Deo Gratias Ministries: Creating Welcoming Community
“Deo Gratias Ministries is founded on the idea of unconditional hospitality and on human dignity, reflecting the truth that all people are created in God’s image and have a right to be cared for and have their needs met,” shares Co-Director Sr. Shelley Marie Jeffrey, CSSF.
Deo Gratias Ministries is an independent ministry of the Felician sisters and received a 2019 competitive impact grant from the Catholic Foundation of Michigan. One way that Deo Gratias Ministries offers hospitality and provides opportunities to build relationships is through their café. The café serves as a welcoming area where people can drop in for refreshments or a light meal, and is based in the parish center at St. Jude Parish in the Regent Park neighborhood of northeastern Detroit.
“There are a lot of pantries and soup kitchens, but the sisters are creating a place for people who do not have access to Starbucks or Panera. At the café, people can relax and drink a cup of coffee or play games together,” shares Terry Ahwal, who serves as an advisor to Deo Gratias Ministries.
“There are a lot of pantries and soup kitchens, but the sisters are creating a place for people who do not have access to Starbucks or Panera.” – Terry Ahwal, advisor to Deo Gratias Ministries
John Kanitra and his wife Anne volunteer with Deo Gratias Ministries, and the first time John came to drop off a donation for the café, he ended up staying several hours. “The café is a comfortable space and everyone seemed to feel like they belonged,” he reflects.
“Every person that the sisters come into contact with is treated like a friend. The sisters did not want to start a ministry giving food to people they did not know. They want to get to know the community, and to become a part of it. Yes, to understand its problems, but especially to recognize the community’s strengths and find out what their hopes and dreams are,” Terry continues.
As relationships among community members are built at the café, community needs can surface. “It provides an opportunity to talk together about what needs to happen in the community. We are not us coming in with the ideas but rather working together on solutions,” Sr. Shelley shares.
“One of the outcomes in the belief in the intrinsic dignity of the person is belief that each person has unique gifts and has the right to make choices. Everyone’s voice is important because they come from their own experience and have a sense of what their needs are,” says Sr. Shelley. “As two middle-aged white women coming into this largely African American community, we recognize that we don’t have any answers. We try to honor their experiences and engage interculturally,” she continues.
After many months of planning, the café opened up in January 2020. It was only operating for about two months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but a small, steady group of neighbors had been coming regularly. The local residents had already shared many ideas for how to build community in the neighborhood, including cleanups, a BBQ meal, and forming a neighborhood association.
Then, in March, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “We had to think differently. We began a short term ministry that we can do while people need to stay at home to be safe,” shares Co-Director Sr. Felicity Marie Madigan.
The pantry at St. Jude Parish temporarily closed, and so the sisters began a curbside distribution of food and masks twice a week, which is currently serving about 70 cars. A café guest has been regularly helping with the distribution. They are already thinking about how to adapt after the stay-at-home order is lifted, such as having an outdoor café.
Another way Deo Gratias Ministries is building community in the neighborhood is with a community garden. Currently they have planted vegetables in three gardens which they hope they can harvest for and with neighborhood residents this fall, many of whom do not have easy access to fresh produce. They have applied to buy a lot near St. Jude which will allow them to put in a much larger garden. Eventually, the sisters hope to raise enough funds to renovate the existing kitchen to offer cooking classes and build skills for cooking fresh produce.
Those who meet and work alongside the sisters are moved by joy, hope and spirit of gratitude. “The sisters are helping to unleash the Gospel through their work. They are so enthusiastically embracing building this ministry. The sisters’ joy is infectious,” shares Tim Johnson, an active parishioner at St. Jude Parish who helped connect the Felician sisters with the parish.
For those who have never been to Regent Park, Terry Ahwal encourages them to come visit. “You will see decline, but beyond that, you can see the people and their potential,” she says.
Because the ministry is completely run by the sisters and other volunteers, 100% of donations go toward program costs. To get involved visit their website at https://dgmdetroit.org/ and contact Sr. Felicity.
“Nearly one hundred years ago a couple of nuns came to Livonia and built the institutions that made the city prosper. Imagine the Regent Park neighborhood 20 years from now, transformed because of the community-building work that Deo Gratias work is facilitating. I believe these nuns are going to be successful because they work from the heart and they work smart. Please support their work,” Terry encourages.
Give today to Deo Gratias Ministries’ work during the COVID-19 pandemic through a gift to the Faithful Response Fund.