Most people here came to see Pope Francis. Patty Disney came to see George Spellman.
Spellman, who said he is in his sixties, is not a world leader or a celebrity. He is a homeless man, living on the streets and battling colon cancer and a broken heart. His 10-year-old daughter was killed, hit by a car, and his life unraveled from there.
But as Francis delighted hundreds of thousands with his appearances at Independence Hall and on Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sept. 27, Disney and a band of 360 volunteers bypassed the crowds and went in search of people like Spellman—down and out and living on the streets.
“We didn’t want to just be present with the Holy Father,” Disney said, preferring a “true spirit of service and a missionary heart.”
And that heart is inspired by Francis, who has said, “A little bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just.”
Disney came to Philadelphia with Love and Serve, an Atlanta-based group whose weekend mission trip was dubbed “Serve with Francis.”
While the pope was busy encouraging immigrants, praising the family, and consoling clergy sex abuse victims, the volunteers poured out into the streets—an army in bright yellow T-shirts—to bring clothes, toiletries and food to this city’s estimated 5,500 homeless.
They also gave the people they ministered to a Catholic message—a book with a collection of the pope’s writings and a rainbow of colored plastic rosaries.
The volunteers—men, women and children—set up camp at St. Andrew Lithuanian Roman Catholic Church, just a few blocks from the secure enclosure where Francis will celebrate Mass on Sunday, Sept. 27.
They organized bundles of gently used clothing, shoes and care packages of food, toothpaste, shampoo and soap.
The organization divided into separate groups and ventured off to different sections of the city, from homeless shelters to city streets.
As the volunteers moved, people began to slide out of hidden places to engage with them. One of those was James Williams, who said he had been homeless since his mother died last May.
“God is here,” he said. “Imagine if he wasn’t here.