‘We showed that together we are great’: Reconnecting in one Pittsburgh neighborhood

“Staff from FOCUS Pittsburgh (Food, Opportunity, Clothing, Understanding and Shelter), a social service nonprofit in the Hill District, knew some residents there and believed they would successfully pioneer a new kind of community development model, one that was very personal.”

Click HERE to read the full Pittsburgh Post Gazette article about our Trauma Informed Community Development program.

Faces of the Nameless

He put a simple ad on a photography website that stated: “I had an idea for a socially orientated photography project, and I’m looking for someone who might have an interest in joining me.” Wooldridge replied to the ad, and the duo agreed to put the project into action.

St. Herman was the first homeless shelters they approached, and the reception was very positive.

Paul Finley, the local director of St. Herman House in Cleveland, welcomed the project. He had been approached in the past by numerous photographers who asked to take pictures of the homeless, but this request was unique. It would be a way to allow homeless people in his Focus North America, Orthodox Christian House of Hospitality, to speak for themselves.

Click HERE to read the full Cleveland Magazine article from April about FOCUS Cleveland- St. Herman House photography project.

An Orthodox House of Rejuvenation

“I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, And He

answered me.”
—Jonah 2:2

“There simply aren’t enough places for sober living in our community,” said Nathan Smith, the co-founder and director of FOCUS Columbus’ Jonah House. Columbus, Ohio is an epicenter of heroin abuse and addiction in the Midwest. This heroin epidemic has become increasingly visible as community after community has seen sharp increases in deaths caused by this dangerous drug.

Many people are battling every day to free themselves from their addictions, which result in situations such as homelessness, poor health, and financial instability. Nathan recognized that Columbus has one of the best shelter systems in the country. However, shelters can be horrible places for anyone recovering from addiction. FOCUS Columbus’ Jonah House will fill the gap that currently exists in the homeless service system for addicts.

Opportunity Meets Desire

The Jonah House, which is slated to open in the fall of 2017, will provide a critical transitional step for former heroin addicts to move from dependency to self-sufficiency. The house will be a safe, caring living space and will also arrange meaningful, daily work for residents. In-house professional partners will help residents with their mental and physical health, and provide guidance for everyday tasks.

Nicholas Chakos, Executive Director of FOCUS North America said, “The Jonah House will be bringing a credible solution to a dire need in Columbus. While FOCUS provides infrastructure and organization to centers around the country, the local folks in Columbus have done all of the groundwork and are stepping up to meaningfully impact their community.”

The goal is for Jonah House residents to be able to focus entirely on themselves and their recovery for six months or a year.  “There will be professional, volunteer, and spiritual help,” said Peter Gardikes, who is a Jonah House ministry team member and Parish Council Member at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Columbus. “Ultimately, we’d like to see people who have gone through Jonah House mentor those who come after them. We’re creating a community of people supporting one another.” Jonah House is successfully leveraging churches in central Ohio to create a network of support and opportunity to those who successfully complete the transition once leaving the Jonah House.

Jonah as a metaphor and method

In the Old Testament story, Jonah experiences incredible turbulence on a boat as he attempts to flee God’s command. Jonah’s knows it is his fault that the other passengers are in danger– and he also knows that a change has to take place. Jonah admits to those onboard that he has disobeyed God. Like Jonah, those who are addicted unintentionally cause pain to those they love. Similarly, these individuals must come to realize this, and take steps to come back into unity with those around them.

After being cast into the sea, Jonah enters into the belly of the whale. In our case, this time is likened to a period of rehabilitation. When an addict is taken away from his or her storm and entered into a period of distance from the cause of pain, they prevent themselves from causing damage to themselves and others. Just as Jonah emerged to deliver a saving message to the people of Nineveh, when the addict emerges, they are resurrected with the desire to contribute to a community and purpose greater than themselves. The parallels are unmistakable.

Just as Jonah’s three days in the belly of the sea monster transformed the way Jonah functioned as a messenger of God, FOCUS Columbus’s Jonah House will become a vehicle through which recovered addicts in the Columbus community discover their importance as individuals— and their ability transform others around them.

Please say a prayer for the Jonah House. If you wish to learn more and support the sustainability of this ministry, please contact FOCUS North America.

