An Interview with Father Justin Mathews
Executive Director and CEO of FOCUS North America
HM: Tell us about FOCUS North America. When was this effort launched and how did it come about?
Fr. Justin: FOCUS North America (Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve) is a domestic social action agency of the Orthodox Christian Church, entirely dedicated to ministering to the poor here at home. In January 2009, twenty Orthodox ministry leaders from across North America met in Kansas City to discuss the urgent and pressing needs of the poor and to ask two questions: What is being done effectively to help? And what more could be done if we were to unify our efforts on behalf of the entire Church? While there are a variety of Orthodox Christian agencies within all jurisdictions effectively engaged in addressing local needs, it has become evident that a coordinated effort with national support and encouragement could be even more effective.
The meeting was sponsored by the Orthodox Vision Foundation and held on the premises of Reconciliation Services. And what a Spirit-filled two days it was! With so many dedicated Orthodox Christian social action leaders in one room, much was accomplished, and that meeting was the catalyst for the formation of FOCUS North America.
HM: What is the mission, then, of FOCUS North America?
Fr. Justin: Working primarily in the areas of Food, Occupations, Clothing, Understanding and Shelter (FOCUS), the mission of FOCUS North America is to express Christ’s love for our neighbors in North America—the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, strangers, and those in prison (Matt. 25).
To accomplish this mission FOCUS North America will:
Serve those in need, by providing aid through our programs and partners,
Support Orthodox Christian social action ministries, agencies, professionals, and volunteers; and
Supply parishes and others with the education, resources, and training needed to initiate social action ministries in their own communities.
As Orthodox Christians, our mission and priorities were given by Christ—to love God and to love our neighbor, to care for and tend to those in need around us. Each person we meet is a living and real icon that should be venerated and shown respect just as we venerate the icons in church, because we were made in the image of God. How we treat the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the addicted, the stranger has everything to do with our salvation and our life in Christ.
HM: FOCUS North America is a new organization. What have you been able to accomplish in these first few months, and what are your hopes for five or ten years down the line?
Fr. Justin: Already in addition to our own programs that we operate directly, we have distributed over $30,000 in funding to partner organizations and ministries. This year we plan to distribute a total of $55,000 to help build the capacity of and initiate new social action ministries. We have also launched a great website, focusnorthamerica.org, that we envision not only as an educational tool, but as a place where people can find out how to be involved, and a place of prayer, interaction, and community.
We have received $700,000 in pledges from both private foundations and individuals to cover our startup operational expenses for three years, so that every dollar given to FOCUS North America can be put to work immediately to serve the poor. We recognize the note of urgency signaled by the economic and social climate here at home, and we are trying to move forward swiftly, yet prayerfully and with the support of the Church, to minister to the hurting and the hopeless.
Our aim is to distribute three to five million dollars per year in aid in the near future, with the long-term hope of distributing fifty to a hundred million dollars in aid to the poor and needy. With almost 2,000 Orthodox parishes in North America and a growing awareness and interest in social action, we believe these goals are not farfetched. As a counterpoint, Catholic Charities USA distributed 3.6 billion dollars last year through their various ministries. With God’s guidance, and the generosity of His faithful, we are building an agency that the whole Church can participate in, a ministry that helps us all live out the fullness of our faith and spend our lives on behalf of the poor as Christ taught us to do.
HM: Tell us about one ministry FOCUS North America has supported and how that money was used.
Fr. Justin: Our operational philosophy is not just to give a fish, but also to teach people to fish. We are operating and supporting programs that are not just giving a handout to the poor but are really changing lives. We recently gave a large grant to Reconciliation Services in Kansas City. With that support they were able to hire a clinical caseworker who is helping a group of forty homeless people living on the streets find housing and the help they need. A clip from a recent video we put together speaks to how these funds were used. Father Paisus Altschul, the executive director, said this:
“We had already been doing these Friday night dinners, which was an amazing expression of practical Orthodox unity in Kansas City. Every week a different Orthodox parish would come down and they would serve the meal. We began to realize that there were a lot of other needs that were going unmet. We received a grant of $10,000 from FOCUS North America.
“And what that actually enabled us to do was to provide for forty homeless clients the opportunity and access to this kind of clinical support, as well as case management that took them out of this place of dependency upon just living on the streets to being able to be in a place where they can begin to make it for themselves.”
HM: So who is giving to FOCUS North America? Where will these dollars come from to keep this ministry alive and growing?
Fr. Justin: As I mentioned earlier, many people are giving generously to help get FOCUS North America started so that every dollar given can go straight to helping provide aid to those in need here at home. We are praying that as people learn more about the way our Church is reaching out to our neighbors through FOCUS North America, more will give just as generously.
People want to support this work because they understand the need for it—they see the homeless on the way to work, they read in the papers about the 36 million people who go to bed hungry each night and the one in fifty kids in the US that are homeless. Even in our own parishes, there are those whose lives are in jeopardy because of the times we live in. People are giving to FOCUS North America because they want to feed the hungry and give hope to the hopeless, and they see that through FOCUS North America they are making a difference in people’s lives.
The last thing FOCUS North America wants to do is unnecessarily duplicate existing efforts. We of course do not want to discourage giving to any one ministry, but the reason for our collaboration with these ministries, and for FOCUS North America, is so we can magnify and leverage the gifts given. We have the ability to raise awareness of the various ministries, and we are studying what efforts are currently working so we might replicate those, learning from one another, making each dollar stretch further.
