Mercy and Justice Campaign History | Project HOME

Mercy and Justice Campaign History


In the fall of 2014, as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) planning group were preparing for the WMOF and the Papal Visit in September 2015, Archbishop Charles Chaput reached out to Sister Mary Scullion of Project HOME, inviting her to form and chair a special committee that would address issues of homelessness and hunger.  The idea for such a committee was a response to Pope Francis’ strong public witness to issues of compassion and justice, and his constant call to the church and to the world to reach out to those who were poor and marginalized.  The leadership of the WMOF understood that such an initiative was an appropriate part of planning for and welcoming the Holy Father to Philadelphia.

What follows is an account of the work of the WMOF Hunger and Homelessness Committee, under the leadership of Project HOME, and the Mercy and Justice Campaign.

Formation of the Committee

Through September and October, under the leadership of Donna Farrell, Sister Mary Scullion, with assistance from staff at Project HOME, began forming the Hunger and Homelessness Committee.  Anne Ayella, Director of Nutritional Development Services at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, was willing to function as co-chair and help in outreach to potential Committee members.  The full Committee, which convened for its inaugural meeting on October 24, 2014, was comprised of various social service leaders (including from the Archdiocese), current and former city officials, nonprofit leaders, community volunteers, and persons with experience of poverty, hunger, and homelessness.  While the bulk of the Committee was local, it included some national representatives, from key advocacy organizations and the judiciary who could play an important role in the Committee’s eventual work. (For the full -committee list, see Appendix A.)

The formal mandate of the Committee, which was originally drafted by Donna Farrell and the WMOF was the following:

  1. Working with organizers and city officials to ensure that persons who are homeless are treated with dignity and respect as the city prepares to welcome visitors from around the world;  
  2. Identifying opportunities to influence civic and corporate leaders, parishioners and citizens in our region to adopt the Holy Father’s emphasis on care for our sisters and brothers struggling with poverty, hunger, and homelessness;  
  3. Identifying opportunities during the WMOF for highlighting existing charitable groups and/or efforts, and 
  4. Determining long term opportunities following the WMOF to benefit families in the region who face poverty, homelessness and hunger. 

Early Public Outreach

The initial public announcement of the Hunger and Homelessness Committee was in an op-ed published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 16, 2014.   In that same op-ed, people were invited to attend Philadelphia Homeless Memorial Day on December 17, 2014.  This is an annual event that commemorates homeless and formerly homeless persons who passed away during the year, and calls for a renewed commitment to work to end homelessness.  The -Hunger and Homelessness Committee co-sponsored and promoted the 2014 event, and used it as an initial event to raise awareness of homelessness in our city in light of the Pope’s imminent visit.

Oscar Romero Day of Commitment

Even as the overall plan for the –Hunger and Homelessness Committee was still in formation, the Committee organized a public event on March 24, 2015, the 35th anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero.  To commemorate this important church leader who was outspoken in his call for solidarity and justice, the Committee hosted the Oscar Romero Day of Commitment.  Local business, civic, political, and religious leaders were invited to visit shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens to engage with persons struggling with poverty as a way to get a better understanding of the human and systemic dimensions of the issue.  In advance of the Day of Commitment, Archbishop Chaput wrote an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer about Romero, stressing his love for those on the margins and our need to respond to those who are poor in our community.  Twenty-one persons visited twelve different sites.  Participants reported that the event was powerful and eye-opening, and the event garnered much media attention.

The Undoing the Knots Project – Early Phase

Early on in our envisioning of the mission of the Committee, we became aware of Pope Francis’ special devotion to Our Lady Undoer of Knots.  We contacted the highly renowned artist Meg Saligman, who had previously collaborated with Project HOME on art installations, to envision a public art project that could capture the spirit of the Undoing the Knots concept.  Such an art project would be designed as a tribute to Pope Francis and a vehicle to raise public awareness of issues of hunger, homelessness, and the reality of human struggles that we all share.

The Committee affirmed Meg’s proposal for a community process that would result in a public art installation based on the Undoing the Knots theme.  Project HOME commissioned this work thanks to the generosity of John and Janet Haas and Leigh and John Middleton.  Starting in the spring, Meg and some of her art associates began visiting shelters, recovery houses, food panties, and soup kitchens.  They invited participants to write on a cloth strip their “knot” or struggle.  Eventually, these knot workshops happened in a wide variety of venues, including churches, synagogues, and mosques, as well as in public spaces.  Meanwhile, the Mercy and Justice website provided a venue for people to share their knots online.  Even in its early stage, the Undoing the Knots project generated much media attention and public interest.  The collection of knots would continue throughout the summer into the fall, eventually to be part of a public art installation.

