FOCUS North America – A Crucial Ministry for the Orthodox Church (From the Word Magazine)

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.

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 (

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

FOCUS North America’s YES Program involves junior and senior high students in local community service and hands-on social action projects. In just the month of September, two separate groups of approximately 20 teens have said YES to the poor in both Kansas City and Philadelphia, getting to know and interact with the homeless, transforming the teens’ own lives while God transforms the lives of those around them. Additional trips are scheduled this year for Flint, Worcester and York, Pennsylvania. Over the past six years, 250 teens have participated in this program in 30 cities. The activities of the program next year over the current year will be doubled in the number of cities and teens involved. Contact Katrina Bitar at JavaScript required to view address and get your youth involved.

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.

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.

Theodora Polamalu joins FOCUS North America’s Board of Directors

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – November 16, 2009 – Kansas City, MO

Theodora Polamalu joins FOCUS North America’s Board of Directors

FOCUS North America is pleased to announce the election of its newest member of the Board of Directors. Mrs. Theodora Polamalu, wife of Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers, has just joined the board and is committed to help carry out the mission of the organization.

Among her many accomplishments, Mrs. Polamalu graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelors of Arts from the University of Pittsburgh Honors Program. She serves on the Phipps Conservatory Board of Trustees and the Pittsburgh Foundation Sports Outreach Committee and with her husband Troy has two philanthropic funds that allow them to make grants in a wide range of areas to help the community. She chose to join the FOCUS North America Board of Directors because she says it, “Embodies the ‘works’ mandate that Jesus Christ exemplifies so all of us could struggle to emulate His unconditional love for others, so that we may be deemed worthy of His magnificent grace.”

Charles Ajalat, Chairman of the Board, said the Board is looking forward to working with Theodora. “Theodora is a great example of what it means to give with a heart like God and for God… to give of your time, your resources and your talents to help brothers and sisters in need here at home.”

Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director & CEO, feels the same. “It’s really significant to have members of the Board who are already in the public eye. We believe Theodora’s involvement will help propel FOCUS North America forward in a great and God-serving direction.”

The Board of FOCUS North America is intentionally pan-orthodox in its makeup, which is helping to unify the Church together through helping the poor here at home. It includes Charles Ajalat, Chairman, William Hoeft, Vice Chairman, Dr. Julie Papatheofanis, Secretary, V. Rev. Fr. Tom Avramis, Brian Gerich and Lory Barsdate Easton.

FOCUS North America and its programs are committed to serve those in need, support Orthodox Christian social action ministries and supply parishes and others with the education, resources and training to initiate social action ministries in their own communities. In all of this, FOCUS North America continues its work Restoring Living Icons.


Handmaiden Magazine – An Interview with Father Justin Mathews

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,, 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 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?

Fr. Justin: I would like to encourage people to share our website (, video and podcasts with their friends and family and ask them to support FOCUS North America. Also, if anyone would like to have me or one of our staff come to visit their parish or women’s group to present on FOCUS North America, they can contact us at JavaScript required to view address.
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.

Brian Gerich joins FOCUS North America Board of Directors

[Kansas City, MO] Brian Gerich, Senior Vice President of Public Storage Inc., and an outstanding Orthodox Christian, recently joined the board and is committed to help carry out the mission of the organization.

Among his many accomplishments, Mr. Gerich has been one of the most critical members of the Board of Trustees of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary since 1989 and Co-Chair of their first major capital campaign. He has also been awarded The Order of St. Sava, 3rd Degree, from the Serbian Church, one of the Serbian Church’s highest honors.

And in May 2007, he was awarded the prestigious Ellis Island Medal of Honor. He was chosen to receive this award out of thousands of nominees because of his dedication and leadership qualities in community service and helping others.

Gerich, one of this nation’s most outstanding Orthodox Christian laymen, and a leading layman of the Serbian Archdiocese.”

The board is intentionally pan-orthodox in its makeup, composed of individuals from the following backgrounds: Greek, Antiochian, OCA, Carpatho-Russian and Serbian, which is helping to unify the church together. The Board includes Charles Ajalat, Chairman, William Hoeft, Vice Chairman, Dr. Julie Papatheofanis, Secretary, V. Rev. Fr. Tom Avramis, Lory Barsdate Easton, the Executive Director, Fr. Justin Mathews, and now, Mr. Brian Gerich.

FOCUS North America and its programs are committed to serve those in need, support Orthodox Christian social action ministries and supply parishes and others with the education, resources and training to initiate social action ministries in their own communities. In all of this, they continue in the work of Restoring Living Icons.

