“God gave them to me.” Wilfride Soka repeats this phrase several times when talking about the group of 10 St. Francis parishioners who have been her Support Circle for the last 18 months.
In the last two years, Mrs. Soka has been through numerous crises that would test anyone’s faith. But she sees her experience with the Support Circle as a sign of God’s care. And members of the Support Circle who have accompanied Mrs. Soka through many difficulties have grown in their faith, understanding of poverty, and willingness to take risks in reaching out to others.
“When we first met at Catholic Charities, everyone was nervous,” said Support Circle member Sherry Mordecai. For most of the St. Francis parishioners, this was their first experience in a ministry whose aim was to develop a long-term supportive relationship with a family.
“It’s easy to give money and give food for food drives. But to actually get involved in someone’s life, it’s a whole different ballgame,” said Linda Tucker. “There’s an emotional connection that makes a difference.”
Mrs. Soka, who is 51 and originally from the Congo, became a widow two years ago when her husband died unexpectedly. Her husband was a Christian minister at a local church, but after his death, Mrs. Soka and her six children (now ages 13 to 23) found themselves abandoned by their church community. Although Mrs. Soka worked full time in a low-paying job as a housekeeper and her two oldest daughters had part-time retail jobs, they still could not pay the bills. The family was evicted. The family ended up homeless and separated, with the children staying at different friends’ houses.
In May 2012, Catholic Charities approached St. Francis, asking if our community could support a family transitioning from homelessness. Parishioner Eileen McEntegart, a veteran of a previous Support Circle, recruited nine other parishioners to participate.
Tucker decided to join the new Support Circle after completing JustFaith, an intensive small group program that immerses participants in Catholic Social Teaching and the stories of people struggling with poverty and injustice. She had seen some poor children during her teaching career and still remembers a child who would lick her plate clean, but she never had gotten involved directly in trying to change the situation of someone living in poverty.
The Support Circle Program is run by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh to help families transitioning from homelessness. Churches make a commitment to help a family for at least one year by subsidizing their rent and committing to helping them address the main problems that put them at risk for future homelessness. Barriers to address can include lack of education, problems with transportation, health issues, need for childcare, and life skills like budgeting and time management. A small group of parishioners walk with a family, developing a supportive relationship and helping them address their goals over time.
When I met Wilfride Soka, the Support Circle had been working with her for 16 months. She is soft-spoken, with a strong African accent and a vivid, expressive way of talking. “They helped clear many things in my mind,” she said. “They woke up my head. They make me realize I can be somebody. The group means a lot, a lot, a lot to me.”
The first project of the Support Circle was to find a home for the Sokas. It was not easy to find a 4-bedroom home in a safe neighborhood in Raleigh for less than $1,000 per month. A team of Support Circle members spent more than two months visiting houses with Mrs. Soka. Most of the houses they looked at were too small or in sketchy neighborhoods. When they finally found a house that seemed perfect, in a quiet neighborhood near N.C. State University, the deal almost fell through at the last minute when partner organizations withdrew promised subsidies.
But the Support Circle had told the prospective landlord about the Soka family’s situation and the landlord, a Christian, wanted to be part of helping the family. “The landlord said go ahead and God will make it work,” said Ellen Ferrone, who now leads the ministry. The landlord collects $950 in rent for a house that probably would rent for $1,250 per month.
The house was furnished mainly by the donations of St. Francis parishioners. Parishioners also contributed baby items through the Gabriel Project Ministry when one of Mrs. Soka’s older daughters, Liliane, had a baby, Leilani. The family was delighted to be reunited.
But many problems still remained, among them the disorganized stacks of bills and confused finances. The family was still in chaos, still grieving. And after a few months, Support Circle members started to get discouraged.
Mrs. Soka admits that she was not easy to work with at first. “I was sorry for them,” said Mrs. Soka. When members of the Support Circle would arrive to meet with the family, Mrs. Soka often was unprepared and the team members would have to wait for half an hour or more, or would refuse to provide information about her finances.
