Matailong Du

Pope Francis’ historic September 22-24 Washington visit brings particular interest to the homeless community. Pope Francis has given attention to issues of homelessness, poverty, and income disparity since beginning his tenure as pope two years ago, earning him the nickname, “Pope of the Poor.

“Poverty in the world is a scandal. In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry,” he said in a 2013 meeting with Jesuit schools in Italy and Albania. 

Francis has addressed homelessness in Vatican City, installing showers in the Vatican for homeless individuals to use. In 2013, he was rumored to sneak out in disguise to feed the homeless at night with his almoner Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, an activity Francis enjoyed in Argentina prior to his papacy. His visit brings with it anticipation that he will address homelessness in Washington as well, primarily with his visit to St. Patrick’s Church. There he will speak to the homeless community that gathers for Catholic Charities’ St. Maria’s Meals Program.

Catholic Charities has been appealing to another of Francis’ focuses, prison ministry, with the Walk With Francis pledge campaign.

On his first Holy Thursday celebration, Francis famously washed the feet of inmates at Rome’s Casal del Marmo juvenile detention center, including, for the first time in a papal foot-washing, women and Muslims. He similarly watched the feet of inmates at Rome’s Rebibbia prison on this year’s Holy Thursday. Francis will extend this focus on prison ministry to the U.S. when he visits the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia.

Photo of Pope Francis kissing the foot of a woman at Rebbia prison in Rome
Pope Francis, right, kisses the foot of a woman at Rebibbia prison in Rome, Thursday, April 2, 2015. Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 inmates and a baby at Rome’s main prison Thursday in a pre-Easter ritual meant to show his willingness to serve. He asked them to pray that he, too, might be cleansed of his “filth.” AP PHOTO/L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO, POOL

Catholic Charities has partnered with an ecumenical group of religious and organizational leaders to promote the Walk With Francis pledge, the purpose of which is to denounce high U.S. incarceration rates and raise support for formerly incarcerated individuals.

At a September 11 press conference in front of St. Patrick’s, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl introduced this criminal justice reform focus for the pledge, which has been going on since late July. He encouraged individuals to take one of three actions to honor the pledge: to “take a pledge to pray for all those impacted by crime,” to volunteer as a mentor for the Welcome Home re-entry program, or to support and advocate for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals.

Monsignor John Enzler, CEO and president of Catholic Charities, further elaborated on the Welcome Home re-entry program, which has a volunteer staff of 100 mentors tasked with guiding men and women who re-enter the community after incarceration toward “finding a job, a safe place to live, and a community of support,” according to the Welcome Home webpage. Enzler emphasized the importance of mentorship for individuals who often have little familial support upon re-entry.

Rudolph “Rudy” Washington, a client of the Welcome Home Program, spoke about the role the program had played in his re-entry experience.

“What this mentor program did for me was that it helped me learn about myself…it really let me know that we have people out here that want to help,” Washington said.

Floyd Price, Washington’s mentor, also spoke, recalling the change in his mentee’s confidence through the five years of their mentor relationship.

“Rudy had some dental issues, and for the first year I never saw Rudy smile,” Price said. “We’ve been to every free dental place between Baltimore and D.C., and when Rudy got everything all done, he sat in the car and the biggest smile came on his face.”

Price said the mentorship would continue until Washington receives both his GED and Addiction Coach Certification. Rudy aspires to come a mentor himself once he has achieved these goals.

Rev. Langston Mulenga of the United Methodist Church expressed his alliance with the Archdiocese of Washington for the Walk With Francis pledge campaign, noting that prison ministry historically has been a “founding principle” of the Methodist church. He cited the issue that more young African American men in the United States are incarcerated than enrolled in college, and criticized “harsh mandatory sentencing” in the U.S.

Photo of Reverend John Mulenga speaking at the Catholic Charities press conference
Left to right: Reverend Langston Mulenga, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl and Dr. Jonathan Reyes. Photo by Olivia Aldridge 

“We stand united in asking Congress, the White House, and all our state legislatures to bring an end to this mass incarceration,” Mulenga said. “This mass incarceration is not only fracturing families, but is also putting a burden on our justice system and harming our communities.”

Mulenga emphasized the responsibility of the Church across denominations to support formerly incarcerated individuals as they seek to regain their footing in the world.

“We as a people of God welcome them back as our friends. Not as criminals, but as people that belong to us,” he said.

Craig Deroche, executive director of Prison Fellowship, a Christian organization that provides support to incarcerated individuals and their families, was also present.

“The truth is that no pope…has visited a country with an incarceration rate at the level that America will have on the day that Pope Francis visits America,” said Deroche.

Deroche also presented Cardinal Wuerl with letters from prisoners served by Prison Fellowship for Pope Francis, Catholic Charities, and the Catholic Church. Deroche said the letters told of the prisoners’ “hopes, inspiration, and desire for restoration.”

The Walk With Francis pledge also involves social media efforts, encouraging pledges to tweet #WalkWithFrancis. The hashtag has accompanied pictures of pledges with cardboard cutouts of Pope Francis and groups and individuals displaying their light blue armbands, a symbol of the pledge. Other social media users have used #WalkWithFrancis to commemorate more serious commitments, including acts of charity and environmentalism. Screenshots of these posts will be collected into a book to be presented to Pope Francis by Catholic Charities when he visits St. Patrick’s Thursday. 100,000 people had taken the pledge as of September 23.

If you’re on the street and wondering how the pope’s visit will affect you, you can learn more here.