Sister Carmel Lohan loves to listen. She's seen it change lives.
For the last 14 years, Sister Carmel has worked as the Program Manager at the Chapel in Father Joe's Villages. In addition to coordinating more than 50 volunteers and planning the programs administered by the Chapel, Sister Carmel spends much of her time spiritually counseling residents one-on-one.
People come to her for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it's to talk about trouble finding work, relationship issues, or family conflicts. Other times they just want to be heard. The main thread connecting everyone says Sister Carmel is that they feel like they're out of hope, at their lowest point.
“They have lost their dignity,” Sister Carmel said. “They feel betrayed, and alienated, and separated from family and friends. If they ever had a good name, they have lost that. To offer them that listening ear is more than they get from many another person, so I really, in my heart, want to offer them that hope-filled presence. There are always second chances, third, and fourth chances. We've all made mistakes in our life, and we're no different.”
By her estimation, Sister Carmel has personally counseled more than 3,000 people during her time in the Chapel, but her history of ministering to the poor goes back many years. Before becoming a Sister of Mercy, she was the daughter of two school teachers who instilled in her the idea that everyone is equally deserving of God's love.
“I'm from Ireland, if you couldn't tell by my accent, and we had travelers and gypsies come to our door. They were always welcomed at our table,” She said. “There was never a difference in my family between those who were homeless, and those who were not.”
Today, Sister Carmel's kind face and soothing accent welcome people from all walks of life into the Chapel at Father Joe's Villages. The programming provided by the Chapel includes art and music classes, guided meditation sessions, bible study groups, men's and women's groups, and one-on-one counseling.
In the event that a resident passes away while they are at living at Father Joe's Villages, Sister Carmel and her team make sure to organize a memorial service. Extra care and counseling are provided to anyone who was close to the deceased, and in some cases family attend the service. Everything the Chapel does, according to Sister Carmel, is meant to restore dignity and hope.
Deacon Jim Vargas, President and CEO of Father Joe's Villages, credits the Chaplaincy Programs as some of the most effective that Father Joe's Villages provides. According to him, the success of these programs is in great part due to Sister Carmel's leadership.
“One of the key ways we get people off the street is through our Chaplaincy Program. A lot of these individuals are broken in many regards. These are often times individuals who have been abused in some way, or many things have happened in their lives, so the Chaplaincy Program comes in to help the spiritual side of it. It helps them become whole,” Deacon Jim explained. “We can help them physically with the medical clinic, but the Chaplaincy Programs really help to make them whole.”
Many of the people who come to Sister Carmel for counseling say that one of the most difficult parts of experiencing homelessness is that the vast majority of people avoid making eye contact with them. This is partly why Sister Carmel has developed a three step mantra for counseling: stop, look, and listen.
“Stop and be present with the person you are meeting. Look at person in the eyes, and listen to what they have to say,” Sister Carmel said. “It sounds simple, but it's so important.”
Because the Chapel at Father Joe's Villages is non-denominational, it has also become a destination for diaconate candidates and seminarians who want first-hand experience serving a homeless population. Their duties include working in the cafeteria on the lunch line, and preaching at mass on Sunday.
Sister Carmel says working directly with those experiencing homelessness is especially important for candidates and seminarians who will go on to work in middle class or affluent neighborhoods. In her experience, Priests and Deacons who do not have first hand experience serving the poor can't really know what it's like to work with marginalized communities.
“They absolutely are bowled over by working with the homeless. They never really knew what happened at Father Joe's Villages. It sounds like we give them ‘three hots and a cot’ as they say, three meals and a bed, but it's so much more than that,” Sister Carmel said. “People will donate to places, but most won't get their hands dirty. Donations are marvelous, don't get me wrong, but the candidates and the seminarians really feel that they have gotten touched by the nitty gritty of the homeless situation, and have come back even after being ordained and said they were changed by it. They would say their attitude toward homelessness, toward social justice, changed as a result of their reflections on the homeless situation here in San Diego.”
It's easy to see why the Chaplaincy Programs at Father Joe's Villages are so popular. Sister Carmel genuinely loves listening and taking the time to remind people that they are important, that God loves them, and that they are not alone.
“Most persons have a spiritual longing in them, but they have lost their way. They think God has let them down and this is why everything bad is happening to them,” Sister Carmel said. “When you point out that God has never left them and that God is continually there to welcome them, to encourage them, to give them a home, that's how I bring out the spiritual side of counseling.”
A-1 Self Storage is a proud supporter of Father Joe's Villages. If you would like to make donation in the form of time, talent or money, please reach out to Father Joe's Villages today online at www.my.neighbor.org or by phone at 1-800-HOMELESS (446-2100). Thank you to Sister Carmel and the rest of the volunteers in the Chaplaincy Program for the great work they've done for those experiencing homelessness in San Diego.
This article is a follow-up to last week's article titled A-1 Self Storage Teams Up with Father Joe's Villages to Provide Homelessness Services in San Diego where we explored the history of Father Joe's Villages and discussed its mission to end homelessness one person at a time with Deacon Jim Vargas. Please read the blog here if you haven't already.