Stories of Justice: Love Without Distinction


CSJ Sister Judy Miller struggles to pinpoint that "one thing" that led to her involvement at St. John the Evangelist's homeless shelter in Green Bay, Wisconsin.


By Mary Flick, CSJ, Justice Office Coordinator


Perhaps it’s the communal tie, since the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet staffed St. John’s, the oldest, continuously operating church and school in the city in Green Bay from 1893 until the last class graduated in 1977. Perhaps it’s the sense of community and dedication shared by the many CSJ sister-and-associate hands who minister with her there. But likely, it’s the visible love of God and neighbor without distinction that calls the Sisters of St. Joseph to serve our most invisible citizens.

Sister Judy MillerSister Judy Miller ministered for 28 years in parishes in the Green Bay diocese, until she took a sabbatical in 2008, then returned to serve on the staff of the Norbertine Center for Spirituality in Des Pere, Wisconsin. When she left her full-time position last summer to work in spiritual direction and with the Wisconsin CSJ Associates, she was eager to keep her hand in pastoral ministry.

So when Associate Tony Pichler invited her to join the board of trustees for St. John’s, it was her doorway back into pastoral work. However, she knew board work would not demand enough of her high energy. It wasn’t long before she was a member of the shelter’s ministry team, wearing her blue vest under her winter parka, waiting in the cold with the guests until the doors open at 5 p.m. then having dinner with them.  Her two-and-a-half-hour shifts every Saturday evening are something, she says, “I don’t want to miss.”

The overnight shelter is considered a “shelter of last resort,” taking in both men and women who are actively addicted to drugs and alcohol. “A good number have been in jail or prison, and just as many have some kind of mental impairment,” Sister Judy says.

The shelter, which operates November 1 through April 30, can accommodate 84 “guests,” with men and women staying in separate rooms. They receive an evening meal, and a mat on the gym floor for the night. Those who are drug- and alcohol-free have the privilege of sleeping on a simple bed.

St. John’s also sponsors Micah Center, a day resource center in Green Bay, where guests receive assistance in job searches and can attend drug and alcohol support groups.

Sister Judy says everyone is welcome and all are equal, including the ministry team members.“We are one of the guests. We provide a presence and talk with our guests as they want to. Everyone is treated with dignity.”

The Sisters of St. Joseph are a strong presence at the shelter. Associates Carrie Arnold, Carl Kopczynski, and Ewa and Chuck Pankratz help provide the evening meals once a month. Associates Tony Pichler and Paula Rieder, Sister Shawn Madigan and Judy are ministry team volunteers. And the shelter board of trustees currently includes Associate Susan Perrault and Sister Judy. Associate Susan Brusky serves as one of the case managers at Micah Center as well.

 “The CSJ charism has to be in a person, we don’t develop it,” Sister Judy says, mindful of the associates she knows. “Being a sister or associate helps support it and live it better. We nurture each other.”

Last year, this powerhouse of the Joseph charism began offering homeless retreats, similar to those offered by the Ignatian Spirituality Project. The retreats have added a spiritual richness to the shelter’s ministry to the homeless, allowing the guests to tell their stories in a safe and sacred space.

Sister Judy recalls her profound experience with Charles, a regular guest at the evening shelter. “He always wears wrap-around sunglasses so I could never see his eyes,” she says. “And he was not much to engage in conversation.”

Then he came on the retreat, took off his glasses and she learned that Charles has another story. He told her he has been focused on mindfulness and he knows the other guests could pull him back into drugs. He wears the glasses so no one can say he’s looking at them. “He’s protecting himself. And he visibly took off his ‘mask’ on retreat,” she says.

“These people have touched my life. They have a greatness in them. Despite obstacles, they have hope, faith, love.”

Some experiences are more lighthearted, but just as revealing. Sister Judy says the guests are patted down before they are allowed into the shelter for dinner and the night. But somehow, Joey, a drunk yet pleasant shelter regular, snuck in a fake rose for her on Valentine’s Day.

“I’ve been impressed from the beginning by how many of our guests say thank you,” she says. "I didn’t expect that. There’s a basic goodness in each person, no matter their circumstances in life. Their life circumstances are different from mine, but we are all the same."

 “We are called to love God and neighbor without distinction,” Sister Judy says. “This work follows from it. These are people on the margins. They embody God for me. I’m a better person because of working with the homeless.”

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