The Mercy and Justice Campaign

By late spring, the Hunger and Homelessness Committee had formulated an overall integrated campaign to fulfill its mission.  It was called the Mercy and Justice Campaign, and was comprised of three components: 

  • The Francis Fund
  • The Campaign for Justice
  • The Undoing the Knots Project

The full campaign was publicly announced at a press conference on June 22, 2015, which took place on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which would be the primary public venue for events during the Papal Visit. 

To enhance the work of the Mercy and Justice Campaign, Project HOME commissioned the services of Message Agency to create a website (, which would have the capacity to receive donations for the Francis Fund and could link to web-based advocacy action. Project HOME also hired a new staff person, Brigid McCloskey, to oversee an overall social media campaign, using Facebook and Twitter to expand our support base and communicate our efforts.  Several Project HOME staff members, from Accounting, Development, Information Technology, and other departments, helped in the strategizing and implementation of technical aspects of the Campaign.

The Committee also formed specialized working groups to enhance the Mercy and Justice Campaign:

  • A Communications Committee, made up of professional and experienced media and communications experts, would help develop and implement overall communications strategies up to and throughout the WMOF and Papal Visit.
  • The Hunger and Homelessness Committee also called together an interfaith working group, comprised of clergy and laypeople who represented different religious traditions in our region:  Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim. Over the months, members of this group supported the Campaign in many ways:  speaking and leading blessings at public events; participating in various communication and outreach efforts, both to the general public and to their respective faith communities; raising money for the Francis Fund; and promoting advocacy efforts in our Campaign for Justice.

One particular project that drew on these subcommittees and was vital to the public outreach for the Mercy and Justice Campaign was the production of a short video, produced by halfGenuis.  This three-minute video featured a wide variety of persons, local and national, from various faith traditions, sports and entertainment celebrities, and others urging people to support the Campaign.

Committee members and donors also arranged for large Mercy and Justice signs to be put on various billboards around town, as well as on Pepsi trucks, and on other venues.

Throughout the summer, volunteers with the Mercy and Justice campaign participated in various “Pope-Ups,” or Mercy and Justice Days of Action.  Using the pop-up photo of Pope Francis and wearing bright yellow and blue Mercy and Justice T-shirts, the teams went to various public areas in Center City and West Philadelphia, inviting people to make a donation to the Francis Fund and send a letter to their congressional representatives.  Similar days were organized on various college campuses in the Greater Philadelphia area.

The Francis Fund

The Francis Fund was established as a time-limited special fund to address the urgent and concrete needs of persons struggling with poverty, hunger, and homelessness in the Philadelphia region and Camden in the spirit of Pope Francis’ own special compassion and mercy for our most vulnerable sisters and brothers.   A special subcommittee was commissioned to develop and implement a process for the Francis Fund.  

The Francis Fund was operated by Project HOME (in lieu of setting up a separate nonprofit entity), but Project HOME was not eligible to apply and would not receive any money raised for the Francis Fund.  Every dollar raised by the Francis Fund went directly to designated projects to address these critical needs.  It was determined that most grants would range from $5,000 to $15,000, though for many groups larger grants would be given to empower them to make significant expansion in their programs and services.

The subcommittee reached out to over fifty regional ministries and organizations inviting them to apply for funding.  There were groups that we knew were reputable, doing urgent work, and had a strong commitment not only to service but to empowerment and upholding the dignity of the persons they serve.

In the end, 57 organizations and ministries received grants from the Francis Fund.  (See Appendix H for more details on recipient organizations.) These groups represented many sectors of our community, including our various faith traditions – Protestant and Catholic, Jewish and Muslim – as well as many excellent nonreligious nonprofit organizations.  They are serving a wide variety of persons, and meeting many diverse and immediate needs:  persons struggling to feed their families, persons working to break the cycle of homelessness, persons in recovery from addiction and mental illness, women trying to break free from abuse and trafficking, day laborers and low-income persons seeking real economic supports, youth, ex-offenders struggling for stability and opportunity.  The exact nature of the grant was given with the strategic goal not just of additional funding for current services, but in most cases allowing the organization to expand its capacity for the long run, e.g. building a second residence for new program participants; expanding kitchen capacity to increase the number of meals provided; hiring staff who could provide previously unavailable services.  The overall hope was that the Fund would create a wider net of services for sisters and brothers in need.  (See below for a financial report on the Fund.)