The Liturgy After the Liturgy

By: Kamal Hourani

For Orthodox Christians, the Divine Liturgy is the center of our life in Christ. We must be convinced that there is no greater beauty, no greater joy, no greater privilege than to enter God’s house, sing His praises, listen to His words, and to be united to Him in the very Body and Blood of His Christ. There is no higher state for man than to sit at the table with the Lord and to simply be with Him, in Him, and have Him in us.

The sublimity of the Liturgy, however, does not mean that there is no other place on earth worth spending time. As Saint Maria Skobtsova writes, “Christ, in ascending to heaven, did not take the Church with Him…Christ left the Church in the world. It was left as a small bit of leavening.”

We Christians long for the age to come, when there will be no sickness, sorrow, or sighing. Our hearts ache to be with Christ. Sometimes we are so fed up with the suffering and horrors of this world and we wonder why Christ would ascend and leave us here in the first place. Saint Maria’s writing suggests one answer. We need a shift in perspective, not location.  We cannot yet ascend to be in Christ’s Kingdom because His plan is to use us to bring His Kingdom down into the earth. He works with us to transfigure this world as a baker transforms a heap of flour with a little yeast. There is no need to wait for the end of this age. The end of the age is now, when we work with God to overcome the world’s fallenness.

If we are going to truly be part of this Church, part of the leaven of the earth, we need to know how to express God’s Kingdom on earth. Christ gives us the necessary instructions, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 5:3). Saint Maria compares this beatitude to the monastic vow of non-possession. Just as a monk must renounce all earthly possessions, every Christian must sell away the barriers we put up to cut ourselves off from God and the pride we cling to in order to avoid serving others. Saint Maria compares these to dirty rags that we must sell away in favor of the incorruptible richness of the “laying down of our soul for our friends.”

In the Divine Liturgy, in return for our offering bread and wine, Christ gives His very self to us in the Eucharist. This mutual relationship of eucharistic offering becomes the icon for all of our relationships in this world. As Christ gave his life for us on the Cross, so we must give our lives for the sake of our neighbors. Just as Christ overlooks all of our imperfections, so also must we overlook the shortcomings of our neighbors and serve them all the more. This work of serving others is the only way that the work of the Divine Liturgy becomes complete.

Each of us are constantly given opportunities to serve others. In our interactions with our families, coworkers, and friends we can choose to be servants. We are also called to go out and actively serve the poor. While this sometimes takes a little more initiative, the spiritual benefits are unending. By giving our time, talent, and treasure to ministries like FOCUS North America, we are not only having important community with the poor, but also training ourselves to be ready to serve whenever the Lord sends an opportunity our way.

In this fallen world, we are hungry, thirsty, beaten, and stripped naked by tragedy and suffering. Ultimately, only Christ can satisfy the needs of the world and overcome our poverty with His riches. But it is through human beings, even us, that Chris is manifest. In our own life of love, we offer our neighbors Christ himself, who heals the wounds of this world.

Christian charity, though FOCUS and other ministries alike, must not only address the physical needs of the poor but also the internal poverty that comes from separation from God. When we hand a man a piece of bread, we also hope that he will be nourished by our love for him. When we give clothing to the naked, we hope that they will be wrapped in dignity as well. This art of loving the world takes a lifetime to master, but we must begin each day with a new resolve to build on this universal Christian ministry of service. Approaching the chalice on Sunday cannot be a mundane chore that we check off each week. It has to be the fountainhead of the torrent of our love for the world. We must translate the liturgy in our parish churches into the liturgy after the liturgy that takes place in the entirety of God’s creation.

Kamal Hourani is a student at Hellenic College in Brookline, MA. He is a graduate of FOCUS North America’s YES (Youth Equipped to Serve) Program and has also become a leader in that program. To learn about how YES is shaping the leaders of our church visit www.focusnorthamerica.org/yes.

A Day in the Life: Sunday Nights at FOCUS Minnesota

From FOCUS Minnesota

If you made it to this page, you likely are already familiar with FOCUS–that is, you know generally about the mission and work of the organization (if this isn’t the case, feel free to check out our “About” page for some basic information). However, without spending a lot of time at FOCUS Center, it can be hard to have a clear picture of our work and the ethos that undergirds it. This blog series, “A Day in the Life,” is meant to give you a window into the “What’s” and “Why’s” of FOCUS. 


