The Deacon's Bench

From Up North comes word of a deacon following in the footsteps of St. Lawrence:

On a recent morning in downtown Anchorage, slush covered the parking lot of Brother Francis Shelter as groups of homeless people congregated around the doorway of Beans Café.

Across the parking lot, the shelter was mostly empty, its nighttime guests dispersed for another day of working, job seeking, or living on the city streets until nightfall.

deacon-mick2.jpgOn this particular morning, Deacon Mick Fornelli made his regular trip to the shelter to serve in his new ministry.

He is one of six newly ordained deacons in the archdiocese.

Retired after a career in banking and finance, Deacon Fornelli was ordained last spring. Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz has since assigned him to serve part-time at Brother Francis Shelter, a Catholic Social Services program that provides emergency housing and other services to the homeless.

Every Wednesday at one o’clock, Deacon Fornelli serves as the Catholic clergy presence on the shelter’s grievance board.

“It’s my primary responsibility here,” he explained.

The board, which consists of staff, an administrator from Catholic Social Services and Deacon Fornelli, provides a chance for shelter residents who have been accused of infractions to tell their side of the story or voice complaints.

A book full of procedures and policy violations includes penalties for infractions like fighting, sneaking alcohol into the shelter and being disruptive.

But none of the penalties is iron-clad. And mostly, the occasion is a time to listen.

“Depending on how many people come, the process can run from two to six hours,” Deacon Fornelli explained. “And my job is to bring a spiritual component, to dialogue, to ask, ‘What do you think your actions meant?'”

Beyond his work with the grievance board, Deacon Fornelli is on-call from early morning to 1 a.m. the next day in the event of a crisis in which a distraught person might benefit from a pastoral presence.

So far, he is yet to get his first call but there have been several near occasions, he said. The relative peace has allowed him to spend many evenings just getting acquainted with people at the shelter.

And he is also present for all Catholic religious services.

He wears a clerical collar so that people recognize him as a Catholic clergyman, and he’s beginning to know clients by name. Although his time at Brother Francis has just begun, he’s already impressed.

“This is truly a place to find help and a place to start or to start over,” he observed. “It’s thrilling to meet people who have given up, for several weeks, on long-time addictions.”

You can find more at the ink.

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