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Serving Homeless People Gave Olivia Prevost Hope

Nicole Patterson

Olivia Prevost feature

This summer, Olivia Prevost, C’22, completed a three-week volunteer program to minister to individuals experiencing homelessness in Michigan City, Indiana, through Christ in the City—a national volunteer project designed to grow college students into Catholic missionaries through four pillars of formation: spiritual, intellectual, human and apostolic. Prevost, an Honors student and a Mount Fellow, was awarded funds from the Office of Competitive Fellowships to pay for her room, board and transportation costs associated with this service work.

A philosophy major, who also minors in theology, music and English, Prevost is currently working on her Honors project with Department of Philosophy advisors Joshua Hochschild, Ph.D., and Mike Miller, Ph.D. She is the 2021 recipient of the Gadamer Liberal Arts Scholarship for dedication to lifelong learning and critical investigation in and outside of the classroom; the 2021 Margaret E. and William P. Moyles Memorial Award for demonstrated excellence in pre-law studies; and the 2021 Della Ratta Award for exhibiting the highest standards of liberal learning through breadth and depth of study in the liberal arts and sciences, her exceptional abilities of critical and creative thinking and fine moral character.

“In my conversation with Olivia the other day, I was struck by a few things: growth in courage, growth in desire for community and growth in desire for prayer,” said Brendan Johnson, S’21, assistant director of campus ministry and social justice. “She said she’s really eager to bring back to the Mount what she learned to help build our community here.” 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

How did you hear about Christ in the City?  

Two Mount alumni did it before me: Emily Flaherty, C’19 and Sean Fahey, C’21.  

What initially attracted you to the program?  

The program’s focus on service to the poor. I was in Ireland my sophomore year, fall 2019, with the Mount’s study abroad program; we lived in Dublin. I was really struck with my first encounters with the problems of homelessness and the struggles people faced in Ireland. Ever since I lived there that semester, I’d been looking for an opportunity to help people who suffer from those things.  

Christ in the City appealed to me because it’s their apostolate to serve the poor, specifically in urban areas. When I went in, I didn’t really know too much about the philosophy of the program. One of the things that’s so great about the program is their emphasis on forming the missionaries. Where a lot of service programs will have you build houses and evangelize, talk to people, spread the gospel, this program was interested in growing the missionary spiritually to serve others from that good place.  

What surprised you about these three weeks?  

It was a very structured lifestyle; there was a lot of community prayer involved. We had Mass and Adoration every day. We had personal prayer time built into our community life. I got so much more spiritual food than I thought I was going to get. I thought I was going to serve other people, and I found myself being served more than anything else.  

Describe how you spent your days.  

We would wake up every morning at 6:30 a.m. and have prayer together. We’d eat breakfast together and clean the house together. From 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., we’d do the street ministry.  

The life of the missionaries in this program is structured around four formation pillars: human, spiritual, apostolic and intellectual. Everything we did was focused on those four points. For the intellectual pillar, we had classes on Catholic Social Teaching. We read some of Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals. We were doing things that were engaging us intellectually with the mission we were doing. For the spiritual pillar, we had Mass, Adoration and we did a silent retreat at the end of the program to process everything and pray about it. The human pillar was forming the missionaries as a group, so you intentionally strengthen your relationship with the others in the program. The apostolic pillar was service to the poor.  

How did you minister to these individuals?  

The primary thing we were trained to do was to sit and talk with people. We were connected to a local social service. We went to homeless shelters. We had packets of information for people who were interested in getting a job or looking for housing. We did have water and socks to attend to material needs.  

What we wanted to do first was to spend time and get to know these people. What we were trying to do was minister to that poverty of loneliness, that poverty of never being treated like a human being—being treated either like you don’t exist or you’re a problem to solve. We tried to find that space of accepting people and wanting to be with them as friends first and then as people who could help them second.  

When we would go out on the street, we would do it with that intention. We split into teams and would walk the same route every day because we’d be trying to meet the same people every day, build up a relationship with them, and show them through our presence and our friendliness that they’re worth having a better quality of life.  

What did you learn about those suffering from homelessness?  

People who suffer from homelessness have financial problems, right? They don’t have money—that’s why they’re on the streets. Often there are underlying reasons why people struggle financially: mental illness, family history, personal human brokenness and other struggles are the root and foundation of their homelessness. Christ in the City is a program that recognizes, primarily, that while these people are suffering from material poverty, their biggest poverty is loneliness.  

When you’re on the street you’ve burned every relationship bridge that you have. If you or I were approaching the point where we couldn’t pay for housing, someone would let us crash on their couch for a bit until we could get on our feet. These people have no one in the world who cares about them enough to give them a couch to stay on.  

You mentioned the poverty of loneliness. How did you minister to that need?    

One of the most powerful things for me to witness as I grew to know these individuals more was that I really could tell how much the poverty of loneliness affects a person. I met so many different people. Everyone’s story was different. One thing I noticed again and again is how grateful and how much it meant to these people that we listened.  

For example, there was one man I got close to over the three weeks I was there. He was at the food pantry where we helped serve. He would come and start talking the moment he arrived and would not stop talking until the moment we ran out of the room. His personality was so overwhelming that people wouldn’t even listen to him anymore; they would just block him out and move to the other side of the room. I would sit and listen to him for three hours talk about big, exciting things he would do when he was younger. He had amazing stories to tell.  