FOCUS North America Endorses The Donor Bill of Rights


As a part of its strong commitment to financial stewardship and professionalism, the Board of Directors of FOCUS North America, by a unanimous resolution in its September 2009 meeting, along with the Staff endorsed the Donor Bill of Rights.

“Philanthropy is not just a financial means to a programmatic end. Rather it is a critical part of our civic and spiritual lives. Focus North America recognizes that ethical standards and principles are essential for earning and maintaining public trust as a non-profit agency, especially as an agency founded by Orthodox Christians,” said Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director and CEO.

In endorsing the Donor Bill of Rights, created by the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) and other non-profit associations, FOCUS North America joins the United Way of America, the National Catholic Development Conference (NCDC) and other leading non-profits in affirming our commitment to financial stewardship and programmatic excellence.

The Donor Bill of Rights

Philanthropy is based on voluntary action for the common good. It is a tradition of giving and sharing that is primary to the quality of life. To ensure that philanthropy merits the respect and trust of the general public, and that donors and prospective donors can have full confidence in the nonprofit organizations and causes they are asked to support, we declare that all donors have these rights:

I. To be informed of the organization’s mission, of the way the organization intends to use donated resources, and of its capacity to use donations effectively for their intended purposes.

II. To be informed of the identity of those serving on the organization’s governing board, and to expect the board to exercise prudent judgment in its stewardship responsibilities.

III. To have access to the organization’s most recent financial statements.

IV. To be assured their gifts will be used for the purposes for which they were given.

V. To receive appropriate acknowledgement and recognition.

VI. To be assured that information about their donation is handled with respect and with confidentiality to the extent provided by law.

VII. To expect that all relationships with individuals representing organizations of interest to the donor will be professional in nature.

VIII. To be informed whether those seeking donations are volunteers, employees of the organization or hired solicitors.

IX. To have the opportunity for their names to be deleted from mailing lists that an organization may intend to share.

X. To feel free to ask questions when making a donation and to receive prompt, truthful and forthright answers.


Youth Say Yes! to the Poor of Kanasas City

kansas_city_briefingThis past weekend, a team of 20 youth participated in FOCUS North America’s YES Program (formerly known as OYO), serving our most needy neighbors in Kansas City.

They arrived from parishes in Wichita, KS, Oklahoma City, OK, and Kansas City, eager to be used by God to meet the fundamental needs of His people. They did not expect, however, that they would receive much more from the experience than they would give. After three intense days, the youth gained a new perspective on the poor and homeless: they came expecting to serve them, but, instead, found their own lives forever changed by the encounter.

“They are just like us,” one participant said. Another said, “I don’t know how anyone can come on a FOCUS North America YES trip and not be changed.”

Living out Matthew 25, the youth engaged in several social action projects throughout the weekend. They served and ate dinner with many homeless and working poor in the city, listening to their stories and enjoying fellowship with them. They distributed clothing to mothers who had no means to clothe their children. They walked around the famous outdoor Country Club Plaza in Kansas City with newly opened eyes, looking beyond the glamour to perceive and meet the needs of the homeless on the streets. But, as the youth realized, they themselves were fed and clothed by the face-to-face encounter with real living icons of Christ, with the poor of the city. As one participant said, “They really open themselves to you; they’ll sit and talk to you forever, when most people in school will never give their time to you like that.”

nicole_and_noraStaying at the Reconciliation Services building, a partner ministry of FOCUS North America, in the heart of inner city, proved to be a further blessing for the group. The experience of living in humble circumstances shed new light on God’s bounty in their lives and fostered their desire to share their resources and love for Christ with those in need.

The youth are now excited to return home and make consistent commitments to the poor in their own communities. This FOCUS North America YES trip not only equipped them with necessary tools to actively become living icons of Christ, but also to truly encounter Him in the poor they meet in their daily lives.

“I am constantly amazed at how God transforms those who have a pure desire to serve Him. It is through seeing themselves in reference to their Creator that these young people grew in their knowledge of who they truly are in God’s eyes. Instead of building their identity from unhealthy influences, the YES program of FOCUS North America provides them the opportunity to allow Christ to live through them and to experience the joy of being their true selves.”

–Katrina Bitar, YES Program Director

To bring the YES Program to your community, please contact Katrina Bitar- JavaScript required to view address.

As an expression of Christ’s love, FOCUS North America serves the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick and imprisoned by providing Food, Occupation, Clothing, Understanding, and Shelter.

