Pope To Visit Heights Of Capitol Hill, With Sights Set On D.C.'s Poor

Sep 13, 2015
Originally published on October 20, 2015 6:42 am

When Pope Francis visits the U.S., he won't just be meeting with President Obama and politicians on Capitol Hill. Right after his address to a joint meeting of Congress, he'll be traveling across town to St. Patrick's Catholic Church, where he'll be meeting with some of the country's poor residents.

Office workers regularly attend noontime Mass at the church — but when the pope arrives, the place will be filled with several hundred homeless, poor and immigrant clients of the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Among those invited to attend is 26-year-old Angalene Brown, a single mother with a 2-year-old. Brown has been homeless on and off for 10 years, ever since the grandmother who raised her died. She hopes the papal visit will make others more understanding of what she and hundreds of thousands of other Americans are going through.

"Because, really, nobody knows what it's like to be homeless until they're homeless," Brown says. "So I have to say, don't judge a book by its cover, because we're trying the best."

Brown says she isn't lazy, as many people seem to think. Like many homeless adults, she has a job — part-time at a women's clothing store — but it doesn't pay enough for her to afford a place to live in Washington, D.C., where even a modest one-bedroom apartment can run $900 or more a month.

Brown says she's excited to meet Pope Francis, who has been an outspoken advocate for the poor, and has called on those in power to fight income inequality.

"Can't wait to tell her," she says looking down at her daughter, sitting on her lap. "I'm going to take a lot of pictures and then tell her when she [is] older about it."

But Brown almost didn't get a chance to see the pope. She is about to start a second job and was hesitant to ask for time off so soon. She did ask, though, and they said yes.

It's one of the everyday realities of trying to make ends meet in America — where about 45 million people live in poverty — that many people hope the Pope will address.

New Energies For Those Often Ignored

Every Friday, before the sun comes up, volunteers gather in the parking lot of a small strip mall in suburban Maryland, where they hand out hot meals to mostly Spanish-speaking day laborers waiting for work.

The program is called St. Maria's Meals, which the Pope also plans to visit — although he's scheduled to see the food truck when it operates at lunchtime, around the corner from St. Patrick's Church.

The fact that the pope has chosen to visit their program has these volunteers excited. They say serving the poor is something they do anyway, but that the Pope's message has given them a boost.

"It just makes you more heartfelt. You know, it just makes you feel like — it makes you want to get up even earlier in the morning," says volunteer Chris Thomas. He says the pope has also inspired him to get others to do more.

"Because all you ever hear people say is, 'Oh, that's a good job you're doing every week, that's a good job.' But you never see them come out," he says. "Now its easy for me to say, 'Did you not hear the pope say?' "

And indeed there are new people showing up to volunteer at programs such as this one, says the Rev. Mike Johnson, pastor of nearby St. Camillus Church. He says the pope has energized people with both his words and actions, like going into prisons and out on the streets to meet people living at the margins.

"He leads by example. And I think that's what we're seeing," says Johnson. "Service, especially to the poor, is constituent of our Catholic faith. It's not a nice add-on."

And that has Johnson and others here curious what Pope Francis will say when he addresses Congress, where debate has been intense over funding programs for the poor — like health care, housing and food stamps.

Volunteer Karen Simon says the pope speaks truth to power, which gives her hope.

"I think his message is sometimes countercultural, and I don't think he's afraid to speak it," she says. "And I think he will."

She's not sure what the long-term impact will be. But she's happy that the pope has so many more people paying attention to those who are often ignored.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When Pope Francis arrives in Washington, D.C., next week, he'll meet with President Obama and members of Congress. He will also meet with Americans who are less well-off. The pope has been an advocate for those living on the margins, calling on politicians to help close the gap between rich and poor. NPR's Pam Fessler reports that the message has brought new energy and hope to those who have been struggling with the issue for years.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Right after Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress, he'll head across town to here.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH MASS)

FESSLER: St. Patrick's Catholic Church in the heart of the nation's capital. Office workers regularly attend noontime mass here. But when the pope comes, it will be filled with several hundred homeless, poor and immigrant clients of Catholic Charities, a tiny sampling of the millions of Americans who live in poverty.

ANGALENE BROWN: (Singing) Patty cake, patty cake, baker's man.

FESSLER: Among those invited to attend is 26-year-old Angalene Brown, a single mother with a 2-year-old girl.

BROWN: (Singing) Roll it up. Throw it in the pan.

FESSLER: Brown has been homeless on and off for 10 years, ever since the grandmother who raised her died. She hopes the pope's appearance makes others more understanding of what she and hundreds of thousands of other Americans are going through.

BROWN: 'Cause, really, nobody knows what it's like to be homeless until they're homeless. So I have to just say, don't judge a book by its cover 'cause we're trying the best.

FESSLER: She says she's not lazy, as many people seem to think. Like a lot of homeless adults, Brown has a job at a women's clothing store, but it doesn't pay enough to afford a place to live in Washington, D.C., where even a modest one-bedroom apartment can run $900 or more a month. Brown looks down at her daughter and says she's eager to meet a pope who said there's something wrong in a world where so many families don't have a home.

BROWN: I can't wait to tell her. I'm going to take a lot of pictures and then tell her when she get older about it.

FESSLER: Although she almost didn't get the chance. Brown starts a second job this week. She didn't want to ask for time off so soon but she did, and they said yes. It's the everyday realities of trying to make ends meet in America that many people hope the pope brings to light.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish). I have bagels...

FESSLER: Every Friday, before the sun comes up, volunteers gather in the parking lot of a small strip mall in suburban Maryland. They're handing out hot meals to mostly Spanish-speaking day laborers who are waiting here for work.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: A banana.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: OK.

FESSLER: The program is called St. Maria's Meals. The pope plans to visit it at lunchtime in downtown D.C. The fact that he's chosen to do so has volunteers here excited. They say serving the poor is something they do anyway, but the pope's message has given them a boost.

CHRIS THOMAS: It just makes you more heartfelt. You know, it just makes you feel like - it makes you want to get up even earlier in the morning.

FESSLER: Volunteer Chris Thomas says it's also inspired him to try to get others out to help.

THOMAS: Because all you ever hear people say is, oh, that's a good job you're doing every week. That's a good job. But you never see them come out (laughter). You never see them come out. Now it's easy for me to say, did you not hear the pope say (laughter)?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

FESSLER: And, indeed, more volunteers are showing up at programs such as this one, says Father Mike Johnson, pastor of nearby St. Camillus Church. He's been walking around the parking lot, handing out food to day laborers too shy to approach the truck. Father Mike says the pope has inspired people with both his words and actions, like going into prisons and out on the streets to meet people living at the margins.

MIKE JOHNSON: He leads by example, and I think that's what we're seeing. Service, especially to the poor, is constituent of our Catholic faith. It's not a nice add-on.

FESSLER: But a fundamental part of the religion, which has Father Mike and others here curious what Pope Francis will say when he addresses Congress, where lawmakers are divided over how much to spend on programs for the poor, like health care, housing and food stamps. Volunteer Karen Simon says the pope speaks truth to power, which gives her hope.

KAREN SIMON: I think his message is sometimes countercultural, and I don't think he's afraid to speak it. And I think he will.

FESSLER: Whether that means people will be more generous, she isn't sure, but she is happy that the pope has so many more people paying attention. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.