The members of the Support Circle at first were so eager to help that they tried to fulfill any request the family made, even for things such as a barbecue that were more wants than needs. “The Support Circle started to feel used, and the family started to play us,” said Mordecai. “We came to an understanding that that’s not how this works.”
The purpose of the Support Circle is to empower families with skills and resources to enable them to become economically self-sufficient and regain a sense of hope. The challenge is to balance providing the resources and material support needed during a crisis with offering moral support and empowering the family to develop skills, build on their strengths, and help them achieve their goals. The temptation for new helpers is often to “do for” rather than “walk with” a family.
Looking back, Ferrone said that the Support Circle made a mistake early on in diving into finding a house without spending time building a relationship with Mrs. Soka. But the Support Circle members realized their mistake. Ferrone and other team members began inviting Mrs. Soka to go for coffee and sit and talk. Over time, trust deepened and relationships developed between many of the team members and Mrs. Soka.
Crisis and Faith
Just as it seemed like things were beginning to stabilize for the Sokas, a new crisis hit. Mrs. Soka, who has diabetes, learned that her kidneys had failed and she would require dialysis three times a week. Ultimately, this meant that she was no longer able to perform her housekeeping job.
Support Circle members began accompanying Mrs. Soka to medical appointments so they could help her understand her diagnosis and the process for getting on the list for a kidney transplant. They assisted her with transportation to dialysis and in completing the paperwork for a disability application.
Linda Tucker recalls, “One of the happiest days was we went and opened the mail with Wilfride and found she had been approved for long-term disability. The same day we found out she had an appointment for a [meeting about a]kidney transplant.”
Mrs. Soka said the Support Circle helped give her strength to deal with her diagnosis. “They keep saying, ‘Be strong, be strong.’ They’re praying. I know they’re praying.”
Mrs. Soka’s deep faith has inspired – and at times, frustrated – the team members. Sherry Mordecai said that the team tends to believe that God helps those who help themselves and at first had difficulty relating to Mrs. Soka’s trust in God to provide.
When I met with Mrs. Soka, she said, “If I believe in Jesus, everything is going to be OK. Everything is possible to God.” Mordecai told Mrs. Soka she admired her staying positive all the time. “I feel like I’m learning an awful lot from you with the faith and trust you have,” Mordecai said.
Gifts and Family
In turn, Mrs. Soka is grateful for the practical help the team members have offered. She rattles off a list of some of the ways in which the Support Circle has helped: Finding her a house, helping with her health, reducing her bills, helping her with budgeting and banking, working to reducing her car insurance payments from $1,000 per month, connecting the family to a food pantry that also provides milk and diapers, and getting grief counseling for her and the three youngest children.
The Support Circle is committed to continuing to work with the Soka family through June 2014 and will continue rent subsidies from St. Francis through that time. Ferrone said she plans to stay connected with the Sokas and wouldn’t be surprised if the Support Circle continues in some form, hopefully with the addition of some new members who have a healthcare background or expertise with college applications, which could benefit the younger children.
But the practical accomplishments seem to recede behind the bigger transformation – strangers from different cultures and backgrounds growing to experience each other as a family in Christ. The Support Circle celebrates birthdays with the family, and with eight family members, celebrations occur almost every month.
“They’ve become my sisters,” Mrs. Soka said. Several members of the Support Circle echoed this feeling. “They’re an extended family,” Ferrone said. “I feel like she’s my friend,” said Eileen McEntegart. “Through Christ, you make friends.”
Ferrone said that developing a close relationship with Mrs. Soka has helped her overcome fears about helping others.”Our basic human nature is we’re afraid of someone we don’t know,” Ferrone said. “It dissolves all the fear, just meeting people where they are.”
Interested in exploring joining the Soka Support Circle – or participating in a future Support Circle with another family? Contact Ministry Leader Ellen Ferrone at 858-531-9797 or firstname.lastname@example.org.