FOCUS-Release-YES-KC.doc and FOCUS-Release-YES-KC.pdf Versions

Teen and Youth Leaders Serve the Poor of Philadelphia

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – September 4, 2009– Kansas City, MO


This past weekend, August 28-30, 2009, the Orthodox Youth Outreach Program (OYO), now called the YES Program of FOCUS North America (Youth Equiped to Serve), took its first trip as a ministry of FOCUS North America. A group of 16 eager teens and leaders said yes to the “cry of the poor” (Proverbs 21:13) and gave their time in service to the people of Philadelphia, PA.

The weekend began with orientation, led by Katrina Bitar, YES Program Director. The rest of Friday evening was spent in prayer, the team’s first ministry to Philadelphia. The group traveled around the city and prayed for it and its people. This prayer tour kicks off all YES trips, orienting the team to the past and present of the community they will serve and opening their eyes to the real struggles of its people.

Saturday was a fruitful day of ministry. The team spent their morning preparing and serving lunch to 75 homeless men and women. They then embraced the challenging task of weeding out a neglected garden that had previously been the joy of an impoverished community. Their work brought tears of excitement to the elderly in the community who did not have the strength and resources to maintain the garden themselves. The students concluded their day by bringing food, drink, and fellowship to the people who were spending that night outside in the rain in a Philadelphia park. The impact of this encounter was beyond words.

“Being face to face with the poorest of the poor opens a teenager’s eyes to the true meaning of Christian life. They come to see that God has equipped them for His work. They come to see that they have been given the resources to meet the fundamental needs of people. They come to love God in ways they never have before because they are deeply thankful for what they have been given. Most importantly, they realize what it means to be the Church; they become Christ for all people and learn to see Christ in everyone they meet in their daily lives,” said Katrina Bitar, YES Program Director.

The mission of FOCUS North America’s YES Program is training the youth to follow Christ’s example by dying to themselves. The program transforms them from observers into leaders through a four-step service learning process known as E4. They are Exposed, through interactive curriculum, to the reality of poverty in the world and in themselves. They are then Engaged in practical service to others, losing themselves in the encounter with men and women created and loved by Christ, striving to be flexible, available, and teachable. An intensive leadership training week further Equipsthose who have participated in at least two weekend YES trips to guide others in their service to the poor. Finally, the youth are Entrusted with continuing the mission of YES in their communities, to inspire, lead, and educate others.

The impact of this process was tangible in this weekend’s debriefing session. The students were asked to fill in the blank to this sentence: “My experience here has been ____.” These answers that were given are common to all YES participants: Amazing. Inspiring. Rewarding. Necessary.

The students’ weekend in Philadelphia is over, but their experience has committed them to dedicating their lives to those in need.

As one of the participants Christina Fakes said, “Now I don’t see the poor and needy as “poor people” or “homeless people,” but as actual people who have names and histories and loved ones, who need our help and compassion.”

“The mission of YES fits perfectly within FOCUS North America because its program guides and equips the youth to love and serve others, giving them the tools to create opportunities for service in their own parishes and, hopefully, to inspire future FOCUS North America leaders to dedicate their lives to Orthodox Christian social action,” said Fr. Justin Matthews, Executive Director, FOCUS North America.

or checks can be made out to “FOCUS North America” and sent to:

PO BOX 30117, Kansas City, MO 64112



SCOBA gives FOCUS Warm Endorsement, Calls it a “Welcomed Initiative”


For more information contact: Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director & CEO 816.399.0909 JavaScript required to view address

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – July 11, 2009 – Kansas City, MO

FOCUS North America made a successful 20-minute presentation on Thursday June 25th, 2009 to the STANDING CONFERENCE OF THE CANONICAL ORTHODOX BISHOPS IN THE AMERICAS (SCOBA) at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral during its Spring 2009 session.

During this important meeting, although not granted immediate agency status as requested, a resolution was passed by all the Hierarchs in support of FOCUS North America stating: “SCOBA gives FOCUS North America a warm endorsement for this welcomed initiative.”

“As FOCUS North America seeks to grow the direct ministries we are operating and the Pan-Orthodox philanthropic ministries that we propose to engage in on behalf of the whole Church, we are grateful for the warm reception of the Hierarchs and the prayerful guidance of the Study and Planning Commission of SCOBA,” said Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director.

“The Board of Directors, staff and many partners of FOCUS North America who have labored for years on behalf of the ‘least of these’ here at home are sincerely grateful for the opportunity to have presented its exciting operations and plans to the esteemed Hierarchs of SCOBA,” said Mr. Charles Ajalat, Chairman of FOCUS North America.

