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How a priest and teams of homeless people are transforming Detroit

By Mary Rezac

Detroit, Mich., Sep 12, 2018 / 03:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Many homeless people of Detroit already recognize Father Marko Djonovic’s white Ford Excursion.

When Djonovic rolls up with his friend Marcus Cobb, it’s probably because they’ve got a job to offer, in exchange for lunch and some pay.

“Word is getting out on the street about us,” Djonovic said of his new ministry, which he dubbed Better Way Detroit.

“So, when they see the white Ford Excursion they come up to us, asking, are you going to pick us up for work?” he told CNA.

Djonovic and Cobb are the two-man crew behind Better Way Detroit, and since May they have been teaming up with the city of Detroit and willing homeless workers to clean up the city’s parks, overgrown alleys, and vacant lots.

They drive around three days a week, stopping at shelters and other homeless hangouts, offering several hours of work for pay. The van can hold up to six people besides Djonovic and Cobb, and they typically take workers on a first come, first serve basis.

While he never worked with the homeless in any official capacity prior to starting this ministry, Djonovic said he was inspired by the individual interactions he had had with people on the streets.

After helping a mentally ill man get off the streets and into housing, he said he realized that while the homeless agencies are a “well-polished machine, there are gaps in that sometimes they can’t go out on the streets and find people and meet these people.”

He said he also discovered that many of the homeless had a strong work ethic and a desire to work for pay.

“When I see the homeless I don’t see hopeless objects of pity, but I see persons...with a sincere desire to work. They want to work. And there’s a great need in the city of Detroit, so putting those two things together moved me to to do this project,” he said.

Djonovic is also part of the newly-formed Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri at Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Detroit.

The spirit of service found in St. Philip Neri was an inspiration behind Better Way Detroit, Djonovic said.

“We serve following his spirit,” Djonovic said of the members of the Oratory. That service manifests itself in three ways: evangelization to youth, the cultivation of the spiritual life among the people through the sacraments, and service to the poor.

“I believe it’s what St. Philip would have done, he wasn’t afraid to out on the streets and preach the Gospel, to engage people, which included the homeless. St. Philip Neri was known as the apostle of Rome just because of that,” he said.

In the beginning, Better Way Detroit partnered with the City of Detroit Parks and Recreation Department to clean up parks through their Adopt a Park program. They now also help the city clear out overgrown alleys and vacant lots that can pose safety problems to neighborhoods.

Cobb provides much need insight to the ministry for how to work with the homeless because he was once a homeless veteran himself, Djonovic said.

“I learn a lot from Marcus, he understands the homeless culture; he’s very wise,” Djonovic said. He said Cobb has taught him the importance of being attentive to even the smaller needs of the homeless, such as if they want cigarettes or water, and to let them know they are respected.

Cobb said it helps instill a sense of respect and responsibility to the homeless that they work with if they are given ownership of the projects in which they partake. Every job starts with an evaluation of the site and the work to be done, and the homeless workers decide how best to get the job done, he said.

“You give them ownership, ask them how it should be done. It gives them responsibility,” Cobb said. “We get their input, and before you know it everyone’s teaming up. It makes them feel important, it gets better results, and they put the word out because they know it’s well worth their time.”

Cobb said he believes the ministry has been well-received among the homeless because “it gives them something to look forward to, and a chance to give back, and to get back into society.”

“Just because they’re homeless...doesn’t mean they don’t want to give back or try to get back in to society,” Cobb said.

It also appeals to the homeless because it gives them a chance to provide for some of their own needs “without a handout,” he said.

The partnership with the city, which is significantly understaffed, has also worked well, Cobb and Djonovic said, because their team is often able to get to jobs that the city doesn’t have the staff to do.

For example, the city gets a lot of calls from senior citizens who have lived in their neighborhoods for decades and have safety concerns about overgrown lots that may serve as hideouts or hubs for drug deals, Djonovic said.

“One woman was just singing our praises” after they cleared up a vandalized, overgrown lot in her neighborhood, he said. “Once (lots) are exposed, they feel safer, especially for the sake of children.”

Djonovic said he feels privileged to get to work alongside the homeless, and as they work, “sometimes I get to know their story, and they get to know my story,” he said.

“It’s happened a few times where guys ask me, why did you become a priest?” he said.

Every project concludes with lunch and a reflection on a bible reading. They have also handed out prayer cards to the homeless and do their best to connect them to housing, healthcare services, or other resources they might need.

“We at least just make them aware of the services available and encourage them to go, some guys aren’t aware of (everything available),” Djonovic said.

Djonovic currently funds the ministry entirely out of his own pocket, and through any donations he receives for the project. All of the money goes strictly to needed materials such as gloves or shovels and to pay the homeless for their work.

Djonovic and Cobb added that they are always looking for ways to expand and strengthen their ministry, and they are hoping sometime in the future to employ someone in a full-time position who can oversee the operation to make it more sustainable.