When I think of describing  Sunday Night Dinners at FOCUS, the word, “mercy,” is the first that comes to my mind.

Mercy is of course, at the core of FOCUS’ mission, but I think it characterizes our weekly community meal in a special sort of way. There is no registration process for Sunday Dinners. There is no upper limit on how many members of your family you can bring, or how often per month you can come. You don’t have to bring an I.D. or proof of address. Anyone can show up for a hot meal and a warm space, no questions asked.

Lord have mercy. 

Friday, 11:30 AM
The logistics of Sunday Dinners really start today. I stop in at the Center, touch base with Vera, our Director, and check the supply closet to make sure we’re stocked up on paper products and silverware. I also check the calendar to confirm who will be bringing the meal and helping to serve it. We are blessed to have a schedule of regular groups from local parishes, youth sports teams, and other volunteers. This week in particular, a youth group from an Orthodox Parish is scheduled to serve.

Sunday, 3:55 PM
I pull up to FOCUS, a few minutes early…and am greeted by a small assembly of people already waiting to be let in: the catering team from the youth group is already here! So are John* and Alex*, our former-clients-turned-volunteers. They used to come every week to eat dinner. Now they come to serve, one acting as an informal DJ by providing ambient music, the other helping wait tables.

Lord have mercy. 

I unlock the door and we all begin to unload and carry in supplies.

4:20 PM
40 minutes until we open for guests and set-up is already in fully swing. FOCUS’ large multipurpose room has been transformed into a dining room, complete with table clothes, plastic ware and condiments at each place, and ambient music in the background.

Coffee is brewing and volunteers are busy in the kitchen, warming tortillas, heating taco meat, chopping tomatoes.

Most of our core group of volunteers also have arrived by now. We have an informal team of three to five who devote their time and energy to FOCUS almost every week. In many ways, they are what makes Sunday Nights run smoothly.

Lord have mercy. 

5:03 PM
We gather in the kitchen as the first guests start to arrive. Vera gives general instructions and assigns people to different tasks in order to make the evening run smoothly. Volunteer adults: prepare plates in the kitchen. Youth volunteers: bring plates to guests and clean and reset places as they empty. One more person is assigned to refill drinks, another two to keep track of the number of people in the dining room and order plates from the kitchen.We then take a minute to pray over the meal and regain our focus for the evening.”…and to the guests we shall receive, O merciful Lord, grant peace, security, and healing and Thy merciful loving kindness as they bear the challenges of this earthly life…”

These words articulate why we are all really here tonight. It’s not about how meany meals we serve. It’s not about who the guests are or hardships they may or may not face. It’s not even just about giving a meaningful volunteer experience to the group who brought the meal. It’s about doing what we can to provide a bit of kindness to those who come to us.

Lord have mercy.

As we break up the prayer circle and take our stations, the dining room starts to fill. Families. Single adults. Children of various ages. Troops of 4 or 5 friends who came together. The dining room starts to hum with activity. As guests are seated, volunteers offer them something to drink before bringing them a plate from the kitchen. No buffet lines here. We want the guests to feel as if they’re in a restaurant. We want their time to be restful.

5:50 PM

People continue to filter in and the pace of things picks up. As the first round of guests finishes their dinner, we offer them seconds, sometimes thirds. Later on, if we have enough extra food, we will also offer them a to-go box of extra portions. You see, for many of them, this meal is the first (and only) meal that they get all weekend.

Lord have mercy. 

The first round of folks gradually begins to wrap up their meals and take their leave. Some finish quickly without stopping to chat.As their spaces empty, a youth volunteers cleans and resets it for the next guest. Others linger over a second cup of coffee and, when we volunteers get a chance, we make an effort to sit down with them. Sometimes we exchanges names for the first time and make pleasant small talk, but many of the people who linger are regulars and the conversation is spent catching up on life. These are the guests that bring the sense of familiarity associated with community.

That is, after all, what these Sunday dinners are: a little community that has emerged over the last five years over a shared hot meal.

6:45 PM
By now, the evening is wrapping up. The youth are busily breaking down tables and taking out the trash. Most of our guests have left by now–most stopping to say “thank you’s” and “goodnight’s,” others simply shuffling out the door. A few stragglers are still finishing up.

A woman comes through the front door. “Excuse me…is there where the…the free dinner is?”