After the meeting all of the Hierarchs and others present enjoyed watching the new FOCUS North America video highlighting its domestic mission and ministries to reach the poor in North America.

FOCUS North America is an Orthodox domestic social action agency formed to serve the poor and needy on behalf of the Church in North America, to support existing Orthodox ministries doing so effectively, and to help welcoming parishes initiate new social action ministries in their own communities. For more information and to watch the FOCUS North America video please visit to

FOCUS Launches Domestic Social Action Network

FOCUS North America established to support and build up domestic Orthodox social action ministries. [KANSAS CITY, MO] April 7, 2009—In early 2009, FOCUS North America (Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve) launched as a network of Orthodox Christian social action ministries that express Christ’s love in North America for those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick or in prison (Matt. 25:35-5). In its first 60 days of operation, FOCUS North America has partnered with dozens of Orthodox agencies and parish initiatives and awarded more than $30,000 in grants.

FOCUS grew out of the need for an Orthodox Christian effort to address the persistent and pervasive needs of the suffering, impoverished or vulnerable in North America. It is a staggering reality that over 40 million people live below the poverty line and the unemployed rate exceeds 11 million people in North America and is increasing. While there are a variety of Orthodox Christian agencies within all jurisdictions effectively engaged in addressing these needs, a coordinated effort with national support and encouragement could be much more effective.

In January 2009, an historic meeting of twenty leaders, staff, academics and patrons of leading Orthodox Christian domestic social action agencies, with members representing a variety of Orthodox jurisdictions in North America, was sponsored by Mr. and Mrs. Charles and Marilee Ajalat and the Orthodox Vision Foundation. That meeting was the catalyst for the creation of FOCUS North America and the refining of its vision, which is to make a significant and sustainable impact through Orthodox Christian social action initiatives in the lives of suffering, impoverished or vulnerable persons of any age, race, creed or color in North America, especially in, but not limited to, ministries providing immediate relief in the areas of Food, Occupation, Clothing, Understanding and Shelter.

FOCUS is compelled by Christ’s mandate to serve those in need through:

  • Education in faith communities of the Scriptural mandate, historical precedence and urgency forliving out the Christian faith and witness through personal involvement in social service
  • Support of existing social action agencies through training, coordination and funding from significant private and public sources
  • Initiating the creation, and nurturing the healthy growth and funding, of new locally-based social outreaches and their leaders
  • Collaboration with individuals who want to support social ministry through volunteerism or funding of these initiatives

Orthodox agencies and parishes with social service initiatives or plans for future projects are encouraged to become part of the FOCUS North America network. For more information about FOCUS North America, go to or contact Fr. Justin Mathews at 816.399.0909 or via email at JavaScript required to view address.


Obadiah: A Story of Struggle

obadiah-version2”…And by calling a homeless rover…” – The Way of the Pilgrim

St. Theophan the Recluse taught that, if we are to be Christians at all, we must struggle: no podvig, no progress. Who would see this more clearly than a homeless man?

The news media is full of stories of real struggle: homeless families on the streets, homeless students flooding American schools, shelters full, food pantries empty… In the midst of all of these “stories” its often still hard to see the real people in them – real hunger, real pain, real struggle, real faith.

Obadiah is one such real homeless man. Obadiah is now an Orthodox Christian but his story of struggle is all too real. I know him from the streets outside St. Brigid’s Fellowship (an Orthodox parish homeless outreach) in Santa Barbara,CA.

Obadiah has often had no place to lay his head, but in his daily battle to survive on the streets perhaps appreciates, even better than I, where his home is.

Obadiah has been homeless and living on the streets for years but he was charismated in 1986 by Fr. Michael Evans in Tucson, AZ. It was there that Obadiah fell in love with the beauty of the Lord’s house. For three years he has been our neighbor, coming not only for services often, but for food, clothing, guidance and friendship.

Our neighbor, Obadiah, says, “The friendship at St. Brigid’s connects the Church to the streets.”

For his friendship I am deeply grateful. To have, in some way, become his companion has brought my own struggles into focus. I have learned more from him than I have taught. Pray for our sakes this pilgrim, Obadiah, will tarry with us in the neighborhood!

And pray for and, if you are moved, please contribute to the efforts of FOCUS North America as it supports works like St. Brigid’s where, as one has said, “Christ has come to make the rich poor and the poor holy.”

“Notes from the streets” by Fr. Jon-Stephen Hedges