Christ the King Outreach Director Tom McCann distributes groceries to client Shirley Whitworth April 30. The Pine Mountain parish also assists clients with paying their utility and rent bills. Photographs by Jessica L. Marsala.

Sister Philomena Outreach Center gets personal

Originally Appeared in : 9910-5/9/19

In a typical exchange at the Sister Philomena Outreach Center at Christ the King Church, needy individuals from Harris and Talbot counties receive more than the blessings of groceries or financial assistance in paying their rent and utility bills.


As a necessary bonus, they also receive the hands, eyes and ears of those who allocate these short-term, emergency resources.

“When I used to go to hear confessions in my previous diocese, people would come to me, and I would always ask them: “Do you give alms?”

“Yes, Father!” “Very good.”

And I would ask them two further questions: “Tell me, when you give alms, do you look the person in the eye?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it.”

The second question: “And when you give alms, do you touch the hand of the person you are giving them to, or do you toss the coin at him or her?”

This the [issue]: the flesh of Christ, touching the flesh of Christ, taking upon ourselves this suffering for the poor. Poverty for us Christians is not a sociological, philosophical, or cultural category, no. It is theological…This is our poverty: the poverty of the flesh of Christ, the poverty that brought the Son of God to us through his incarnation. A poor Church for the poor begins by reaching out to the flesh of Christ.”

-Pope Francis, The Church of Mercy


Tom McCann, a volunteer who has served as director of the Pine Mountain parish’s outreach since 2015, emphasized in an April 30 interview the importance of being able “to really get deep and try and understand the pain that people are going through without looking over it.”


“The spirit that we were talking about earlier with Pope Francis, saying that being able to touch the person, look them in the eye instead of just taking care of a need, getting them in here and getting a bill paid and out the door,” McCann continued, referencing an excerpt from Pope Francis’ “The Church of Mercy” as cited in the day’s meditation from “An Ignatian Book of Days” by Jim Manney, his daily devotional. “It takes a little effort, to really understand what people are going through here.”


From the program’s beginning he said that Father Ronnie Madden, who has served as pastor of the church since its establishment as a parish in 2006, envisioned it to be personal, so parishioners would really “feel the need” of the individuals they helped.


In order for this to happen, McCann said Father Madden recognized the program needed to be its own entity—administered from the parish rather than included as part of Harris County’s interdenominational Fellowship of Christians United in Service (FOCUS) in Hamilton, where the parish’s former Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Sisters Rosemary Sullivan and Philomena Fogarty, once served the needy.


Today, as part of the day to day administration of the program, short interviews are conducted with clients to assess and verify their needs based on employment history, income, expenses as well as their reliance on other local agencies.


Though McCann believes the interview might seem nosy or intrusive to some, the questions are asked with the intention of making sure that Christ the King Church can provide appropriate help.



In 2018 the outreach center served 211 different* clients: 99 people received assistance with utilities, 30 with rent, 82 with groceries.  
*Not including those “duplicate” clients who received more than one type of assistance.

Working with a limited budget funded by parishioner donations and a stipend from Catholic Charities of South Georgia, the outreach center can’t meet all requests for assistance—typically they are able to provide for most clients’ groceries or utilities only once a year—and often refer to or coordinate their efforts with other local churches and agencies like FOCUS.


“People often need just a little more encouragement, some direction in their life, perhaps resources they can go to,” McCann said. He earlier noted that one frequently used object in the outreach office is the box of tissues on his desk because many of the clients who seek out the services provided by the center are “absolutely distraught,” and/or have “hit rock bottom for the first time in their life." “And that [encouragement] is as important in many respects as the financial assistance.”


Though not professional psychologists, McCann said he and his volunteers have developed a “grace to listen, to really hear what people are saying” that, coupled with common sense, they use to try to make a difference.


Such is the case for client Shirley Whitworth, a Pine Mountain resident who came to the center April 30 to pick up a couple bags of groceries. She has also utilized the center in the past to help pay utility bills.


“Sometimes a perfect stranger can talk to a perfect stranger and get what you need. You know what I'm saying? Because that person don't know you so they're not going to judge you, and they don't throw around their personal opinions. You understand?” Whitworth said. “They try to give you the tools to survive and move on and accept that you can make it. They restored that back in me.”


Whitford, whose faith was impacted by loss and tragedy, also said that sometimes she comes to Christ the King Church, which she described as having a “spirit of faith and healing,” even when she doesn’t need the assistance of outreach.


“You don't have to come in and sit and worship,”Whitford said. “Sometimes you can just talk to them [church members] and you get your blessings, and it's just a wonderful feeling that I get when I leave here.”


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