be enough.
This is, however, the call to action that the Friars and Sisters of the Poor Jesus answer most readily. The order, which originated in Sao Paolo, Brazil, in 2001, is on a mission to minister to the neediest and most marginalized members of society. What started with Brazilian Father Gilson Sobreiro’s bid to help addicted youths to recover has turned into a vibrant order of young friars and nuns that has spread to 12 countries, including Paraguay, Argentina, Nicaragua, El Salvador, France and Canada.
In 2012, they arrived in Kansas City, and now, at the request of Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, they have a presence in Los Angeles. America Magazine describes the works of mercy they dispense:
Dressed in a full habit, a straw hat and brown flip-flops, Friar Benjamin, 42, along with three other friars, one religious sister and three volunteers, shouted, “Cold water! Free food!” as they made their way along the tent-lined streets in 90-degree heat. They moved slowly, taking time to talk with people about their lives and to ask if they need a prayer. Tyrone Tankins, who has lived on Skid Row for eight months, asked them to pray for his sick grandmother. Even though he survived cancer and a gunshot wound, he said, it’s his grandmother who needs help. By the time they finished circling the block they had given away all their food and water, even the ice from the cooler. Together with another team of friars, nuns and volunteers, which walked a different block, they distributed 400 sandwiches to 200 homeless people in a single Saturday afternoon.
The Friars and Sisters of the Poor Jesus are addressing the homeless crisis, but also the problems that arise when a society “neglects their spiritual side.” They meet the poor on their level, accepting poverty and living with few possession; they sleep on the floor and subsist on donations. Friar Benjamin believes that more important than the feeding the homeless is developing a relationship with them:
“We give out simple food, but we develop friendships. Once they realize that you care about them, and that what we do goes beyond food, then they understand, and something internal happens, and it’s like a strength comes and they start fighting for their lives again.” He added, “We have no illusions that we’re going to solve it completely, but this is what we need to rediscover, if you will, Jesus’ message.”
While many of this century’s youth may find the aspect of a self-imposed life of poverty unthinkable, the friars and nuns find great joy and contentment in their life of service. Sister Maria Goretti of the Spiritual Infancy, who joined the order when she was 15, told America Magazine:
“When people look at us, they’re reminded that we’re not made for this earth. People think, ‘Oh, you don’t have cellphones, Facebook, social media.’ But it’s also beautiful because we’re a sign for people who can’t live without the internet,” she said. “We see society and how you can’t leave your phone. Our poverty can assure people that you can live without so many things.”
The distribution of food has been their focus as they begin their mission, but Friar Benjamin mentioned that they hope to do even more moving forward. One idea is to open a house so the homeless can live with them and transition out of Skid Row life.