Bridge Ministry connects homeless community and Diocese of Knoxville volunteers
By Bill Brewer
Photography by Deacon Scott Maentz and Bill Brewer
Ministries serve God in a variety of ways. Some are formed with great resources and goals in mind. Many are merely seeds planted that take time to grow. And still others arise almost accidentally.
Knoxville’s Bridge Ministry, which is preparing to enter its third year serving the homeless community in Knoxville, can be counted under the third category.
Christine Maentz was determined to spend Christmas 2015 with people since she and her husband would be separated from family that holiday.
So when she decided to celebrate that Christmas with Knoxville’s homeless, Mrs. Maentz and husband Scott had no idea they were giving birth to a ministry that would continue to honor Jesus Christ by serving His brothers and sisters most in need.
“For several years, I wanted to do something for the less fortunate, especially during the holidays. However, we’ve always been out of the country at Christmas. In 2015, when it was decided that we’d be home for the holidays, without any second thoughts we went out and purchased what we needed, and on the 24th of December we made a little over 100 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and the next day, which was a horribly rainy Christmas Day, we parked under the bridge and handed out food,” Mrs. Maentz said.
Deacon Scott Maentz recalls initially being hesitant in agreeing to his wife’s wishes to offer food and drink to people on the street on Christmas Day.
“I was reluctant. I wasn’t too interested in spending my Christmas Day doing this,” Deacon Maentz acknowledged. “But she insisted that we needed to do something nice for the homeless for Christmas.”
At the time, he was in formation for the permanent diaconate. He was ordained a deacon by Bishop Richard F. Stika in 2016 and now serves at Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville.
Although they had not done anything like that before, Deacon Maentz and Christine spent Christmas Eve 2015 pulling together resources needed to serve the people who would be on the street on Christmas.
“We went to Kroger, and they donated some fruit. Dunkin’ Donuts gave us a good deal on doughnuts that were unsold at the end of the day on Christmas Eve. We bought enough bread to make 110 sandwiches,” Deacon Maentz said.
“We spent our Christmas Eve making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Christmas Day. Then, on the morning of Christmas Day, we made 165 cups of coffee,” he added.
Deacon Maentz and Christine loaded up their van and drove into downtown Knoxville to an area under the Interstate 40 overpass above Broadway. They pulled off to the side of the road and set up, not knowing if they would be alone or overwhelmed by people.
To complicate matters, it was pouring rain. So the interstate bridge offered some shelter. It would become the symbol for the ministry-to-be.
“There must have been 70 or 80 people who came up to us instantly. They were very polite, respectful, and grateful. They were so happy we were there. We handed out coffee and food for two hours before everything was gone,” recalled Deacon Maentz.
“We weren’t prepared for the crowd that immediately descended upon us. We had brought a sound system to play Christmas carols and songs, but there was no time for that. These folks were hungry,” he added.
It was then that the Maentzes, whose five children and 12 grandchildren live in the Philippines, Canada, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., realized the people they were feeding hungered for more than food.
At the end of their Christmas Day effort, a television reporter who had heard about the impromptu outreach arrived to interview the Maentzes for a story.
“I told them Pope Francis had declared this the Year of Mercy, so one of the corporal works of mercy is to feed the hungry. We thought it was important to put into practice what we say we believe,” Deacon Maentz said.
The response to that Christmas Day offering was overwhelming, and unexpected, which prompted the Maentzes to consider repeat efforts.
According to Deacon Maentz, when he and Christine returned, people recognized them and responded to their outreach.
“I realized this needed to continue. But we needed help, so I brought it to Knights of Columbus Council 5207 at Sacred Heart. I was a member there and told them about this experience. I asked them if they were interested in helping and they said yes,” he noted.
One Saturday morning a month, Knights from Council 5207, their family members, and other volunteers have gathered at the council’s hall near Sacred Heart Cathedral to prepare sandwiches and beverages. They would then caravan to the downtown site under the I-40 bridge and serve the people on the street.
As the outreach took root, the Maentzes decided to name it the Bridge Ministry.