At the end of three weeks, he told us he was going to miss us when we were gone because we were the only people who valued him enough as a human being to listen to what he had to say. That’s an extreme example but illustrates the impact it has on someone where you sit down and listen. You don’t listen to do something else. You don’t listen to solve their problem. You don’t listen to get something from them. You just listen to what they have to say.  

How did active listening and receiving without judgement make a positive impact?  

Before this program, I had a hard time distinguishing between a moral judgement and a critical judgement. I believe in absolute truth—that certain things are right and certain things are wrong. But I was able to see, in this program, how you can listen to someone and ask them questions and disagree with the choices they’ve made. You can understand that in your mind but still listen to them with an accepting and receptive attitude toward what they’re trying to communicate.  

I saw how powerful that was in so many cases where I would watch my fellow missionaries, who are amazing people, listen to these very sad stories—and I just saw these people open up. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The people you think would be the most hostile and unfriendly toward you just want someone to listen and learn about them. Everyone needs that so much. One of the biggest takeaways from this program was the importance of listening well.  

Where did you see hope?  

Hope was a huge theme for me in my spiritual life during those three weeks. I had lost a lot of hope before I started this program—in the sense of believing things could be different at the Mount, at home and in the world in general. For a period of time, I had lost trust that God could really make change happen for the better. When I went to Christ in the City, the experience I had there showed me that healing and good change, change for the better, is possible. God is capable of it in my own life, in my own person.  

How do you think you’ll bring this experience with you to the Mount for your senior year?  

I was able to see the change in the people suffering from homelessness. I was able to see the change in their lives in such a short period of time, and I could see the change in my own life as I was formed, grown, and shown a better way. This experience restored my trust in God’s ability to work through me to do his will and bring healing to those in need.  

That experience can translate to my life at the Mount because the apostolate is listening to people who have suffered from poverty. It was special for me to be there because material poverty to the level of what I was experiencing in Michigan City is not part of the everyday life at the Mount—but spiritual and social poverty is.  

As I was being formed as a missionary, I was shown how to have an attitude of receptivity without judgement and engage in community life and prayer. Those are all skills, attitudes and passions that I can apply to my relationships and academic life at the Mount.  

It turns out everyone suffers from some kind of poverty—even those lucky enough not to suffer from material poverty. Loneliness is everywhere, in every part of society. I’m excited to come back to the Mount and do the best I can to continue the lifestyle and the skills of listening and receiving that I developed over those three weeks and apply them and bring them to the Mount for the good of my friends and family that I love.  

Have you kept in touch with any of the other missionaries that you met?  

I have. Two or three of us meet for night prayer over Zoom a few times a week.  

Jesus spent a lot of time with the poor. Do you think serving these individuals is an act of social justice?  

There’s a phrase about God’s preferential love for the poor. The idea is that people who suffer from material poverty have a special place in Jesus’ heart. You can read that in the gospels and in the Bible. I think we have a duty to care for those in our families, communities and in our country who suffer from material poverty. We have a duty to address these needs because our Lord showed that example. He had a desire to be present and in solidarity with those who suffered material poverty.  

When I started the program, I didn’t think of myself as educating or fulfilling a moral imperative as much as I thought that Jesus was with the poor and I want to be with Jesus—therefore I should help the poor. That’s where my heart was in terms of motivation.  

Did you journal while you were there?  

I’ve always been terrible with journaling, but I wrote every day.  

Tell me how your liberal arts training informed your experience.  

There was a lot of liberal arts occurring. I play the Irish fiddle. We had a professional stunt fiddler and she played Americana. We had a classically trained saxophonist and a good improve pianist. We had a bunch of people who were good at singing. We would host dinner a lot and host dinner concerts and put together song set lists. One night we went to one of the local men’s shelters and did a performance on the street in front of their house. It was so much fun.  

What have you learned from this experience about the power of trust combined with the power of truth to change the community and the world?  

I met a man who really struck me. He wasn’t someone I met with my street team; he was someone another street team met. He invited all the other street teams to come together. This man had been homeless for a long time, and he was well known in the local area. He had a job but didn’t have reliable transportation, so he struggled. He invited us into his community. He wanted to serve us. He brought 11 of us missionaries to this park. All his belongings were there; this was a place he had been camping for a while. He shared his food with us. He had some meat he got from a pantry, and he had bread and toppings. Even though he was the one we were supposed to be helping, he hosted a party for us at this park. It was such an amazing experience. His generosity was striking. He wanted to share what he had with 11 affluent, not materially poor, young people aged 18-27.  

It was a beautiful experience for me. Again, I expected to serve this person, and he ended up serving us. He had a need to be generous and give something back. Because we were humble enough to accept his gift and have this barbeque with him, we met his need and found joy in the face of so much suffering.  

What are your next steps? How are you moving toward your purpose?  

I’m seriously thinking about taking a gap year after graduation and looking at continuing to work with Christ in the City. I completed the three-week summer program, but they have a yearlong version to become a full-time missionary in Denver, Colorado. I’m thinking about applying because this was a wonderful experience, and I grew closer to Jesus. I’m taking the Graduate Record Examinations and looking at graduate schools for philosophy. It’s big scary. University of Notre Dame is very attractive because of their Classics department, same with Baylor University. I’m interested in Christian and Catholic philosophy.  

Nicole Patterson