Homelessness is a Serious Challenge: Sister Karen Bland Steps Up and Invites Others Along
For the last seventeen years, Sister Karen Bland, Benedictine Sisters of Chicago (OSB), has served as Executive Director of Grand Valley Catholic Outreach in Grand Junction, Colorado. She is known throughout the state for her leadership in preventing and ending homelessness. Sister Karen was recently selected to participate in the Sisters in Public Life Project, created to strengthen the public voices of women religious who are working for social justice.
How would you describe your ministry and your role?
Grand Valley Catholic Outreach tries to find shelter for people, and has a huge program that helps keep people from becoming homeless when they are faced with evictions. We have built 63 apartments for individuals who have been chronically experiencing homelessness. We offer financial aid, new books for children, a community soup kitchen, free clothing and food banks, transitional and permanent housing, an adult day center, and counseling for women who struggle with homelessness and sobriety. Our efforts are designed to offer dignity and respect to each person who enters our doors.
My role is to empower and encourage a staff of 12 and a corps of more than 500 volunteers. A central part of my work is to gain the necessary resources to be able to help others. I’ve done it by asking people to be a part of this ministry. All of us have an inherent need to give. We extend an invitation to allow others to give in a manner that is meaningful to them, and they have responded with great generosity.
You are a Benedictine sister. How would you characterize Benedictine values?
Over the centuries, a strong value for Benedictines has been hospitality. Hospitality means making a person feel comfortable and wanted and included. Stewardship calls us to hold each gift given to us, whether for ministry or otherwise, as sacred. Learning is also a great value. As we learn, we become aware of who we are and who we are meant to be and also who the other is. We are able to see others as God-centered beings. God is within them whether they know it or not. The value of prayer is at the center of it all - our ability to attend to God’s presence in our lives.
Tell us about the role of prayer in your life.
I find myself talking to God frequently and say to myself, “I wish I had talked to God more when I was younger.” When you are the director of an agency as large as ours, you’re going to have a number of conflicts and difficulties. Through prayer, I put myself in God’s hands and wait for guidance. I could not do what I do if it were not for God working through me.
When you think of a brave woman, who comes to mind?
I served in a ministry of education for nearly 40 years. As a young woman I was mentored by Sister Laura, a woman whose IQ was off the wall. She was brilliant and she exuded a humility in the sense of knowing who she was and what gifts she had. She used them for the good of others and she also developed the gifts of others. She led the racial integration of our school long before it became a priority for the Church and for society. And she created opportunities for other sisters, including opportunities she never had. She sent me to study in Spain, Mexico and Quebec. She was a woman whose wisdom, compassion and love touched everyone.
What would a world that is truly just be like?
For me, each person has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But you have to be able to obtain those rights. And that happens when we can fulfill our need for food, clothing and shelter. It’s food for your body but also spiritual food when one can move beyond the struggle for existence to being able to appreciate, enjoy, and interact with the beauty that surrounds us. At Grand Valley Catholic Outreach we try to facilitate the opening of a pathway to greater justice for each of our guests.