Vera Proctor

Vera WOW 1a

Vera Proctor is our Woman of the Week, nominated for her work leading FOCUS Minnesota, a charitable outreach of the Orthodox Church in the Twin Cities that provides basic-needs assistance to those who come to their doors. We asked her to tell you how she became the organization’s head: 

“I grew up in Chicago in a wonderful immigrant community where you helped your own: you fed ‘your’ people, you took them things, you helped them get furniture, and all that. There's nothing to disqualify this, but we were lovingly and charitably turned inward. So, I was elated when FOCUS–the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve–started, because it brought us to a point in the church (broadly speaking), where we were actually helping outside of our own church context. That shouldn't be such a revelation, but it felt like it. 

“Most of my adult working life has been in media work–marketing, advertising, broadcasting. I worked for Minnesota Public Radio for 13 years. I was laid off around 2009 during the financial downturn, along with so many of my other colleagues. They hired me back on short-term contracts three times to run the studio for the fundraising drives because I knew the players and I knew the studio. All this coincided around the time when FOCUS was getting started. 

“FOCUS got under way in Minneapolis and Saint Paul in 2010. The founders had some exploratory meetings, one of which was at our parish of Holy Trinity, which is in a low-income urban neighborhood. Once they decided that there was enough interest among potential donors, they wanted to hire a local director, someone to champion the idea of a pan-Orthodox charitable non-profit, responding to the needs of the poor in our community. After my husband and I attended an early FOCUS exploratory meeting, we were enthusiastic. At that meeting in January 2010 one of the early FOCUS organizers said, ‘What about you running this?’ I thought, ‘Where is that coming from? I have zero background in social services.’ A little later, we met up with him and some of the others from the meeting, and he did a full-court press to persuade me! I had a very uncomfortable night while I thought it over. I don't know exactly why I was even inclined to pursue it, but it has been 14 years now! This was a huge career change for me at the age of 52. I cannot tell you how often I used to get a job at some agency or station and people would say, ‘This must be your dream job!?’ But it always fell short, it never felt like a dream job. FOCUS has just been an enormously rich opportunity for me personally

“We started with absolutely nothing. No supplies, no equipment, no location nothing. We held our first dinner at a little non-denominational church in Saint Paul, and welcomed 31 people to eat. It just slowly built from there. But it has turned out to be one of the most enriching and satisfying things that I've ever done.” 


Our Woman of the Week is Vera Proctor, who was nominated for her work at FOCUS Minnesota (the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve). You see her here with faithful volunteers from St. George Coptic Church, and handing out lunchbags with volunteer Christine. We asked her to tell you what she would like you to know about FOCUS and the role it plays in the community: 

“When I was hired, my mandate was to create an organization that helped those in need, and involved Orthodox Christians in organized, focused charitable work of some kind or another. There aren’t a lot of FOCUS centers yet, but the number of centers is growing. They are meant to respond to the needs of either your city or your neighborhood, wherever they are planted. We provide the Orthodox with an opportunity. There are countless ways to serve out there, but this gives us an opportunity to fulfill Christ's Gospel teachings. 

“I've been an Orthodox Christian my whole life. Working at FOCUS has made me wish the church would embrace a more intentional, specific, uniquely intended goal to make service a more consistent and purposeful part of our Christian life. But I don't see it broadly. Liturgical worship is absolutely fundamental to the Body of Christ as a community action, but the Divine Liturgy itself is full of a subtext about serving, about action in the world. Christ’s teachings center around his example of service, yet I can’t think of a national Orthodox church conference where that has been a major topic of conversation. I don’t mean that everyone has to work in a FOCUS center out on the street with drug addicts, but to be guided by Church leadership to a sustained orientation towards this Christian characteristic would be meaningful, impactful, and salvific.  

Vera WOW 2a
Vera WOW 2b

“Once you start something like this, you have to be sure it is consistent. We live and die on our word here. I knew from the beginning that we had to develop this muscle in our Orthodox community, that to be a charitable outreach it wasn't dependent only on the women's auxiliary or the current youth group. Once you stick your neck out and say, ‘I'm going to give you a sandwich every Tuesday,’ we’ve invited them in. When they knock on our door, we have to have the sandwich ready. We have to sustain what we're doing, serving the actual needs of the people who are there. I've tried to make it so that when the churches or the church groups want to volunteer here, we have ways to engage them all.  

“In the very beginning, I would go around to visit all sorts of other nonprofits and organizations–big and little–and introduce myself and our mission. I went to a decommissioned Lutheran church because they had some programs there: homeless women overnight, a Meals on Wheels, and use of the church as a kind of service center. People were welcoming. I greeted a gentleman who was running the show that day. He said, ‘You're Orthodox?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘You guys don't do anything like this?’ I was stunned and said, ‘Well, we do now.’ I'm in a metro area where Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities are strong and we’re hardly as big as either of them. But we’ve established the Orthodox as a charitable force here. Our work provides the opportunity for Orthodox Christians to serve outside of our ethnic or jurisdictional enclaves. The Orthodox churches in our area are wonderfully cohesive and are used to working together. They are respectful and encouraging. They also know a good thing when they see it, whether that be the combined catechism classes or church festivals or something like FOCUS. It's a tight community. 

“At FOCUS Minnesota we’ve concentrated on basic needs assistance. That fills a gap for an individual or a family, whether they're housed or not. Basic needs assistance is very much the lowest rung on the ladder of life. It's food, it's underpants, it's socks, it’s utilities assistance and help with laundry, it's clothing to help people feel less desperate. Other FOCUS centers concentrate on other ways of helping. In Southern California, they have a warehouse where they do food distribution. In Cleveland, it is a men’s homeless shelter that provides 28 beds, in Houston a crisis nursery, and so on. The main driver of these activities is once you invite people in, you have to support that invitation. Finding ways to support this effort has been the hardest part of my job. It's the long haul. But I believe we’re going to be here as long as God allows us to be. I have wonderful volunteers who make this possible. For years, I was the only employee, but now I have two half-time employees and a wonderful group of volunteers. We own a building and are blessed beyond measure. It is evident to me every single day that we are here because God has blessed us to do this work, and is merciful to us.”

As always, we asked our Woman of the Week, Vera Proctor, to tell you about her morning routine. She is also sharing her icon corner with you. You see her here with her husband, Fr. Jonathan Proctor, in their parish: 

“My morning routine is absolutely motivated by our dog, who will come right up to me in bed! She is my alarm clock. I haven't had to set an alarm since our youngest graduated from high school. The dog wants breakfast, so I'm usually up by seven if she isn't too much in a hurry. We go downstairs, I let her out, and we pass my icon corner. That is my time for prayer in the morning. (I also pray during the day, out of desperation, out of frustration, out of happiness or out of need, confusion, or some other reason.) I'm able to start the day by praying for the needs of the people around me and for my family. I also offer thanksgiving to God that I have another day before me. My daily prayer always includes asking God to help me to know, and do, what’s right for the day. 

Vera WOW 3a
Vera WOW 3b

“Doggie and I have a routine of emptying the dishwasher and then getting breakfast. I make coffee and get into my day before I leave for work. I'm usually the first one up, then my husband will follow. If there's time, we'll have some coffee together, but then I'm off and running, and so is he.”

Thank you, Vera!