Fostering an Honorable Exchange: Better Way Detroit gives those in need the gift of work
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard…Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’” Matthew 20:1, 6-7
A few years ago, a man came to Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Detroit asking for help. The priest serving there, Fr. Marko Djonovic, was inspired to offer the man work for pay.
“I asked him to help me move the large cross in our church, and help clean up and do some other things,” said Fr. Marko. As they worked together, Fr. Marko got to know him. “I learned his story, and that he was living in an abandoned building.”
Father lent the man his cell phone to contact a local mental health agency, and he referred the man for housing and disability assistance. Sadly, the week after the man received his first disability payment, Fr. Marko learned he passed away.
“But, for the last five months of his life, he was able to live in a home, with some kind of dignity,” he said.
Father would continue to offer odd jobs to individuals in need. When he paid them, he would say to them: “This is your money. You worked for it.” In this way, Fr. Marko said he “fostered an honorable exchange”, adding he could see an immediate change in the demeanor of everyone he helped.
Father is a member of a new order of priests serving through the Detroit Oratory. The order bases their way of life on the teachings of St. Philip Neri. The order is only in the “novitiate phase” and not canonically approved as yet. “We are just in the beginning stages,” said Fr. Marko.
For his part in the order, one of Fr. Marko’s major tasks is to work with the poor. His early charitable efforts led him to start a ministry called Better Way Detroit. Since May 2018, he has helped hundreds of persons living on the streets and in homeless shelters in the city of Detroit. Fr. Marko regularly visits local hangouts for the homeless, shelters and spots where panhandlers are soliciting, offering them pay for a day’s work. He and his associate, Marcus Cobb, a friend and Vietnam veteran who once was homeless himself, transport those who accept the offer to the day’s designated work site, using a donated Ford Excursion sport utility vehicle.
In the beginning Better Way Detroit worked on cleaning up city parks.
“We collaborate with the Detroit Mayor’s office and they refer us to blighted properties, or to Detroit residents who need assistance on their homes,” said Fr. Marko.
A typical work day for the Better Way Detroit workers includes working at assigned areas until early afternoon and then returning to Our Lady of the Rosary for lunch and prayer.
At first Fr. Marko paid his workers with money from his own pocket. After a few months, he said things were working well. Better Way Detroit just needed a little publicity. So he enlisted a friend from another parish where he often serves, Our Lady Star of the Sea in Grosse Pointe Woods. His friend produced a video which today can be viewed on the ministry’s website.
Thanks to that video, the first official donation for the ministry followed from the Archbishop of Detroit, Allen H. Vigneron. After seeing the video, Fr. Marko said the Archbishop was “moved.”
“He loved the idea,” he said. “Then word got out, and more funding came in.”
Fr. Marko began enlisting organizational help from his workers. “In the beginning it was Marcus, but he is now involved in so many things, he can’t always join me,” said Fr. Marko. “So I try to find ways to empower people. Once I work with a person, and I get to know him, if I feel he is capable, he can serve as a co-supervisor.” With a little “coaching” these co-supervisors help Fr. Marko keep order among the workers, and make sure everyone is safe.
“It’s having an extra guy to delegate to,” Father explained. “They feel very honored to serve in this way. They help me make sure there are no power lines (where we work). They help encourage the guys to keep working. They help me with testing out tools, and handing out vests and gloves.”
Since its inception, Better Way Detroit has caught the attention of local and national media, with articles appearing in the Detroit Catholic, the Catholic News Agency and the National Catholic Register. Local Detroit celebrity Mitch Albom also filmed a video about the ministry on “The Heart of Detroit” program.
“We’ve gotten national attention in the Catholic media,” said Fr. Marko, adding he hopes the story spreads further. Recently the local outlet, FOX 2 News ran a piece about the ministry.
Those interested in learning more about Better Way Detroit, or in helping Fr. Marko with any of the ministry’s needs, can go to the Better Way Detroit’s website, betterwaydetroit.com. In addition to making a monetary donation, the ministry is in need of lunch and snack donations, bottled water, gift cards to stores like Home Depot, hand sanitizer, work gloves, and bags for cleanup work. Fr. Marko would also greatly appreciate anyone who might be able to donate a vehicle, such as a large van, to help transport workers to and from assignments. And anyone interested in joining the work efforts of Better Way Detroit is welcome!