FOCUS North America
A Crucial Ministry for the Orthodox Church
(From the Word Magazine)
By Charles Ajalat
One in 50 children in the U.S. is homeless, 36 million people here go to bed hungry and more than 6 million have become unemployed in the last 12 months. Staggering statistics to say the least. So what can we as Christ’s Church do with, and to help, these living icons of the living God, these who are “the least of our brethren?”
The beginning of the Orthodox Church’s fuller answer to these questions is FOCUS North America, which is uniting the Orthodox faithful to help those in need domestically, in the United States and Canada. It is the only national Orthodox agency working operationally on pervasive and persistent issues of poverty in our communities. The incredible work of FOCUS North America and its partners can be seen on the 9 minute video, which can easily be found on www. focusnorthamerica.org.
FOCUS is an acronym for two things. First, it stands for “Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve.” Second, it stands for many of the areas of activity in which FOCUS North America operates and partners with others: Food, Occupation, Clothing, Understanding and Shelter.
God has significantly blessed the creation of FOCUS North America. Obtaining 501(c) (3) tax-exempt status as a public charity (rather than a church) ordinarily takes 12 to18 months, but when the Internal Revenue Service saw FOCUS North America’s request for expedited treatment and how effectively it could serve our brothers and sisters in need in this country, they granted tax exempt status in seven days. Seven. The Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) on the motion of Metropolitan Philip, gave FOCUS North America its “warm endorsement for this welcomed initiative.”
In addition, major social action agencies associated with the Orthodox Church were gathered together in January to cross-pollinate ideas. This year, on behalf of FOCUS North America, 15 grants and a total of almost $50,000 have been made to such “partner agencies.” Metropolitan Philip, Fr. Joseph Purpura and Fr. Kevin Scherer have graciously given the Orthodox Youth Outreach (OYO) Program of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese to FOCUS North America. FOCUS North America is operating the 6-year-old program, renaming it “YES” (Youth Equipped to Serve) North America and significantly expanding the program (www.YESNorthAmerica.org).
FOCUS North America and its partners are serving 425,000 meals a year at a cost of $1.92 a meal and providing other basic needs to the homeless and needy in North America. The organization has already started its City Program feeding the poor, providing clothing and many other services. And “soon”, God willing, there will be FOCUS North America centers in 50 major cities and rural areas. Imagine what a witness the Church can be to its neighbors locally through the national FOCUS Centers that either exist or are being created. Imagine FOCUS-Kansas City (existing), FOCUS-Twin Cities and FOCUS-Harlem (both of which will hopefully be up shortly), FOCUS-Omaha (where we are helping Sheltering Tree have HUD housing for downs syndrome children and a related employment center), FOCUS-Orange County, FOCUS-Boston and FOCUS-Atlanta and others. Imagine the witness—internally and externally of 50 city programs. Each with 200 monthly volunteers. Add them together and you get 10,000 volunteers per month nationwide.
How FOCUS Kansas City Works
Reconciliation Services – FOCUS Kansas City is a model for the other FOCUS Center locations. It serves 14,000 meals a year with 200 volunteers each month from the local Orthodox Churches. Orthodox Churches in the metropolitan Kansas City area each take one Friday night a month. They purchase food for the hungry, cook it in their church kitchen or the FOCUS Kansas City kitchen, bring it to the FOCUS Center and serve and interact personally with the poor and struggling in order that we never forget that each person we are serving is a living icon of Christ Himself – needing God’s love, as expressed through us as brothers and servants.
In addition to the meal program, there is a food pantry and clothing closet supplied by the local parishes and community. If someone asks for assistance from the food pantry more than twice in a six-month period, a case manager will find out more about them in order to better help. Maybe they can’t find a job because they don’t have a social security card or driver’s license. Because this is a common reason, one morning a week, FOCUS Kansas City helps its clients get the documentation they need. Basic and clinical counseling are also available.
With each FOCUS Center modeling the one in Kansas City, there will also be a FOCUS North America professional director. And, depending on the needs and the desires of the local parishes and the local advisory council to the FOCUS Center, other services might be added – such as crisis pregnancy services and work training.
The YES Program Influences Youth to Do Good
The Board of Directors and Staff
In addition to incredible donors and volunteers, FOCUS North America has also been blessed with an outstanding staff and Board of Directors. Fr. Justin Mathews, an OCA priest, is the Executive Director. Prior to seminary, he was an executive with the Nashville Union Rescue Mission, which housed 1,000 homeless at a time and served 500,000 meals per year with 10,000 volunteers.
Katrina Bitar, a recent graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, heads up FOCUS North America’s, YES Program. Nick Kasemeotes is the Philanthropy Coordinator. Faith Boldt is the Assistant to Fr. Justin. Jacob Lee and Jonathan Green help this important ministry part-time and a search is currently underway for a national programs director for FOCUS North America.
The Board of Directors of FOCUS North America is as diverse as it is outstanding, including members from Greek, Antiochian, OCA, Carpatho-Russian and Serbian backgrounds. It includes business people, priests engaged in social work and committed Orthodox Christian laity. Similarly, the Advisory Board has outstanding individuals on it, chaired by the former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development and including prominent Orthodox Christians nationwide.
Serve, Support, Supply.
FOCUS North America operates in three ways: It Serves those in need by providing aid through its programs and partners. It Supports Orthodox Christian social action ministries, agencies, professionals and volunteers. And it Supplies parishes and others with the education, resources and training needed to initiate social action ministries in their own communities. Because of this, lives are being transformed. Take, for example, a woman who had a job with a major U.S. corporation and became overwhelmed with all the demands of life. After losing her job, she left her three children, became an alcohol and drug user, became homeless and a prostitute and was stuck in the middle of a life filled with chaos. But then, she met God in a unique way through the programs at Reconciliation Services FOCUS Kansas City. And He transformed her life. Now, she’s said goodbye to alcohol and drugs, she has her own apartment, is working for a major hospital and is back in touch with her children.
She is only one example of the many being touched. And as we push forward, tens of thousands of lives — one by one — can be affected by this ministry. Again, I urge you to see more of the incredible work that FOCUS North America and its partners are doing, watch and be impacted by the 9-minute video, which can be found on the organization’s website at www. focusnorthamerica.org.
Generous founding donors have extended their matching gift challenge of $250,000 to December 31, 2009. Please consider this blessed Christmas season whether you might join in this challenge to help these living icons – our brothers and sisters in need . And if you would like to help, please go to the above website to donate. God will indeed bless you.
* Charles Ajalat is Chairman of the Board of Directors of FOCUS North America, founder of International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), initiator of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) and for 17 years was Chancellor of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.