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A FOCUS on service: Orthodox churches expand to Hill District to help the poor

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The Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve sees Pittsburgh mission as 'centerpiece' of national effort
Sunday, January 30, 2011
By Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Orthodox of Pittsburgh are famous for mouth-watering food festivals that support their churches. But in April they will open a center in the Hill District to give food and other assistance to the poor, regardless of their faith.

It will be the seventh center for FOCUS North America, the first nationwide pan-ethnic effort by Orthodox Christians to provide social services in America. Because of the concentration of Orthodox in the Tri-State area, FOCUS founder and board chairman Charles Ajalat expects it to become a "centerpiece" for the 2-year-old organization. "We have 130 priests and six bishops within a two-hour radius," he said Tuesday at a fundraising dinner that drew 400 people to Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Mt. Lebanon. Few regions can say the same.

FOCUS stands for Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve. Its website is www.focusna.org.

Elsewhere, FOCUS has developed niche ministries. In Orange County, Calif., where it couldn't afford to buy or rent in the sky-high real estate market, a FOCUS truck brings food to motels where many evicted families live. Last month in St. Louis, FOCUS helped 45 women with crisis pregnancies fill out online job applications and trained them in basic skills such as job interviewing and budgeting. "We don't want to duplicate unnecessarily what any other association, ministry or social service is doing here," said the Rev. Justin Mathews, a Serbian Orthodox priest from Kansas City, Mo., and executive director of FOCUS.

While its range of mission is being developed, Pittsburgh FOCUS will have an outreach to low-income and homeless military veterans. It has hired an Iraq War veteran as the center director. Struggling vets are a special concern of the FOCUS's most prominent supporter, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. He surprised organizers by attending the dinner amid Super Bowl preparations. His wife, Theodora, was a founding national board member of FOCUS. Its capital campaign was Tackle Poverty with the Polamalus.

"I grew up very poor," Mr. Polamalu said in an interview. Before he moved to live with his aunt and uncle at age 9, he was often on the streets of Santa Ana, Calif., while his mother worked."I was hanging out with homeless people, even stealing food from picnic tables and giving it to homeless people. Even, at times, stealing for myself to eat," he said. His closest friends have always been those who have known poverty, he said. Mrs. Polamalu spoke at the dinner on seeing the image of God in the poor."We are all images of the very God we serve," she said. "It is the imperative of this organization to restore the dignity that belongs to each man as bestowed by God." She spoke of people who lost everything in the recession and of veterans who returned from war "to homelessness and despair.""You might ask, 'Where is God in their lives?' The better question is 'Where is God in our lives?' " she said, urging listeners to respond in the name of Jesus.

Tuesday's dinner raised $62,000 toward a $150,000 launch budget for the Hill District center.

Eight people bid a total of nearly $12,000 to eat dessert at a table with the Polamalus. An autographed Polamalu jersey brought in $5,200 and a pair of the Polamalus' prime seats at Heinz Field yielded $1,200.


Ann Rodgers can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 412-263-1416.
First published on January 30, 2011 at 12:00 am
Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11030/1121413-53.stm#ixzz1CkLxYaNj

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