HM: Do you think every one of our churches should have a social ministry?
Fr. Justin: Every person who follows Christ is called to love God and neighbor. Seeking God’s will in how to serve is the important factor. Not every community will have the ability to start a food pantry or provide housing for the homeless. This calling will look different for each individual and each community—but we can do more when we’re united than when we’re working alone. We have been inspired to learn about the multitude of good works and generous philanthropy that has already been going on in many Orthodox churches. But there is still so much more that we must do together.
We all have a unique participation in Christ’s Body and in caring for the poor here at home. I believe a mom teaching her children to pray for the poor before each meal, the volunteer preparing and serving a meal in a hospitality house, and the donor who gives generously to FOCUS North America are all participating in this vital ministry.
HM: What about you, Fr. Justin? How did you get your feet wet in social ministry?
Fr. Justin: After I graduated college, I was working in Nashville for a 1,000-bed homeless shelter and life-recovery ministry. It was there that I met Nathaniel Miles, a homeless man who had married young, divorced at 18, and had been living the life of a hobo for twenty years. He was then 48. He hadn’t seen his wife or kids in all that time—he would travel from Alabama to Canada, back down to Tennessee and Florida, riding the trains. He was an alcoholic, a drug addict, and illiterate.
Nathaniel stumbled off the train and onto the property of the rescue mission where I worked. He was almost dead. We gave him a hot meal and a place to sleep, and I witnessed his brokenness; he had demented tremors from all the years of neglect and abuse.
He shared with me that he had heard a preacher speak of Christ’s living water, and that he wanted the spiritual water that would never run dry. We helped him into our life recovery program. Two years later Nathaniel graduated from that program. He was sober, he had learned to read, he passed his GED. The last time I saw him, he was leading a Bible study with homeless men and sharing with them how God really can change lives. Nathaniel then made efforts to reconnect with his family. Unfortunately, on his way to visit them, he was in a car wreck that killed him.
Watching this man’s transformation, then death, affected me profoundly. I was angry and upset that God had taken him just before his reunion . . . but I came to realize that the Lord, in His mercy, gave him a second chance at life through that ministry. He didn’t take him home until he was able to share with others his testimony of change. He became a restored icon, and he taught me that God’s plans are not my own. And that’s okay. I’m certain Nathaniel now prays for me. We have been given the full and transformative power of Christ in and through the Church. I am working out my own salvation each day, and this is how God has called me to serve. I am humbled and see it as a real privilege.
HM: This man, Nathaniel, seems like the rare person who ends up transformed. And yet there are many people struggling today, losing jobs and ending up needing public assistance. Why do you think it has become so difficult for the average family, or person, to make ends meet?
Fr. Justin: Christ said we will always have the poor with us. And yet perhaps He meant more than the mere fact that there would always be poor people. I think He meant that because we are Christ-followers, we would always surround ourselves with the poor as He did, dedicate ourselves to trying to minister to them, and let God be the judge of the outcomes.
Yes, the staggering reality is that in spite of the wealth of our nation, in North America millions of our own neighbors live below the poverty line. And yes, Nathaniel’s story is special. . . . But it proves that with God’s help we can work with faith and love to feed the hungry, provide job training to the jobless, clothing for the naked, freedom to those in the prison of addiction, a chance at life for unwanted babies, and safe shelter for the homeless.
One thing I learned working at the homeless shelter is that the people we see on the streets are not all that different from any of us. Each was someone’s beautiful child, many are educated, and most are not making a deliberate choice to stay helpless. Most want help, but because of addiction or mental illness or some other factor, it’s not as easy for them to recover from a fall as it might be for one of us. Nathaniel taught me that it does not take too many awkward turns to end up on the street in a time like this.
Our work as Christians and our ministry through FOCUS North America isn’t so much to make people “better” (as if we ourselves are really all that well—sometimes our poverty is just well hidden). It certainly isn’t our place to judge or condemn people. Rather, our labor is to learn to live with the compassion of Christ and to do all we can in the spirit of Christ’s love to follow the example of the saints to help our neighbors here at home.
Lastly, FOCUS North America is committed to serving anyone in need—regardless of race, color, creed, language, orientation, or circumstances—and doing so without being preachy or requiring someone to become Orthodox in order to receive help. As Orthodox Christians, we understand that the Holy Spirit is everywhere and fills all things. God is already at work in the lives of those we serve. So although we openly serve as Orthodox Christians, we seek to expose people to our faith, not impose it on them. In a word, the food is the Gospel.
HM: If I want to volunteer and join FOCUS North America and its efforts, what can I do?
Fr. Justin: There are three essential ways one can join FOCUS North America in serving those in need.
You can make a generous donation, either online at focusnorthamerica.org or by mail to 3101 Troost Ave., Kansas City, MO 64109.
You can volunteer your time and energy and talents in one of our partner ministries or by working with our staff to help get ideas for new ministries that can be started.
You can pray, especially for the poor, the sick, and the suffering here at home, but also for FOCUS North America.
HM: Any final word for our Handmaiden readers?
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you, Jane, The Handmaiden, and everyone who is already supporting FOCUS North America. Without your support and generous donations, FOCUS North America could not feed the hungry and give hope to the hopeless here at home.
For those we serve… God bless.