The Jesuit Institute South Africa premiered a documentary last week on the work of Holy Trinity Catholic Church’s engagement with the homeless. Matthew Charlesworth briefly explains the history of the parish’s engagement with the homeless of the inner-city in Braamfontein. The marvellous and generous work of the students from the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand has enabled a partnership between the University and Holy Trinity Church to form Trinity Health Services, a primary healthcare facility based at the Church. The clinic operates alongside the Church’s weekly soup-kitchen every second Monday evening, offering free medical and pharmaceutical care for the most marginalised members of the inner city.

If anyone has ever driven past Holy Trinity Catholic Church on a Monday evening they would be struck by the hive of activity - indeed Sunday’s are not the busiest day in this parish! But this is not a new phenomenon. In the early 2000’s staff and parishioners at Holy Trinity, the Jesuit parish in Braamfontein in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg, realised that more needed to be done for the urban homeless who were congregating in Braamfontein and needing care. The Society of St Vincent de Paul set-up a soup-kitchen that feeds the homeless every Monday evening (this is in addition to the daily feeding scheme from 11am-12pm Monday to Friday). But they needed more than just a meal so students took the intiative and a medical clinic was established which is staffed by volunteer medical students and staff.

The clinic is a partnership between the University of the Witwatersrand’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Holy Trinity Catholic Church. Funds were raised from both local and international donors to gradually establish the current facilities, which include customised examination rooms beneath the Church where patients can see a doctor privately, a pharmacy in the rectory, and a roof for the soup kitchen - so that this work can continue whatever the weather conditions.

The clinic now includes a fully functional and accredited pharmacy, thus allowing doctors and medical students to not only see and diagnose their patients, but to prescribe medicine which the patients receive (free) on-site. For more complex cases the doctors can refer the patients to other tertiary healthcare facilities.

In the realy days of his potificate Pope Francis called on the Church to become a “field-hospital”. Holy Trinity was already well on the way to being just that.

The documentary, directed by the Jesuit Institute’s Sr Katleho Khang, begins with the story and experience of those who are homeless and then proceeds to interview various stakeholders to build a picture of what is an amazing collaboration and act of charity. The commitment of the students and the fact that this initiative is still a student-run organisation is commended several times.

Part of the partnership with the University means that the project should also have a component of academic reflection and actual research. This is encouraged from the students’ involvement in the project. The documentary talks to one of the early authors of an initial research paper (‘HIV among the urban homeless’, published by the South African Journal of HIV Medicine) Fr Bruce Botha, who explains that their early research established that homelessness alone is not a significant risk factor in HIV infection. In fact, one’s employment status was a more predictable risk factor. As Botha explains “If you were employed you were less likely to do those kinds of things which would expose you to HIV”.

The documentary highlights the growth of Trinity Health Services and showcases their work among the homeless. Interviewees include a number of medical students, Adjunct Professor and Assistant Dean of Teaching and Learning at the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University, Professor Lionel Green-Thompson and Mrs Deanne Johnston, a lecturer in the Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology and the responsible pharmacist at Trinity Health Services. The current parish priest, Fr Graham Pugin, and volunteers and members of the St Vincent de Paul Society also talk about their role.

During this process volunteers and patients, members of the parish and the homeless have formed important relationships. The homeless themselves, in fact, requested that they gather together before the soup-kitchen and clinic in the Church hall to do Bible study. This quickly developed into what is now known as “Come Home Bible Study”.

About 100 members of the homeless population gather each week and share how the Word of God has touched their lives and where they find God on the streets. The parish volunteers – who offer a hot cup of tea to the group – are frequently overheard remarking on how much they learn about the Bible and God from the insights of the homeless. Attendance at this Bible study is not linked to the soup-kitchen or clinic’s services but is, instead, another example of how the homeless really do feel and see Trinity as their home.

The parish offers many other services to the homeless, including an Advent, Christmas and Easter Lunch. The Church is currently raising funds to build a shower and laundry facility for those who live on the streets.

Holy Trinity is also home to the African continent’s statue of ’the Homeless Jesus’ sculpted by Canadian artist, Timothy Schmalz. This too is a landmark and a visible reminder to all passers-by that the parish is home not only to the Chaplaincy of University Students, or the parishioners from Braamfontein, Parktown and surrounds, but also those who sleep on the streets. Many of them may not attend Sunday services but feel very much at home and are appreciative of the hospitality that is on offer.

If you are interested in donating to the work of Trinity Health Services please contact the Jesuit Institute SA.

This article is archived here from my work for the online publication, Spotlight.Africa which I wrote whilst working for the Jesuit Institute South Africa. Spotlight.Africa was a work of the Society of Jesus in South Africa from 2017-2021.

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