Harker Heights parish reaches out to the poor

By Julie A. Ferraro

When youth group member Angela Lopez, said, “The trip itself makes it worth it,” she was not refering to a vacation or a leisurely outing.
Before sunrise on Aug. 13, members of St. Paul Chong Hasang Parish in Harker Heights loaded trucks with tables and other supplies. The “advance guard” left around 6:30 a.m. for the Church under the Bridge in Austin, while approximately 80 others gathered in the parish hall to prepare for a journey taken twice each year.
Deacon Alfred Ponce wrote driving directions on a white board. During his safety briefing, he made sure the travelers knew to work in pairs or in threes. Besides some common sense warnings, he noted, “Let the Spirit work through you.”
Missionary of the Sacred Heart Father Richard O’Rourke, pastor of St. Paul Chong Hasang, gave the group two blessings –– one in the hall and one in the church at the beginning of 7:30 a.m. Mass. The entire congregation extended their hands over the group, which had processed in carrying items that would be delivered to the homeless.
“We’re all excited,” said Father O’Rourke, referencing how Jesus had sent out the 72 disciples. “Great things will happen.”
Preparations for this event, though, started months earlier.
Parishioners donated food, water, toiletries and clothing, which were sorted and placed in bins for the journey. Others saved plastic shopping bags –– piles and piles of them –– for the key project: making mats which the homeless could use for sleeping.
They came together on July 12 to create an assembly line. First, the bags were straightened, then cut into strips. Those strips were tied into long lengths. 
Heidi Cadena, visiting from Sacramento, helped her granddaughter, Anna Bellivio, tie the strips together. She planned to pass along what she learned when she returned home.
From there, skilled hands used large crochet hooks –– size P or Q –– and diligently counted 55 stitches in each of 24 rows.
Some of the mats had handles, making them easier to carry, according to Alice Kolin.
The idea for the mats came from Lisa Hodges, some years ago. 
Deacon Ponce recalled how, when he was studying for the diaconate, he made a retreat that involved staying with the homeless. He was touched by the way they gathered between the massive concrete pylons that support I-35 in downtown Austin. On Sunday, various churches brought food and snacks, and the homeless would stand in line to accept this generosity.
Inspired, Deacon Ponce came back to St. Paul Chong Hasang and shared his experience with the people.
He and his wife, Debra ––who serves as parish secretary –– took Hodges’ idea and built upon it.
“We had 14 or 15 people the first time we went down to the Church under the Bridge,” Deacon Ponce said. The numbers have grown ever since.
He is grateful for the participation of St. Paul’s Youth Group, and that other area parishes have gotten involved as well.
While the main group journeys to Austin, a group of parishioners pray in the Adoration Chapel, the entire time the travelers are on the road.
They pray for the parishioners and for the homeless, some of whom deal with drug addiction, alcoholism or mental illness, which can affect their behavior. 
More than just delivering food and necessities, the group from St. Paul Parish uses the time to evangelize.
“It’s about being there for them,” instructed Deacon Ponce. He advised the group to pray with the homeless they encountered, right there. “If they want a blessing, find me, and I will do it.”
The group gives out rosaries and “just about every pamphlet you can imagine,” Deacon Ponce said.
To watch the homeless file past bins filled with clothes, shoes –– even cowboy boots –– packages of snacks, and boxes of toothpaste, touches the heart, he said.
After the trip, the group is encouraged to reflect on their experience. As the caravan of vehicles drove back to Harker Heights, they stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Round Rock, sitting at tables and sharing what they had seen and learned.
Deacon Ponce hoped the lessons learned will inspire the participants to help the homeless locally, as well.
“It’s amazing how powerfully the Spirit works,” he concluded.