Better Way Detroit
Priest gives opportunities to city’s homeless, spruces up neighborhoods
by Lori Hadacek Chaplin
In May 2018, desiring to help the less fortunate, Fr. Marko Djonovic approached homeless men and women and offered them an hourly wage and lunch to clean up Detroit parks. He felt that exchanging work for pay — rather than charity — fostered dignity.
Work over handouts
Fr. Djonovic, pastor of the Catholic Church of St. Moses the Black in Detroit, told Catholic Digest, “It took me all of five minutes to fill up my car. From my experience, homeless persons prefer to work over handouts.”
Having the guts to get out and make a difference is how his ministry, Better Way Detroit, took off. And for the first couple months, Fr. Djonovic — who was at the time associate pastor at Our Lady of the Rosary parish — financed his ministry out of his own pocket. He’d pay workers $10 an hour to work alongside him beautifying parks, and he gave them lunch and offered them some prayer and counseling.
“A lot of times, the men wouldn’t even ask me how much I was paying. They’d just say, ‘We want to come help,’” he said.
The greater need
After seeing a video of Fr. Djonovic sharing the organization’s mission, Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron felt moved to give Better Way Detroit its first donation.
“What I find remarkable about Fr. Djonovic is his knack for connecting people and inspiring them to become a part of the mission Christ has given him,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “I find his ministry to be a powerful reminder to all of us of the indispensability of person-to-person engagement in our efforts to unleash the Gospel in southeast Michigan.”
The clean-up ministry was so well-received by the homeless, the understaffed city of Detroit, residents, and donors that Fr. Djonovic was able to expand. He and homeless crews now go out multiple times throughout the week. They not only clean up parks but also blighted neighborhoods.
“Honestly, that’s the greater need. Parks are wonderful — we need to clean the parks — but there are seniors and residents with children who are living amid vacant properties with overgrown shrubbery,” he explained. “These vacant properties attract illegal dumping, and it also can be a hideout for people with bad intentions. We’re making the neighborhoods safer and cleaner.”
In 2019, more than 150 homeless persons — mostly men — worked for Better Way Detroit.
Helps the homeless flourish
What motivates Fr. Djonovic to work so hard for the homeless? Love.
“I love them. I want to see the down-and-out flourish. I want to raise them up,” he said. “People need work to raise their sense of worth.”
Fr. Djonovic does his ministry because he wants the homeless to know that God and his people are not giving up on them.
“They’re not hopeless objects of pity. These are men and women who have a sincere desire to work and to be contributors to society,” he said.
Understands the homeless
Fr. Djonovic’s background gave him an understanding of what it’s like to struggle financially and to appreciate the value of work. His parents emigrated from Montenegro in southeastern Europe. “My father was 36 and my mom was 24 when they emigrated to this country. My mom has no education — she wasn’t allowed to go to school. My father has only an eighth-grade education,” Fr. Djonovic said. Fr. Djonovic recalls working hard and also a time when his father was briefly unemployed. “It was tough on him and tough on us,” Fr. Djonovic said. “Work is essential to life.”
In his 20s, Fr. Djonovic was given an even keener insight into how essential work is to the soul. That revelation helped him to fall in love with the Lord and to choose his priestly vocation. “I was working as an auto technician, seriously involved in the sport of boxing, and I was attending college. I thought my life was full and active, and I was content,” he said.
Unexpectedly, Fr. Djonovic experienced health problems, which halted his active life and his ability to work. During the ordeal he suffered, he realized how essential labor is to the well-being of the soul. “Most importantly, I came to know that I needed Jesus Christ in my life,” he said.
They’re not hopeless objects of pity. These are men and women who have a sincere desire to work and to be contributors to society
Many of the homeless feel like they can’t work because no one wants to hire them. For two months, Eric, 45, has been helping Fr. Djonovic. He was surprised when the priest approached him and asked him if he wanted a job.
“Sometimes we get turned down or overlooked for work because of the stigma of homelessness and because people don’t want to be bothered,” said Eric, who lives in a shelter. “Fr. Marko sees potential in each of us.”
The program has taught Eric responsibility, and he said Fr. Marko has shown him “that I can live a new life and that I can change.”
Barry, 50, is another one of the men that has benefited from Better Way Detroit. He said working with Fr. Djonovic has given him purpose.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship. We clean up the neighborhood, which makes us feel good and prepares us to have productive working lives and to become better citizens,” Barry said. “In turn, it helps young kids to be able to walk and play safely in the neighborhood. We’re unifying Detroit one home at a time and taking Detroit back by cleaning up one property at a time.”
Many of the residents come up to the workers and thank them. Barry recalls seeing one elderly woman approach Fr. Djonovic and say, “Thank you so much. We haven’t been able to see those three or four houses [concealed by overgrown brush] in over 10 years.”
Back on their feet
Working for Better Way Detroit is a transitional job. Fr. Djonovic helps the men and women find full-time employment. They also attend a Sunday fellowship with the priest, and being Catholic is not a requirement. “Fr. Marko goes out on a limb for us. He helps us find full-time employment if our work ethic is good and if we’re serious about changing,” said Barry, who recently started a construction job with full benefits.
Eric was also able to find full-time employment.
Work is crucial for the soul
St. John Paul II, in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (Through Work) — reflected on the value of work:
Work is a good thing for man — a good thing for his humanity — because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes “more a human being.” (LE, 9)
Following in his saintly predecessor’s footsteps, Pope Francis said in his general audience on May 1, 2013, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker:
Work, to use a metaphor, “anoints” with dignity, fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God, who has worked and still works, who always acts (see John 5:17).
In laboring with the homeless, Fr. Djonovic agrees. “I see the change within the men,” he said. “I see how work activates a person’s God-given potential.”