The Campaign for Justice

The Hunger and Homelessness Committee recognized that an authentic response to the spirit of Pope Francis would also include a call to systemic change and social justice. Working with local and national advocacy partners (including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, NETWORK, and the National Alliance to End Homelessness) the Committee - drafted a comprehensive statement entitled “Pope Francis and the Pursuit of the Common Good in the United States,” which urged national elected officials to respond to the Holy Father’s visit and challenge by transcending partisan difference and developing legislation that addresses the needs of poor Americans and supports the common good. The statement outlined a vision of key elements of a just society and the common good, including affordable housing, access to food, opportunities for education and meaningful employment, access to quality healthcare, and a commitment to inclusion of groups on the margins,  for example persons with disabilities, ex-offenders, and immigrants. This statement was sent, with a cover letter from Sister Mary Scullion and Archbishop Charles Chaput, to every member of Congress, and to the White House.

We also sent the letter out to numerous regional and national organizations, urging them to sign on to the statement and help promote it to their legislators.  In the end, the Mercy and Justice Statement had 131 organizational sponsors.

With support from Project HOME’s Public Policy and Advocacy Department, we established a web-based message that could be directed to specific Congressional representatives.  Working through our co-sponsoring organizations, our network of supporters, and social media, we sent this link out, urging people to contact their legislators with a parallel message of responding to the visit of Pope Francis by developing bipartisan legislation that would promote justice for those in poverty.

Throughout the summer and fall, we engaged in outreach to various elected officials from Pennsylvania and Delaware, asking them to support the Mercy and Justice agenda.  We shared with them several public policy proposals that the Committee had developed, working with our national advocacy partners.

On September 22, 2015, members of the Mercy and Justice Campaign, including several formerly homeless persons, travelled to Washington DC to attend the White House ceremony welcoming Pope Francis to the United States.  We also organized a reception in conjunction with Faith in Public Life, to mobilize support for the Mercy and Justice vision.  Many elected officials were invited, and two Senators did attend and shared reflections:  Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, and Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia.

On October 26, 2015, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) came to Philadelphia, where he gathered with Sister Mary Scullion of Project HOME and local youth service providers, calling on the federal government to increase funding to dedicate resources for transitional and permanent housing for homeless youth.

The Knotted Grotto

As thousands of “knots” were collected over the summer, Meg Saligman worked with her artistic team to create The Knotted Grotto, next to the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.  The knots were tied on to the wooden dome-like structure, with additional knots on lines leading to the Basilica walls and dome.  The Grotto featured a reflecting pool on the inside, and a full-sized replica of the original German painting “Our Lady Undoer of Knots” on the Basilica wall.  In addition, there was special lighting to illuminate the Basilica Dome at night, with images of knots and hands. 

A press conference and interfaith blessing service was held on September 3, 2015 to formally open the Knotted Grotto.  A large crowd of visitors, supporters, and media were on hand to hear prayers and music and a reading of some “knots.”

When the Grotto was open, a volunteer station was set up inside the courtyard.  Volunteers handed out knots for people to write on, as well as prayer cards featuring the image of Our Lady Undoer of Knots.  Visitors were also able to make donations to the Francis Fund and write letters to their Congressional representatives.  They could also purchase WMOF shirts and other items from Project HOME’s Social Enterprise program.

The Knotted Stole

In a parallel project inspired by Pope Francis’ devotion to Our Lady Undoer of Knots, one member of the Hunger and Homelessness Committee created the Knotted Stole project.  Lori Lasher, an experienced weaver, similarly went out to shelters, soup kitchens, prisons, and other sites.  She too collected people’s “knots” or struggles, by asking them to write them in a special journal, and to tie a small knot.  These knots were woven into a special stole, which would incorporate the hair of fourteen different animals.  The hope and intention was to present this stole of knots to Pope Francis, so he could lift all these struggles in prayer as he said Mass.  The journals with persons’ written struggles were beautifully bound and would also be presented to the Holy Father.

