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 | By Nancy Rosebush Schertzing

‘When All Seems Lost, Don’t Give Up’

With Angels Outreach, Deacon Tony and Susan Provide a Safe Place for Flint Kids

“He fell in love with my voice over the phone,” Susan Verdun smiles as she remembers meeting her husband of 41 years. That was her first exposure to Deacon Anthony Verdun, Sr.’s guidance by the Holy Spirit. It wouldn’t be the last.

“I’ve learned to rely on the Holy Spirit,” Deacon Tony says simply. “I’ve learned to listen and ascertain what the Holy Spirit wants done.

“My mother and father wanted me to be a priest. They sent me to Divine Word Seminary in Ohio when I was 12, but I knew it wasn’t for me. I’m glad it turned out the way it did. I got to grow up with my family and be part of the second graduating class of Powers High School.

“I have great memories of growing up in Flint — watching movies downtown for 25 cents, hanging out with family. There was always something to do and someone to help. The Flint Journal did a story about my family because we had 14 kids — enough for a baseball team!”

Susan says, “We got married in 1980 at Sacred Heart Parish. Raising our four children, we could see that neighborhood kids needed a safe haven. Sacred Heart was in a poor section of Flint with few opportunities. So, in 1987, we set up a TV in the church basement and invited the kids from the neighborhood to join us. We showed a movie and served popcorn and hot dogs. That was the start of Angels Outreach Ministry.”

“A lot of the kids didn’t have coats,” Deacon Tony remembers, “and it was really obvious that most of them were hungry. Before long, we opened Fr. Blasko Hall and invited kids to play in the gym. Our boys’ basketball team, the Deacons, was pretty good! Beecher High School’s head coach, Michael Williams, played. Beecher just won back-to-back state championships! But all kids were welcome, regardless of skill.

“During that time, the Red and Blue Gangs were fighting for control. I remember some of the young fathers would come into the gym, look around without saying a word, then walk out. A couple minutes later, their kids would come bouncing in.

“This happened one night when a man named Juice let his young son join us. While the kids were playing basketball in the gym, a rival gang shot up Juice’s house. They killed Juice, his mother and his partner. Angels Outreach saved his little boy’s life.

“From then on, I always emphasize that we can work and play and pray together no matter our faith or what side we’re on. I believe the Church can help kids get to know each other so they can get together when they meet on the street, instead of shooting each other.”

Susan agrees. “Around this time, Tony had been working 10-hour days at General Motors and was taking evening classes at Ross Medical School to become a medical assistant. He was trying to support our family and the ministry because Sacred Heart didn’t have resources to help. I was at home raising our children and working on Angels Outreach when he told me he was going to become a deacon.”

Deacon Anthony nods. “I had been a lector at Sacred Heart for years, but lately it had just made me feel sad. Sister Joanne Chiaverini pulled me aside one Sunday and asked why I was looking so down. I told her I loved reading at church, but something in me was thirsting to read the Gospel. She got an excited look on her face and said, ‘Why, Tony, that’s a calling!’

“She and Father Phil Schmitter helped me enroll in the Diocese of Lansing’s diaconate program. For the next three years, I worked at GM all week and went to classes in Lansing every weekend. Susan had moved to Flint in the 1970s to work at GM, so she went back to working first shift while I worked second. Sometimes, we would wave as we passed each other on the road. Susan kept everything — family, work, Angels Outreach — running.

“My greatest challenge was studying. I felt everyone in class knew more than I did. And, honestly, they did. I really didn’t know a lot about Catholicism or the Bible when I began. It was like the Holy Spirit said, ‘Here you go’ and I just fell in.

“Father Tom Firestone guided me through my training at St. John Vianney. He was patient, honest, direct; and he trusted me and allowed me to learn by doing. I can’t thank him enough for preparing me so well.

“Becoming an ordained deacon in 1992 put it all together for me. I remember when Bishop [Kenneth] Povish laid his hands on my head, it felt like God was opening a book. The Holy Spirit has guided me in writing page-by-page every day since — serving at my parishes, working in prison ministry and running Angels Outreach. Now that I’m retired from GM, I am able to serve as chaplain at McLaren Hospital.”

“In 2008, when Sacred Heart closed and Bishop Boyea moved Deacon Tony’s assignment to St. John Vianney,” Susan explains, “the Angels Outreach Ministry went with us. We had been funding and hosting it ourselves, but once St. John Vianney became our new home, we didn’t have to handle it all alone. Now volunteers, individual donors and even corporations support the ministry through the parish.

“Three Saturdays each month, Angels Outreach hosts something for area kids. They play basketball, volleyball and pool in the gym, or learn arts and crafts or other games in the parish hall. Peer groups get together, and we get parents involved as much as we can. The third Saturday, we do ‘Camping Out with Jesus,’ where kids roast marshmallows and hot dogs, watch Bible-based cartoons and play Bible trivia. Plus, we do three or four field trips a year.

“Our biggest events are the Christmas and Easter parties. We have between 200 and 300 families join us for these. Every Holy Week, I boil 500 eggs so our little ones can color them and take some home. Volunteers from area parishes and Powers High School help.”

“We’ve had hundreds of at-risk children come through our ministry over the years. Those kids have kids, so now we’re seeing multiple generations. Lots of times we’ll have adults come up in the community and ask, ‘Don’t you remember me?” Deacon Tony laughs. “I usually say, ‘Well not just now, but help me think.”

“That happened the other day,” Susan says. “Years ago, we had a young girl, about 15, come into Angels Outreach carrying a knife and making sure everyone saw it. It didn’t take long to see she was hungry and scared. There were just too many of them at home, so we fed her and made her welcome. When she got pregnant, I took diapers to her house to help out, but we lost touch.

“The other day, I went into McDonald’s for lunch and the manager stopped me. She said, ‘I remember you, Mrs. Verdun.’ And I could see it was her, all grown up in a successful career!

“That’s why we’re still doing this ministry. After 34 years and hundreds of kids, Deacon Tony has received the Sybyl Atwood and Servus Dei awards, and a proclamation giving him the Key to the City. But we would do it even if we only had two children. We want kids and the community to know even when all seems lost, don’t give up. Keep moving and listening to the Holy Spirit.”

Visit the Catholic Community of Flint website, FLINTCATHOLIC.ORG, to learn more about this ministry. All donations go directly into serving impoverished children and teens. To support their efforts, call St. John Vianney Parish at 810.235.1812, or write to Deacon Anthony at St. John Vianney, 2415 Bagley St., Flint, MI 48504.