It just seemed to fit on so many levels, according to the Maentzes.
Bishop Stika praises the way the Bridge Ministry started out small but has continued to grow.
“It’s a wonderful ministry. It just shows that while it’s not directly involved in any particular ministry of the Church per se, like the St. Vincent de Paul Society or Catholic Charities, it is a true expression of what it means to be a Catholic, to be the hands of Jesus,” Bishop Stika said. “You see so many people take time out from their busy schedule on a Saturday once a month to be the hands of Jesus and volunteer with the Bridge Ministry.”
The ministry has flourished since Christmas 2015, and the Maentzes have been able to expand their efforts through the assistance of volunteers and the response from people in need.
“Everything has come to us through contributions. We’ve always had enough. We’ve never lacked for supplies,” Deacon Maentz explained, noting that God always provides.
One way God has provided is by connecting Deacon Maentz and Tom Quinones, a facilities supervisor for the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the diocese. Mr. Quinones has operated a mobile hot dog stand but was considering letting it go. But a chance conversation between the men led to Mr. Quinones providing — and preparing — hot dogs for the homeless people served by the Bridge Ministry.
Mr. Quinones, who is joined by his wife, DeeDee, and their two teenage children, Jack and Cheyenne, in the Bridge Ministry, knows God had a hand in their involvement in serving people on the street.
“I was looking to sell my hot dog stand. Then I wondered if there was something I could do with the homeless, but I didn’t want to take that on alone,” Mr. Quinones said, noting that co-workers Tom Greer and Doug Caiazza informed him that Deacon Maentz was looking for someone to prepare donated hot dogs just as he was about to sell his stand.
“I do believe that things happen for a reason, and that is the Holy Spirit at work,” he said. “This is now part of my stewardship. I want to give back instead of receive. You should always feel like you’ve given more than you’ve taken.”
But Mr. Quinones said the most valuable thing the Bridge Ministry gives is time. “The time and effort to interface with people is more meaningful than anything.”
He credited the Maentzes for persevering to serve the people on the street.
Building a Bridge Ministry has not been without obstacles.
As it was getting established, a downtown business took out a restraining order against the ministry, which forced it to move. Then the owners of a second location the ministry was using fenced the ministry out, forcing another move.
A third bridge location was identified but wasn’t sufficient, so Deacon Maentz has been working with Knox Area Rescue Ministries to serve the homeless from the KARM courtyard nearby.
He hopes the Bridge Ministry finally has a home to serve those living on the street. He praises Knox Area Rescue Ministries for its support of the Bridge Ministry, and he looks forward to strengthening that relationship.
In addition to serving those in need and being the face and hands of Christ, Deacon Maentz said he is most proud of creating a ministry that is supported by families.
Many of the volunteers on hand month in and month out are families in the Diocese of Knoxville. Deacon Maentz pointed out that more of the older kids are joining the ministry to fulfill their service-hour requirements for school. And he noted that all children under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult.
“This is a family ministry opportunity. Our kids, who have so much today, can see and serve those who don’t have much,” he said. “We have families who have been back repeatedly.”
One of those families is Dr. Mike and Karen Carlson, who have six children. The All Saints Parish members have volunteered at homeless shelters, but the Bridge Ministry appeals to them because volunteers can work directly with those in need, one on one.
“It’s just different. It’s a different feeling. It’s more serving instead of just being served. This is with people; you get to look them in the eye,” Mrs. Carlson said as she handed out prayer cards and words of love to those in need. “This is great for our kids. It’s so different than where they grow up. This is good for them to see, and hopefully they will go back and appreciate their lives and the gifts they’ve been given.”
Mrs. Carlson also wants the ministry to have a spiritual influence on her children.
“Hopefully, this is planting seeds so that when they are out of the house they can continue to serve in some way. Hopefully, God will call them to serve in some way,” she said.
Dr. Carlson echoed his wife’s comments about their family working with other area homeless missions in providing food for those in need and the Bridge Ministry being a good fit for the family’s outreach efforts.
