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Strong Arms Holding On: Christmas Prayers from the Father McKenna Center


On Tuesday, December 20, I spent time with DC Service Corps volunteer Ali Sentmanat and her friends and colleagues at The Father McKenna Center in downtown DC. I was hoping to find a little Christmas among the men there, many with no homes and troubled with physical or mental health issues or addiction. And in this organization that generated an impressive warmth, even on a cold winter’s day, I found it.

The McKenna Center’s day program, hypothermia program, and food pantry serve individuals in need of services. A fourth offering, the immersion service learning program, allows colleges, schools, parishes, and other programs to combine service and more personal interaction with the men at the center. Thirty full-time volunteers keep things going along with the seven-member staff.

The McKenna Philosophy

Dr. Kim Cox, Center president, explained the McKenna philosophy, which is to empower people, rather than enable them. For instance, instead of denying people’s agency by dispensing set portions of food, the Center allows people to shop for the food they need. Being able to choose your preferred breakfast cereal means so much more than Rice Krispies instead of Corn Flakes. As Kim explained, this sets up a different kind of relationship, one that allows some visitors to say they don’t need a certain kind of food that time, so that there can “be something left for the next person.”

Ali’s Franciscan Ticket

Shopping is also what happens in Ali’s Clothing Closet twice a month. Men are required to obtain a ticket by 8:00 am so that the clothing volunteers can be ready with enough shirts, slacks, jackets, underwear, and socks. Interestingly, Ali mentions enforcing the ticket requirement when we discuss ministry of presence.

“It’s not empowering for me to make special rules for people,” she explains, citing lessons learned as the second oldest among 9 children and as a stage manager. “Ministry of presence to me means relating human to human, and you can’t do that if someone is hoping to get special treatment.” On the other hand, the Clothing Closet can be open for someone who just got released from prison and really does have an acute need. “I’ve learned to be present to each individual guy,” she says.

Christmas Prayers

I wanted to be present with a few people during my visit, so I asked a few men for their prayers. After all, prayer is something you always have to give.

James gave a prayer of thanks for those supporting him since his stroke, adding, “I pray that God may help all people who are sick.” After being homeless for one year, James was able to find his own place thanks to support from the McKenna Center. “I don’t have to come back,” he says amid the buzzing activity of the day shelter. “But I come in almost every day to say hi.”

David was one of several men I met who wasn’t from the DC area. With the rolling cadences of the South he intoned this prayer for the city: “May the spirit of God fall into everyone’s heart and help everyone become what Jesus wants them to be.”

Like many of us, Jeffrey was concerned about the violence in Syria. “I pray for the families in Aleppo,” he shared. “And I hope that the people committing the violence remember that they’re attacking human beings, made in the image of God.”

Charles prayed that all homeless people would find housing. Then he added, “I want the city to not be divided after the election.”

Several men had feelings about the election, but political views were shared amicably. Then the conversation steered back to Charles. “Not much is going right for me these days. I’m holding on but my arms are tired. I’m not letting go,” he said with a smile.

Thanks to the visitors, staff and volunteers at the McKenna Center, I was able to see the meaning of Christmas: room at the inn, and hospitality from those who could still find something to share,­­ no matter how light they were traveling.

Merry Christmas to all!

Kim grew up in NC and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Warren Wilson College in Asheville. Her first job out of college was working in a state psychiatric institution, and this interest in people living with mental illness carried through to later positions as a psychiatric social worker at Fountain House and a job with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In between, she spent a year of service with Mercy Corps in the greater New York City area, where she developed an interest in people experiencing homelessness or poverty.

Always interested in people’s stories, Kim later turned her attention to communications work, but it’s at FMS that she has found a way to combine her spiritual journey with writing and editing. Kim is very inspired by the Franciscan charism, as well as inspiring others about FMS programs. link