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Goal of Ignatian retreats to help people move out of poverty, find hope

Orange, Calif.

He was a young man, but his addiction had been raging for a long time -- and it had destroyed everything.

He was estranged from his wife, his small children were living in another part of the country, and he was enrolled in a program to try to help him turn his life around.

But it wasn't until he was invited on a retreat inspired by Ignatian spirituality that he began to realize that turning his life around wasn't really about getting a new job and earning the money needed for a new car and a better lifestyle.

"[He was] really hoping that he could be a dad to his kids again," said Jordan Skarr, director of programs and mission effectiveness for the Ignatian Spirituality Project, which runs the retreats. He met the young man on the project's first men's retreat in Portland, Ore., in late June.

"It was an amazing transformation for someone to be able to claim that hope, that desire, by the end of [a retreat]," Skarr told the Orange County Catholic, newspaper of the Orange diocese.

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The Ignatian Spirituality Project got its start in the late 1990s, when Ed Shurna, director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, was attempting to create an experience to help build community, hope and transformation among those experiencing homelessness. Separately but simultaneously, Jesuit Fr. Bill Creed was invited by his provincial to begin making the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, available to those who were marginalized.

"Of course folks need housing, of course folks need job training," Skarr said. "But ... all of those things will come and go unless you have some fundamental foundation of hope. Unless you have some reason to get out of bed in the morning, some reason to believe that tomorrow will get better than today, there's no reason to believe in those things."

Ten years after Shurna and Creed began their work, the Ignatian Spirituality Project hired its first full-time staff. Now its retreats are offered in more than 20 U.S. cities and one city in Canada. In fiscal year 2012, more than 1,530 people went on 165 of these retreats. Catherine Ruffing, the project's director of development, said the organization is on track to offer retreats in 30 cities by the end of June 2016.

One of the newest locations is Orange County, where a team is working to launch the project's retreats this November, said Jesuit Fr. Bob Stephan, program director at the Loyola Institute for Spirituality in Orange.

"There's the reality and challenge of homelessness everywhere, and I think a lot of us feel like we don't really know how to handle things," Stephan said.

"We do the best we can to help -- housing, food and other things -- but there's that piece that's kind of beyond that, and there's not a lot of places that have had the opportunity to provide it. Looking at that spiritual component, that spiritual reality, that makes a different kind of transformation possible."

In fact, a recent Ignatian Spirituality Project study found that six months after a retreat, those who participated had improved housing and employment status -- and also experienced a statistically significant decrease in loneliness.

In any given retreat, hand-picked retreatants of one gender are invited from several different shelters. Retreats are open to people of all faiths, and are generally held over the course of the weekend, though sometimes shorter retreats are offered.

In addition to focusing on a relationship with God -- particularly the fact that God loves them -- retreatants share their past experiences with the group and have time for reflection. The retreat is usually held at a retreat center, and retreatants often comment about the comfort of their surroundings and the quality of the food they're served. It's all part of helping them to feel valued, Skarr said.

"These are normally gifts that aren't naturally afforded to men and women on the margins of society," he said. "Folks are valued enough and treasured enough to be invited into the retreat experience."

"Almost always, universally, people are very grateful to have had the experience," said Stephan, who was involved in the Ignatian Spirituality Project while living in Chicago and in Boston. "How deep it goes for people depends a lot on where they are.

"For some people, it can really feel like a very transformative moment, where they were able to step back and reflect on some of the deeper questions about what they want out of life and what they're able to do."

This retreat isn't a privilege, project staff emphasizes. It's fulfilling a need that is often left unfulfilled in the wake of other big issues.

"We can provide any sort of help to folks who are in poverty, but there will never be an actual movement out of poverty until the person gets a spiritual life," Skarr said.

"We are helping to move people out of poverty."

[Elisabeth Deffner is editor of the Orange County Catholic, newspaper of the Orange diocese.]

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