Standing up for homeless veterans

Standing up for homeless veterans

The “Call to Stewardship” is a periodic series profiling individuals and families throughout the Diocese of Camden who have shown an inspiring response to the call to Christian stewardship highlighted in I Peter 4:10 “As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”

Father John Fisher, rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Camden, stands with Jim Maher, a retired FBI Special Agent who, with his wife Kathy, helps the parish feed the needy. They also help coordinate an annual program for homeless veterans.
Photo by James A. McBride

Every Sunday, Jim and Kathy Maher come through the doors at the Parish of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Camden with a box of bologna and cheese sandwiches — “as many as you can make with two loaves of bread,” Jim says.

It’s a quiet act, and yet one that’s important in Camden. According to Father John Fisher, rector of the Cathedral Parish, that weekly act of stewardship allows the parish to feed those who come to its doors on Sunday, when the Cathedral Kitchen that operates for the rest of the week is closed.  In simple acts like these, “what Jim and Kathy do is to answer the call of the Gospel, and to help us as a parish to take the Gospel into the community,” Father Fisher says.

Jim has spent a lifetime serving others. He went through college under the ROTC and upon graduation, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in Vietnam as an intelligence officer. He left military service at the age of 23 as a captain and began a career as a Special Agent with the FBI that spanned the next 31 years.

Kathy has served alongside Jim, raising their three girls and making their home a base from which they both can go out into the world and help others.

Once Jim retired, the couple began to look for other ways to be of help, especially in feeding the hungry. “I’m a product of 12 years of Catholic education,” Jim says, “not to mention four years at Saint Peter’s College (now Saint Peter’s University, in Jersey City, N.J.). That’s enough to inspire anybody.”

Jim and Kathy have been members at the Cathedral Parish for 15 years now, and all three of their daughters were married there.

“It’s a nice place,” Jim says, in describing the Mahers’ home parish. “It feels more family-like.”

Jim helps in the parish in other ways: counting money after Mass on Sundays and serving on the finance committee. But perhaps his real passion lies in an effort that takes him outside of the parish and into the midst of those who need help in the broader community of southern New Jersey. Jim acts as chairman of the local chapter of Stand Down of South Jersey, an organization that, like its independent counterparts in other parts of the country, offers a day once a year for homeless veterans to come together for medical attention, food, a haircut, and some basic supplies that can be critical for survival.

According to Jim, the notion of “standing down” is that soldiers come in off the battlefield for “some necessary R and R,” and that they’re then better able to face the next challenge. The 22nd Stand Down event in southern New Jersey is scheduled for Sept. 21 of this year at the National Guard Armory in Cherry Hill.

This year the organizers of Stand Down of South Jersey expect between 175 and 200 male and female veterans to attend as event participants. The day requires coordination between the National Guard, which provides the venue and numerous volunteers, the Veterans Administration, which sends some of the medical personnel, and Stand Down of South Jersey, which coordinates donations from around the region and organizes the day’s events. For Stand Down members like Jim, preparations take place practically year round.

On an overcast Tuesday in late May, Jim and other event organizers unload box after box of waterproof boots into one of three 20-foot-long shipping containers that are permanently located in the armory parking lot off Grove Street in Haddonfield. The containers already hold plenty of useful items: sleeping bags, new winter coats in a range of sizes, and screens to help set up a temporary clinic inside the armory for the doctors, nurses, dentists, and other medical personnel who will volunteer their time that day to offer care to the veterans who attend. For most attendees, it is the only medical care they will receive that year, and perhaps the most critical aspect of what the day offers them. “It’s really an urgent care or triage center,” Jim says. “There are always one or two vets who have to leave the event in an ambulance.”

He continues, “That’s how important it is that we make this kind of help available.”

The help comes from across the community, with representatives from as many as 30 social service agencies on sight that day to offer help to the veterans.

During the week before the event happens, Jim and Kathy will be on site every day, setting up and making sure last-minute logistics are in order. Kathy helps screen the veterans as they enter Stand Down, and she’s there with Jim through the day and afterward, helping with break down and clean up.

In an important way for area Catholics, Stand Down of South Jersey also makes it possible for members of different parishes and apostolates to serve together in the world. In addition to Jim, volunteers come from Saint Joseph’s Polish Apostolate, which is part of Immaculate Conception Parish. Father Fisher is particularly gratified to see parishioners coming together to serve. “You realize when you see parishioners going beyond the parish confines to serve [that] it makes the church more global.”

Father Fisher also believes that in serving homeless veterans through Stand Down of South Jersey, parishioners like Jim Maher are answering the call to stewardship exactly as Pope Francis has asked. “He speaks of taking the church out into the community as a field hospital, and that’s exactly what’s happening. I see Catholicity here. … Jim is doing what Christ calls us to do.”

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The mission of the Office of Stewardship is to help the disciples of Christ live out Christian charity in a sacrificial way that we might “understand the grace that comes from giving back from our blessings so that in all things God may be glorified.” For more information, contact Deacon Russell Davis at 856-583-6102.

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