He hopes his children will take from the Bridge Ministry lessons on being good citizens and God-fearing, moral young men and women.
“We’re trying to give back and also to teach our kids really to live their faith. It’s easy to talk a good game. But are you actually walking the walk. We want to be examples,” Dr. Carlson said. “If we can accomplish that, then I believe we’ve done our job. I always get more than I give. To see people like you and I, who may have had some bad luck, maybe have lost a wife, husband, or child, I think that shows you how life, in a split second, can change. Never take anything for granted. I just think that when you come here, you want to be the face of Christ. Like Deacon Maentz has said, the people we serve are the face of Christ. It’s easy sometimes to get settled in your own community, but really where you see Christ is out here.”
Shawn Comerford also likes to make the Bridge Ministry a family volunteer affair.
The Sacred Heart parishioner, and Grand Knight of Knights of Columbus Council 5207, has introduced his daughter to the ministry. And that introduction made an impact.
In July, Sophia Comerford made a personal donation to the Bridge Ministry.
During an informal ceremony in July at the Council 5207 Hall, where volunteers had gathered to assemble hygiene kits for the homeless before they gathered under the I-40 bridge, Sophia presented Deacon Maentz with $100 for the ministry.
The Sacred Heart Cathedral School sixth-grader explained that on Father’s Day in June the family’s dogs went missing, exiting the yard through an open gate. Unable to find the pets, Sophia began to worry they wouldn’t be found.
“I prayed to St. Anthony and said, ‘If you find my dogs, I’ll offer $100 I have to the poor. It was chore money and allowance money that I had been saving for nearly a year,” Sophia said.
When neighbors found the dogs and returned them, Sophia was eager to make good on her pledge.
“What I’m pleased with is in her moment of need she was asking for help from God and St. Anthony to intercede. And, just as importantly, she didn’t just get the help and move on. A hundred dollars for a little girl who is 11 years old is a lot of savings. The fact that she followed through and wanted to deliver on it makes me very proud,” Mr. Comerford said.
Deacon Sean Smith, chancellor of the Diocese of Knoxville, mentored Deacon Maentz during Deacon Maentz’s diaconate formation and has been familiar with the Bridge Ministry almost since its inception. And he also has volunteered.
He applauds the Maentzes for their determination in making the ministry effective.
And like other volunteers, Deacon Smith brings a family approach to the ministry.
“The greatest thing for me is watching my kids serve in this ministry. You always want to teach your children that God has given them the gift of humility. And then to see them use this gift in a way that helps those in need is an inspiration to me and my wife,” he said.
“I so enjoy the joy on their faces and the smiles they receive in return,” he added, referring to his two sons, Riley and Keegan, who attend Knoxville Catholic High School and Sacred Heart Cathedral School, respectively. “For elementary and high school students to witness that and share in that is a great gift to our children, an opportunity to serve in this great corporal work of mercy.”
Deacon Maentz and Christine Maentz, who encourage volunteers to get to know the people they are serving by striking up conversations with them and calling them by their names, believe the volunteers get as much or more from the ministry than the homeless people it serves.
“I’m so happy when I see young volunteers show up … even if it’s just for service hours. I know that they will be touched in some way, and my prayer is that they will grow up with a heart to serve, to serve those who have nothing to offer in return,” Mrs. Maentz said. “This experience taught me that misfortune happens to anyone. I’ve met and talked with many people that once had a very full life. Among them was a man who was once a very popular radio announcer from Alabama. He’d lost everything because of alcohol and then hard drugs. He had no idea how to get out of his current situation.”
The Maentzes are taking Bishop Stika’s oft-spoken verse to heart: be the face and hands of Jesus in all that you do. They also see the face and hands of Jesus in the street people they serve and in the people who serve them. It’s that presence of Christ that inspires them.
“It’s very difficult for me not to judge the people I meet. Some are grateful, and others act as if entitled to anything they can get for free. The ones that break my heart are those that appear hopeless that have given up on life as we know it. But I know Christ is in each one of these people, and someday I will be judged on how I treated them,” Mrs. Maentz said.