ORLANDO | After retirement, Tom Gawronski sought a ministry to serve. He found the newly formed Lazarus Ministry at his parish, St. Margaret Mary in Winter Park. The ministry cares for residents of extended-stay hotels on Lee Rd. “I kind of viewed it as a to do list,” he said. “If I wanted to improve my chances of getting into heaven, I’d better help people.” He didn’t want to be the rich man in the parable of Lazarus.
Lazarus Ministry serves an estimated 200 people and developed after parishioners watched a film about families who struggle in these hotels in Kissimmee. It occurred to them there were people like this “living in their own backyard on Lee Rd.,” explained Gawronski. Following a year-long study of how these residents could be served, the ministry began in 2020 right before the COVID pandemic. The group started with school supplies and cleaning products, but now distributes much more.
“The reason this ministry has met such a need is because funding for assisting people who are precariously housed is limited,” explained Gawronski. “If you’re on the path to eviction, you can get funding for emergency help so you can bridge yourself for a month or so. If you’re on the street, there are resources that may help you get off the street. So, hotel residents are low on the triage list. People with a roof over their head are not at the top of the list. By the time you get to them, there may not be resources.”
Dispelling the myth that many of the poor are unemployed, he said, “Most people (at the hotels) are employed, just not making enough to save what’s needed to move out. Our ultimate mission is to move people out of hotels into suitable housing.”
In the past two years, the ministry helped four families find a home, including the Armstrong family who was first interviewed by Florida Catholic in January 2020.
After 25 years as a truck driver, Matthew Armstrong stopped working when his wife’s organs began to fail after a poisonous spider bite. She was the primary caregiver for their grown daughter at the time who has Rett syndrome, a condition that causes delay in physical aging appearance as well as mental development.
Hospital bills piled up and the family lived hand to mouth, hoping to keep shelter over their heads. “We were stuck,” Armstrong recalled.
“I never liked taking help because someone else might need it more,” he added. “But Tom (Gawronski) convinced me otherwise. He checks up on us and has become a real friend.”
The Armstrong family spent two years in a hotel before they had enough money to move into a mobile home. Thanks to food and other necessities provided by the Lazarus Ministry, they continued to save. The ministry gave them a hand-up that changed their life.
In January 2022, the family moved to their own home in Apopka. The ministry covered the first month’s rent, security deposit and start-up costs for utilities. “They pulled off a really good miracle and they got us everything – dishes, groceries, even furniture,” Armstrong said.
Then six months later, his wife died, but not before they had a small window to remember their life together and say goodbye.
“Raised Catholic, I always knew there was something more,” Armstrong said. After his wife died, he read the New Testament over and over again. He said he came to learn, “(Life) is according to His schedule, not yours. I had to adapt to that.” Through all the ups and downs, he says, “I see the Lord everywhere.”
With a permanent shelter, his daughter now qualifies for full-time care and Armstrong can begin looking for a job again.
As Gawronski reflects on the past four years, he acknowledges how the ministry has changed his own life. “This work has deepened my faith exponentially because nowhere in my life, other than my recently deceased mother, God rest her soul, have I ever seen such strong examples of faith in poor people in general.” He includes those he visits in prison ministry. “They hold firmly onto their faith because they have nothing else. Their strength and their faith are so inspirational to me.”
He and the other volunteers clearly see Jesus in His less fortunate children. “It’s really a gift to me to do this work and see the face of these people who are living in such dire circumstances and yet provide me with an example of what strong faith really is, whether they’re Catholic or not. It’s just amazing.”
By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, November 22, 2023