“Things are looking good we’re really enjoying it,” said Djonovic, who added that he’s been touched by some of the responses he’s seen from the homeless.

“One guy said: ‘I feel blessed because to be a part of something positive.’ He didn’t say, 'oh, now I’ve got some money in my pocket',” Djonovic recalled.

“Another young man, 25 years old, he said it was a grace” to participate in the project, he said.

Cobb said he would encourage Catholics to encounter and get to know the poor in their cities.

“Go out and start from the bottom and communicate with the people...go into the areas where the people don’t have the income, and approach them and talk to them halfway nice, and they’ll respond.”

Past Issues

Feb. 10, 2019

Jan. 27, 2019

Jan. 13, 2019

Dec. 23, 2018

Dec. 9, 2018

Nov. 25, 2018

Nov. 11, 2018

Oct. 28, 2018

Oct. 14, 2018

Sept. 16, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: 2018 Golf Classic; student athletes; physically challenged; Leonard Stegman; Lesson in forgiveness; Sending us on a mission

Sept. 2, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Priest crisis; Scandal; Opioid addictions; Seeds of Suicide; Leightons; St. Anne; Vincke; seminarians; Dominican Sisters; Stewardship Conference; Dead Sea Scrolls; PSR programs; Roe V. Wade

 

August 12, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Prayer and Action; Totus Tuus; Janee Bernal; Diana Ramirez; Heidy Ramirez; Bishop Gilmore honored for 20 years ministry; suicide; contraception and abortion; Dead Sea Scrolls; Humanae Vitae; certification in youth ministry; Chuck Weber; Cathedral rectory chapel; Sister Viola Heichelbech; Adam Urban

July 15, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Immigration Protest/Rally; Faith and Light Fiesta; Seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls; Corpus Christi procession; Prayers for priests; Sisters turn 100; Michael Brungardt; Gerald Vincke; Massacre in San Salvador; Action for Alex 

 

June 3, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Parish Pray for Priestly Vocations; Appeal reaches $10 million; Gangs; Seminarians; Pam Willis; Why I like being a priest; Happy Father's Day; Patricia Lujan; Tyler and Rachel Bennett; Adoption Protection Act.

May 20, 2018
KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Track meet; Beloved Sinners; Benjamin Martin retires; Smiles; Future of Fortune Telling; Hoisington mission; DofI; Getting Equipped; Spring Social; First Communion; Confirmation
KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Track meet; Beloved Sinners; Benjamin Martin retires; Smiles; Future of Fortune Telling; Hoisington mission; DofI; Getting Equipped; Spring Social; First Communion; Confirmation

May 6, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Archbishop Romero; Seeing, Touching, Tasting; Exhortation; Father Patrick Conroy; Happy Mother's Day; A child on your doorstep; Vibrant Ministries Grant; From the heart of a young father; Love Gives Life; Roman Holiday; Smartphone; retirement
Fossil Hunting

 

April 15, 2018

 KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Easter Vigil; Angelica Village; Colorado woman; The art of anger; Cimarron Couple; Staats; Adoption; 

Father Ultan Murphy anniversary; Coughlan; Spiritual Advisor to Hoodlums; Woman of Courage; Oration contest; Darcy Feist  

 

April 1, 2018

 

 KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Defending Adoption; Led by the Spirit; Knights; ABC Pregnancy Center;
Memorial of Mary; Homeless; Relics; Down syndrome abortion; Chrism Mass

 

March 18, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: SKYAC; Aleksandr Men; Fasting for Priestly Vocations; Uganda; School for deaf; Rannah Evetts; Oberle; Rachel and Doug Trombley; Oscar Romero; Paul VI; DACA

 

 

March 4, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Fasting for priestly vocations; Father Juan; Fasting and prayer;
Quest Weekend 2018; DACA; With God, anything is possible; Homelessness in our communities; Rhubarb, Kansas;
What's the point of fasting; Rite of Election; same-sex couples

 

Feb. 18, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Catholic Schools Week; Rachel Doll; Ellinwood; Great Bend; Garden City; Ness City; Dodge City; Sister Rita Schwarzenberger; Nigeria; Bishop Hermes; Fasting for Priestly Vocations; World Day for Consecrated Life; 50th Anniversary St. Dominic School; What will life be like in 50 years?

 

 

Feb. 4, 2018

 

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: March for Life; Tracy and Ross Smith; Adoption; Vibrant Ministries; Faith and Light;
Pro-Life; Mortal sin to discard elderly; DACA; Abortion; Dreamers; Human Trafficking

 

Jan. 21, 2018

 KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Louise Korbe; Anne Frank; Miep Gies; Home Heat; Father Solanus

 

Jan. 7, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Good news and kingdom living; dreamers; Sister Teresa Orozco; Infant Adoption; Elderly; a moral conundrum; seminarian; feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

 

 

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