In January 2013, more than 500 volunteers went to the streets in Santa Barbara to conduct the Vulnerability Index Survey. The survey is intended to identify the most vulnerable and at-risk to die among our homeless population. Many of us from the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes went to the designated safe parking lots.

The Safe Parking Program in Santa Barbara works under the umbrella of New Beginnings Counseling Center. It allows people to legally park in their cars in designated lots from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

The second night out, the then-case manager of the Safe Parking Program, Ros Scheuerman, expressed that there was a real need for women to minister to ladies, who for myriad reasons have fallen on desperate times. They are all ages, from all walks of life. Often because of an unredeemed economic system, they have been swept overboard — surfacing marginalized and afraid. There are some women who suffer serious mental and physical illnesses and must recover in their cars.

It wasn’t difficult to imagine what their days and nights looked like in comparison to those of us who go about our business during the day — returning home to the security and comfort of family and friends at night.

As one woman from safe parking said, she has to think every day about where she will get food. How will she manage the needs of her children who live in the car with her? Where can she go during the day?

It was an easy request to make to the Beatitudes Community — a contemplative community dedicated to social justice issues. Every Saturday evening at the 5:30 liturgy, they hear the gospel proclaimed and then live it fully and actively. They work with an abundance of compassion, energy and infectious humor. It spills over into all their ministries. In April 2013, the Safe Parking Outreach-Women Helping Women began.

A few of us met with Nancy and Ros, case managers of the Safe Parking Program at that time, to discuss what they thought were the most immediate needs. They both agreed — a sense of community was critical to help alleviate some of the isolation and loneliness the women face daily. We decided on a potluck picnic in the park so they could get to know us.

We hoped if they were around women who saw beyond their fears and suspicions, for at least a couple of hours, they might feel some peace. We were the ones taken by surprise. It’s one thing to advocate for the homeless, it’s another to sit down and “break bread.” In that gathering, there was no us or them. Everyone brought something to share. It was an easy exchange of food and conversation. It was a sanctuary.

Now women bring their poetry to our gatherings in the park; they sing their songs — country, an a cappella spiritual, once a little ribald. It’s all embraced. These women live with an abundance of drama and strife daily, but for a few hours we all sit in an expanded space of acceptance and celebrate each other as women. One woman wrote in our guest book, “I need this. Thank you!  Bless you!”

At one of the picnics someone mentioned that a woman there was in critical need of help. Her car/home was broken down. Everyone instantly contributed what they could. Within 15 minutes there was enough money collected for repairs and $10 left over for gas. That led to the Beatitudes starting an emergency fund that has now allowed us to help with car repairs, gas cards, food for lunches and blankets. These are needs that otherwise go unmet because there is simply not enough from a program already stretched to the max.

This year, Bag Lunch Thursdays started. Twice a month, Beatitudes women make lunches to be passed out on Fridays by Amanda Staples, program coordinator for the Safe Parking Program. She goes to the park, early in the morning, and passes out lunches and interviews people hoping to qualify for a space in a safe parking lot.

The importance of the Beatitudes participation with the Safe Parking Program is eloquently expressed by Amanda herself, when she says, “Their dedication, time and assistance have provided much needed relief for our homeless population. Their kind gestures provide stability and love that encourage our neighbors to live in harmony and peace with one another, and reminds us that we are all God’s children.”

In Safe Parking’s first year, 2013, the Beatitudes hosted a Christmas party. There was a banquet of foods, donated gift bags, including food gift cards. But the most stirring moment in the evening came when singing spontaneously started. In many cases, the isolation and fear these women experience daily prevents them from talking together, let alone singing.

This year for our Christmas party, we went to the Santa Barbara community. Their response to helping our women was overwhelmingly generous: Tony Arroyo of Los Arroyos Mexican Restaurant responded, “No questions asked, whatever you want.” One Beatitudes woman contacted her husband’s company, Shalom International based in New York. Like last year, they generously gave enough to fill 35 gift bags. McDonalds contributed 35 gift cards for a meal. Aveda enthusiastically offered to make up gift bags with samples from its store. Rocket Fizz offered bags of candy to go in the gift bags. L’Occitane, Vons and Whole Foods contributed the door prizes. The Beatitudes community contributed and served side dishes and desserts, and included flashlights and blankets in each bag.

From the opening blessing, Christmas tree, gifts and door prizes, to the companionship and a feast in between, all the love and warmth we sometimes take for granted at Christmas was again shared — at least for a few hours. Not only is this the only party some will attend, but for many it is their only Christmas. As for the women from the Beatitudes, it was both gift and joy to celebrate the spirit of Christmas together.

Again, in the new year, we will continue to look for creative ways to serve and empower our women. All the problems they face daily can’t be solved as much as we’d like. They are overwhelming and endless. But when we read in a group Christmas card to us, “I am glad there are still good people in the world that care for others like you do,” we know the importance of showing up — one gathering at a time.

We are reminded of words from Archbishop Oscar Romero’s poem, “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own”:

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

In the beginning we called our outreach a work in progress. Today it is a passion in progress. We have moved from women helping women to women for women because, undeniably, as we have come to know, it goes both ways.

Francie Monk is a member of and co-chair for the Safe Parking Outreach for Women program through the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes, which celebrates Mass at 5:30 p.m. Saturdays at First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St. Click here for more information, or call 805.252.4105. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are those of the author.