Ignatian Spirituality Project helps homeless in recovery

January 23, 2018

HOUSTON — Diane Sisco called herself a functioning alcoholic, working years as a production supervisor at a suburban newspaper, until she began mixing prescription drugs with whiskey.

She walked away from her job, lost her apartment and ended up at The Bridge Over Troubled Waters, a nonprofit family crisis center. That is where she was referred along with other women to attend an Ignatian Spirituality Project (ISP) retreat last year.

“We had no idea what we were in for. I was nervous. But there was such a feeling of calm and peace when we got there,” Sisco said.

“At first, I was shy, but then I realized no one is going to judge me here. I got so much out of it, listening to the other ladies’ stories. I ended up being much more God-centered,” she said.

Eileen Meinert became the Houston coordinator of the Ignatian Spirituality Project in 2015 when she reached out to the national office in Chicago, asking how she could get involved in ISP. A men’s program was in place at the time in Houston, but struggling, and there had not been a women’s retreat in a year.

“I had always wanted to pull up a crate to those I saw living in the streets and listen to their stories and see how to help, but I knew there had to be a better way,” she said.

Father Bill Creed, SJ (Society of Jesus), is the chaplain of the national project after founding ISP in 1998 to offer Ignatian retreats to men and women who are homeless and in recovery from addiction. The retreats draw upon the 500-year-old tradition of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, but in the contemporary language of the 12-step recovery movement.

So Meinert started with 12 retreatants and four facilitators for a weekend. Like Sisco, retreatants come from different programs, including The Bridge, Angela House, Magnificat and the Women’s Home.

“ISP distinguishes between houselessness and homelessness so we discuss how ISP ends homelessness. After one retreat, a woman came up to me and said, ‘Now I understand. I have a home with God and with these women!” Meinert explained.

The retreat references the first principle of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises that states, “Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to the deepening of God’s life in me.”

“Some of the retreatants are at the very beginning of understanding the idea of God. We are evangelizing, but our purpose is to point them towards a spiritual home with God and how to develop that relationship,” she said.

Some parishes have helped build that spiritual home. St. Michael’s financially sponsored a retreat. Holy Rosary provided space for a time. Meinert, a member of St. Vincent de Paul, and several of her other facilitators are also members of Catholic parishes.

“We hope to get more parishes involved if they would like to sponsor a retreat or help in other ways,” she said.

The next retreat for women is scheduled for Feb. 3 at the Dominican Center. Then there are monthly Reflection dinners that retreatants are invited to attend to continue to build community and deepen their life of faith. For men, a retreat is being scheduled for April.

Tom Drexler, executive director for ISP in Chicago, said he plans to attend the men’s retreat here in the spring. ISP, in 30 cities now, is working to have each city provide four retreats a year — two for women and two for men — and the follow-up reflections. Altogether, more than 800 volunteers serve more than 2,000 retreatants a year through more than 200 retreats and follow-up reflections.

“We want to offer the spiritual experiences of the Ignatian exercises to the material poor. They are healed through the transformative nature of knowing they really are loved by God even in each of our brokenness and sinfulness,” Drexler said.

He said Houston is an important city to offer and expand these retreats and support.

“There is a significant population of men and women experiencing homelessness in Houston and there is a real hunger for us to reconnect them to a good sobriety and 12-Step program,” Drexler said.

Each city is different in how parish involvement evolves, he said. In Baltimore, St. Ignatius of Loyola parish sponsors the retreats while working with ISP national. In New Jersey, Our Lady of Mount Carmel have their parishioners as retreat facilitators.

While the retreats offer excellent guidance, life is not necessarily made any easier. Sisco said the retreat gave her tools and now she works as a staff member at a women’s shelter “to pay forward,” but was recently assaulted by a pregnant homeless client.

“I didn’t fight back to protect myself because I didn’t want to hurt her baby. I ended up at St. Joseph, getting CATSCAN and X-rays,” she said.

Sisco was offered a pain killer, but declined and instead agreed on a 500-milligram over-the-counter medicine.

She said, “And it worked just fine. If you go through bad times, God is with you. He helps you get through them.”

For more information, contact Meinert at info@ispretreats.org or visit www.ignatianspiritualityproject.org. †