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'No loss of learning about love': Street ministry serves spiritual needs of Portland's homeless

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'No loss of learning about love': Street ministry serves spiritual needs of Portland's homeless

PORTLAND — As the sun began to top the urban horizon last Thursday morning, splashing warmth on the cold bricks of Monument Square, Mair Honan, a small, unassuming 62-year-old woman, was roaming the streets.

Honan, dressed in a purple wool overcoat and wearing a large cross around her neck, noticed a homeless man staggering up the sidewalk near Longfellow Books.

Rather avoiding the disheveled man like others who walked by, she honed in, approaching him directly.

"How are you doing today?" she said.

The man replied he had just finished begging for change and was now going to look for some cigarettes. Honan suggested he use the money to buy himself some food.

He replied, "That ain't exactly what I planned on using it for."

Rather than preach to him, Honan, known as "Pastor Mair" to the homeless, took the comment in stride.

"Take care," she said. "God bless."

Honan later explained that her goal is to not push homeless people toward an end, but to be there for them in the moment, giving them something they often lack: respect and an authentic personal interaction. 

For the last four years, Honan has been the face of Grace-Street Ministry, an outreach ministry offering consistent, compassionate pastoral presence to the Portland's homeless and marginalized residents. 

She spends her Tuesday and Thursday afternoons wandering the Old Port looking for homeless people, not to convince them to turn their lives around or put them in social programs, but to tend to their spiritual needs.

"Sometimes their hearts need to open up a little bit," Honan said. "I just try to be loving and open-hearted. You can't just say, 'I love you'; It's phony. You need to act that way in terms of really feeling it."

Honan walked from Monument Square to the Nickelodeon Theater, then up Congress Street to the Eastland Park Hotel. After a short trip down High Street, she turned right on Cumberland Avenue and didn't stop until reaching Preble Street Resource Center.

Honan is a regular face at homeless shelters, having a pastoral presence at the Woman's Overnight Shelter, Oxford Overnight Shelter, Preble Street and the Wayside Soup Kitchen on various days of the week. 

On Sunday afternoons, Honan leads an outdoor prayer service, weather permitting, at the Wayside Soup Kitchen. She also gives her cell phone number to the homeless, so they have someone to talk to when they feel like all hope is lost.

Honan graduated from the Bangor Theological Seminary in her mid-50s. Prior to that, she was psychological nurse and a drug and alcohol counselor.

To be ordained after graduating from the seminary, Honan said, she would have had to have found a home church with which to affiliate.

"I never thought that was where I was meant to go," she said.

Instead, Honan traveled to Massachusetts and volunteered at the Common Cathedral, a ministry for the homeless at Boston Common. 

"You hear a lot about the spirit leading you," she said. "Sometimes it's obvious – that was certainly the case here."

Upon her return to Maine, Honan met with the Rev. Karen Christenson, a homeless shelter volunteer, and the two decided to establish a street ministry. After two years working together, Christenson retired to become a part-time minister in Buxton, leaving Honan to work the streets alone, a task she performs fearlessly – and without incident.

Since establishing itself as a nonprofit in 2007, Grace-Street Ministry has grown to include a Board of Directors and now accepts interns and volunteers from students at the Bangor Theological Seminary.

Honan said last year was the first time Grace-Street Ministry has met its annual budget of $30,000, allowing her to take a part-time salary.

Honan hopes it will be easier to meet that budget again this year, since Grace-Street was invited to take part in the 2010 Feinstein Challenge, which distributes $1 million annually to agencies that serve the poor.

Through the end of April, any donation to Grace-Street will be matched by the Rhode Island-based Feinstein Foundation.

Donations help Honan buy tents, children's clothes, used bikes, Trac Phone minutes, sneakers and Dunkin' Donut cards for the homeless. Even the simplest of gifts, like a tarp, are moving gestures for the homeless, she said. 

At Preble Street, Honan was welcomed like a celebrity. One man in a wheelchair told her how much he appreciated a tarp she bought him during this rainy month of March. Another man thanked her for helping him get a copy of his birth certificate, while a woman in a wheelchair asked about a bed Honan was trying to acquire.

"At this point, we're not new on the street," Honan said. "It's almost like, since we've been around, some of those barriers are gone."

But it is not only the spiritual needs of the homeless Honan hopes to serves. She said she hopes her work will bring her closer to the Divine by practicing unconditional love for her fellow human beings, regardless of their lot in life.

"I learn something every week about myself or pain in the world," she said. "If it ever becomes an ego trip, I will stop." 

"There is no loss of learning about love," she added. "It's wonderful work."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net