A volunteer greets her and guides her to one of the remaining tables, where we quickly bring her a plate of hot food. Someone sits down with her as she eats. She’s upset, crying quietly over her food, mumbling to herself. Though she tells us very little about her circumstances, it’s clear she’s struggling. And in this particular space, at this particular time, with so little information, there’s not much we can really do that will offer a permanent “fix” for whatever situation she’s in.

But was can offer a hot meal. We can offer her information about shelters nearby and offer to call them for her. We can offer a new coat out of our clothes closet to replace the one she’s wearing that won’t zip. We can encourage her to come back next week, for the foodshelf on Wednesday, for the clothes distribution on Friday. Most importantly, we can offer a listening ear, some kindness, and a safe space, if only for a little while.

And just maybe, God willing, these little offerings can help blunt the sting of the hardship this woman faces.

Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.

Merry Christmas from FOCUS

This Christmas, we remember that Christ comes into the world with no place to lay his head. We know that at the hour of his
birth Mary and Joseph are far from home, and must rely on the mercy of strangers to shelter them in their hour of need. A manger – literally a feeding trough for animals —becomes the cradle of the King of Kings. The creator of the universe comes into the world humbly and to serve.

Everyday at FOCUS North America, we encounter families in need. Some come to us seeking shelter. Others are in need of food and clothing. That’s why we strive to remember the Nativity story not just during Christmas, but throughout the year. We look to see the humble Christ child in everyone we serve—the homeless, the poor, the hungry, the sick.

Thank you for all the support you’ve shown to FOCUS and those we’ve served this year.

Merry Christmas,

Nicholas Chakos, Executive Director

Renovation Angel donates $100,000 to nonprofit FOCUS North America




“We recycle kitchens and repurpose them for the greater good. Not only because it’s an eco-friendly and savvy way to renovate, saving homeowners thousands of dollars on their renovation projects, but because contributing to the vital work of charities like FOCUS is one of the most worthwhile endeavors an individual or organization can aspire to,” said Steve Feldman, President of Renovation Angel.

Click HERE to read The Daily Ardmoreite article from November about the Renovation Angel’s support of those FOCUS serves.

Press Release: FOCUS North America & Shower To The People

FOCUS North America, the founding sponsor of the Shower to the People program, and the Missouri- based charity Shower to the People, Inc. announce that the program will no longer be affiliated with FOCUS. Starting in November 2016, Shower to the People, Inc. will independently run the Shower to the People program, which provides mobile showers and other hygiene solutions to homeless people in St. Louis.

FOCUS North America, a faith-based national charity that provides services to the homeless and working poor, hired the innovator of the “Shower to the People” concept, Jake Austin, in October of 2015 and sponsored the development of the mobile shower program. In the following months FOCUS supported the research, fundraising, marketing, regulatory approvals, and capital outlays needed to outfit a box truck capable of bringing hot showers to the most isolated of homeless individuals in St. Louis. The shower truck started operating in May 2016, with Austin at the wheel. It was enthusiastically received by the community and has generated interest beyond St. Louis.

Austin has been assisting the homeless in a volunteer capacity for years, and his work with FOCUS enabled him to realize his dream of going to those who live on the streets to most literally bring showers to the people—and to help provide dignity and hope to those in need. “I’m grateful to FOCUS for all the support they’ve given me this past year and I’m excited for the future of both organizations moving forward,” said Austin. Austin plans to continue this work through Shower to the People, Inc. FOCUS North America is pleased to have been the founding sponsor of this important program.

FOCUS and Shower to the People, Inc., agree that delivery of hygiene services to the homeless is a critical need but have concluded that they will better serve their respective missions as two separate organizations.

Both FOCUS and Shower to the People, Inc. look forward to continuing to serve those in need. Find out more about Shower to the People here: www.showertothepeople.net

Find out more about The Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve (FOCUS North America): here: www.focusnorthamerica.org

FOCUS is committed to supporting the development of innovative and sustainable solutions to poverty. FOCUS, which also is known as the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve, works to bring together communities, parishes, and partners nationwide in ways that maximize widespread volunteer engagement through hands-on activities that unite the giver with the underserved to help transform all of our lives and break the cycle of poverty. While many FOCUS volunteers are Eastern Orthodox Christians, FOCUS provides services without discrimination of any kind, and there is no faith commitment required either to volunteer or to receive assistance.