MSU students serve poor alongside Franciscans in Chicago
WICHITA FALLS — A group of eight students from the Catholic Campus Center at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls recently returned from a trip to the Humboldt Park area of Chicago. From May 21-27, the group worked alongside the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago to help residents of the historically low-income area of the Illinois city.
Debbie Veitenheimer, director of the Catholic Campus Center at MSU, led this group’s second trip to Chicago, she said. Previously, MSU Catholic students went to Guatemala, but Veitenheimer said she became aware of the Franciscans after the COVID-19 pandemic eased.
“I was looking for something domestic, and this became an opportunity I found out about and got connected with,” Veitenheimer said. “I always have an application process and take about eight students with me. We spent a week serving alongside the Franciscans and all the different ways that they serve the community that they live in, which is one of the poorest parts of Chicago.”
The Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago are a small Catholic religious community with branches for men and women who live among and serve the poor in Chicago’s West Humboldt Park neighborhood.
The Franciscans’ life centers upon their relationship with Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and their apostolates’ service to the poor, evangelization, and teaching.
Their neighborhood, Humboldt Park, is a majority Hispanic community with people of Puerto Rican descent settling in the area in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1970s, the area gained a reputation for gang activity that persists to this day.
To serve their community, the Franciscans run a large food pantry, and every Tuesday, they provide for the needs of Humboldt Park residents.
“We arrived on a Sunday, and on Monday, we spent the day prepping for the food pantry, and then on Tuesday, we served over 470 families,” Veitenheimer said. “They come in mostly on foot, and they come through the food pantry and get everything from fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat, to canned food, beans, rice, and things like that.”
Veitenheimer said that many of the people the food pantry serves are Spanish speaking.
“I took two students that happened to be bilingual, and they spent lots of time translating,” she said.
The trip will have a lasting impact on her and the students, Veitenheimer said.
“I believe that we returned with a humbleness and an awareness of the needs of people from all across this country. [We witnessed] the depths of poverty and what poverty and violence can do,” she said. “We are just awestruck by the Franciscans — the hard work, the love that they give, how respected they are, and how appreciated they are for the work that they do in that little neighborhood.”
The Franciscans also have a relationship with a nearby YMCA where they take part in an afterschool program, spending time with and helping youths with their homework.
Veitenheimer said her students were a positive influence on the neighborhood kids.
“We just went every day from about 3:30 until six o’clock seeing the kids and how much they appreciated my college students being with them,” Veitenheimer said. “I know last year when we went, the director of the YMCA said the reason that it's so important that they're there is that gang initiation starts at the age of 6 in that part of Chicago, and so they want to protect these kids and give them a safe place.”
Veitenheimer said a “really impactful part of the mission is to go and spend time with the kids at the YMCA.”
Recent MSU graduate Regina Agbo said the trip was inspirational and transformative.
“It was a great opportunity for me to work to help a community of people … and to be able to give them a helping hand while also encountering God in each and every one of them,” said Agbo, who is originally from Nigeria. “Going to Chicago was a great start, a great way for me to put my foot into missionary work. My experience was mind-blowing; I would say it was very eye-opening. Very humbling.”
Being with her fellow MSU students made the trip special, Agbo said.
“To be able to experience all of that with the people I came with, especially Miss Debbie, was something that I will always cherish wherever I go in life. It was a very beautiful experience to work with the sisters, to work in the food pantry, and to also experience a Eucharistic procession. It was just amazing for me,” Agbo said.
MSU junior biology major Christopher Rael also said the trip was a life-changing experience for him.
“It was a very fruitful experience going to one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America, helping with the poor … and experiencing the life that [the Franciscans] lived — a very holy life being able to help the poor,” Rael said. “I felt so much joy from helping these people and seeing them being aided by the Franciscans.”
Would Rael go again?
“Absolutely. It was such an amazing experience. It was really life changing. It brought a new perspective to me — seeing other people, no matter what class they are economically, and just aiding people because I've seen Jesus in each one of them,” Rael said. “I would absolutely love to go on another trip and to really have a similar experience in aiding people, trying to be Christlike, and seeing Christ in other people.”
Agbo said she, too, would go to Humboldt Park again.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat. I came back wanting to tell everyone of my experience, not just because I enjoyed Chicago itself, but because I met so many people who told me their stories,” Agbo said. “I heard so many people who left their country to come here, especially those who are immigrants.”
The experience reached her in ways she hadn’t expected.
“A lot of the days humbled me in a way that I never thought I could ever be humbled,” Agbo said. “I encountered God in so many ways, either through Adoration, Eucharistic procession, or by respecting those who walked into the food pantry and making sure that they still had their dignity.”