Support for People on the Streets

As state above, one component of the Hunger and Homelessness Committee’s mandate was:  Working with organizers and city officials to ensure that persons who are homeless are treated with dignity and respect as the city prepares to welcome visitors from around the world;  

In order to fulfill this mandate, the Committee included two long-time civil rights lawyers, who had extensive experience in protecting the rights of persons experiencing homelessness.  Working with a group of persons who were formerly homeless and with City officials, they held several meetings with the City’s Office of Emergency Management, which was working with all appropriate agencies, including the Secret Service, on the security plan for the Papal Visit.

During the summer and early fall, special teams of Project HOME residents and outreach workers began engaging persons living in Center City, particularly on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, to hear their concerns and hopes and ideas for the Papal Visit.

Though communication was often slow and uneven, a plan was developed that entailed outreach workers being present as persons on the streets were cleared out for the set-up of the main security perimeter.  All persons who were homeless on the streets were to be assured that they would be welcome to return to the Parkway when the security gates opened to the public.  For those who did not want to return to the Parkway, additional beds at various sites were made available.  Some tickets to the Papal Mass were distributed to some of the persons who live on the Parkway.

Another part of the effort was to try and assure access to meals that would normally be provided on the Parkway.  After extensive planning, a small number of vouchers were made available to homeless persons.  Some groups were able to access the Parkway to provide their normal services.  Efforts to create an alternative site for meal service for other meal providers did not work out.

In the days leading up to and through the Papal Visit, through the extraordinary efforts of outreach teams from Project HOME, there were no negative incidents affecting persons who were homeless.  Clearing the security areas went smoothly; many persons were able to find alternative places to stay, if desired; and a small number of persons were given the opportunity to participate in events that weekend.

In addition, the WMOF hired people who experienced homelessness to work in the Call Center and assist with preparations for this historic event.

The Community Table

On September 10, 2015, the Hunger and Homelessness Committee partnered with groups addressing hunger led by Anne Ayella and Tracey Specter and held another public education event, the “Community Table.”  Dozens of politicians, business leaders, religious leaders, and community members gathered for a common meal and presentations and personal testimonies on food insecurity in anticipation of Pope Francis’ visit. The evening gave people of various backgrounds the opportunity to learn from one another and share ideas on how to address the problems faced by those who struggle with hardship.

The Week of the WMOF and Papal Visit

During the World Meeting of Families, as visitors started coming in large numbers to Philadelphia, the Knotted Grotto experienced a massive influx of visitors – hundreds every hour. The number of knots grew dramatically, to over 150,000.  We continued to receive donations to the Francis Fund and collect letters to Congress, though most people engaged in the spiritual act of tying their knots up and (usually) reading the knots of another person and offering a prayer.

The high point of the entire Campaign was undoubtedly the Holy Father’s personal visit to the Grotto, which took place on Sunday afternoon, on his way to the Papal Mass.  Archbishop Chaput brought Pope Francis to the Grotto where Sister Mary Scullion greeted him and briefly explained the vision of the Grotto.  She also gave him the Knotted Stole.  The Holy Father spent a moment in quite prayer and blessed the Grotto and the thousands of prayers and struggles gathered there.

Winding Down the Mercy and Justice Campaign

In the weeks following the WMOF and the Papal Visit, Project HOME and the Hunger and Homelessness Committee continued to raise final donations for the Francis Fund and to direct visitors to the Knotted Grotto. Many people and groups from around the country continued to inquire about the Knotted Grotto for several weeks.

On October 7, 2015, the Committee held a press conference to formally close the Knotted Grotto and to announce the success of the Francis Fund. Interfaith leaders offered prayers, and Sister Mary Scullion stressed the importance of continuing the spirit of Mercy and Justice, even as the Campaign comes to an end. It was also publicly announced that the 150,000-plus “knots” would be used as insulation for Project HOME’s development of its next permanent supportive housing facility. The Grotto structure itself would be relocated to the grounds of Project HOME’s new Francis House of Peace residence, which was due to open in a few weeks.

On November 7, 2015, a closing “Celebration of Mercy and Justice” was held at the Independence Visitors Center. Over 150 persons were in attendance, and through a video and speeches, the overall campaign was celebrated. Checks were distributed to the Francis Fund recipient organizations who were in attendance (the remainder were mailed out). People participated in a special litany using quotes from Pope Francis during his U.S. visit, with the response “May we be persons of Mercy and Justice.”

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