Dear Sister and Brother Vincentians,
Peace be with you. I hope and trust that you have had a safe and enjoyable summer. Hard to believe that Labor Day is straight ahead!
This month I had the privilege of participating in our Society’s Invitation for Renewal #33 in St. Louis. It provided a unique, four day opportunity to immerse myself in the Vincentian spirit of Vincent, Louise, Frederic, and Rosalie. I deepened my understanding of our Mission, Vision, and Society Values. And perhaps above all, the experience challenged the thirty Vincentian leaders who attended to renew the Society today and beyond. It allowed me, as part of a wonderful group of people, to pray, grow spiritually, and perhaps, above all, ponder about what lies ahead for our Society and our Council.
In that spirit, I share a few core reflections from my experience. I do so as one lay person to others because I am more convinced than ever that our journey back to God is a communal effort – i.e. we are on this journey – or should be – together. I encourage anyone motivated to share insights to do the same.
This month’s Conference Connection focuses on the concept of “neighbor”. For the reasons set forth herein, that term should include everyone.
The term “neighbor” is at the core of our Church and our Society. Both teach us to love God and to love neighbor. The former seems rather clear. Neither our Church nor our Society, however, seems to define the latter clearly. Rather, Jesus taught us this term through a well-known gospel: The Good Samaritan, Luke 10: 25 – 37. I assume all know it well. In it, a lawyer asks Jesus about inheriting eternal life. Jesus first asks him to recite the law as he understands it. After he does so correctly, the lawyer then asks Jesus to define the term neighbor, i.e. “who is my neighbor?”
Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan. In it, unlike the priest and Levite who walk by the badly injured man, it is the Samaritan who chooses to act with great compassion to a stranger in need, i.e. he acts in a neighborly way.
The gospel itself, perhaps by intent, is rather ambiguous. This is particularly so if we consider it from the perspectives of the three main characters.
a) The Lawyer – One can sense that the lawyer is trying to establish a loophole. A more narrow definition of neighbor would then allow him to reason, “this person in need is not a neighbor. So I can continue to scorn him or, more likely, just generally to disregard him.” Sound familiar?
Those seeking loopholes to define our neighbor could argue that Jesus meant that we should help only those others who, like the man who fell victim to the robbers, are “sufficiently” injured or in need. If so, then we have the right to make that threshold decision, e.g. if sufficiently injured, help. If not, ignore.
From a strictly Vincentian standpoint, Rule 1.9 provides that Vincentians not judge those they serve. On occasion, do we nonetheless (e.g. a loophole of whether a person really deserves our assistance)?
In response to the attorney, why didn’t Jesus just say that “everyone” is your neighbor and that everyone should be a neighbor? Arguably, He did, in two respects – e.g. anyone in need – neighbor as “object”, and those who choose to act neighborly – neighbor as “subject”.
We know that our world is jammed with people in need, i.e. in fact, everyone has needs. In light of this reality, there should not be a practical difference between “everyone” and “neighbor” as Jesus used that term in this gospel. Clearly, we cannot help everyone. Our limits on resources and time ensure that. Those realities, however, should not detract from or narrow our broad sense of who our neighbors are.
b) The Beaten Man – a neighbor in need – the beaten man first sees a priest and then a Levite walk by unmoved by his grievous suffering. Then a Samaritan, the dreaded enemy, approaches him. Rather than kill him, however, the Samaritan provides the man compassionate care and attention. The beaten man had needs. One can imagine his sense of relief when a neighbor chose to help him, especially one who appeared to be his enemy! The Samaritan chose to be a neighbor.
c) The Samaritan – a neighbor dedicated to others’ needs – The Samaritan makes a truly inspirational choice. He chooses to help a total stranger, not because the beaten man “deserved” to be helped, but simply because of who he chose to be: a neighbor. He did so even though the person in need hailed from another region, race, religion, or ethnic origin.
The Samaritan didn’t ponder whether the man in need deserved to be helped. He didn’t say, “I would help, but I am busy and in a hurry.” He basically said, through his actions, “Here I am to help this person.” How truly inspirational. Similarly, Rule 1.4 expressly provides that “The Society serves those in need regardless of creed, ethnic or social background, health, gender, or political opinions.” It calls upon us to choose to be neighbors. How truly inspirational as well!
Neighbors choose to help others. In that important respect, we should truly care about all other people, e.g. refugees, financially strapped, homeless, even fellow Vincentians and Non-Vincentians. As Vincent taught, “God sends us to the Poor. The Poor send us back to God.”
One final thought on this parable. Like Jesus on the Cross, the man in need was beaten, bloodied, and left to die. So was Jesus. Each and every time we choose to help another, we honor the memory of a vulnerable Jesus. Choose to live and act as neighbors. Our splintered nation and world needs many, many, many more who do.
III. Neighbors in Need – Enhancing Service & Promoting change
A new book entitled Dignity, by Chris Arnade, studies and exposes the shocking, alarming growth of economic inequality and poverty in our nation. Based upon a national tour of the expanding pockets of poverty, he observes that the poor, wherever they lived, shared a commonality, “the poor were rarely considered or talked about beyond being a place of problems.”
Our Council has tirelessly assisted those in need for roughly 136 years in our Archdiocese of Detroit. As set forth in previous Conference Connections, we, of course, will continue and strengthen our traditional community outreach programs, e.g. Stores, Energy Assistance, Camp. We have chosen to be neighbors; and our collective service to those in need has been awesome!
As the needs change, however, we should, too. Without question, St. Vincent de Paul himself subscribed to the concept of continuous quality improvement. He constantly sought new and better ways to serve those in need. The only thing that remains constant is change.
Our Rule provides for no less. Rule 1.3 provides that “No work of charity is foreign to the Society.” Moreover, Rule 3: Statute 22 provides that, “At least once a year, each Conference and Council must evaluate their service . . . to the poor . . . and explore better ways to provide better service. They should also consider new types of needs they may seek to alleviate and how to find those who are in need.” (emphasis added).
a) Systemic Change
Systemic change is a new way for SVDP Councils, Districts, and Conferences to examine what they do, why they do it, and how they do it. It shifts focus beyond addressing immediate needs by helping people to move out of poverty. It involves helping identify and address root causes of poverty, e.g. transform lives. In effect, people in poverty are enmeshed in a web of complex circumstances and structures. They often have little control over this smothering dilemma.
According to our National Office, poverty in America is growing. We should explore adding services that segue our programs from being transactional in nature to relational. It may likely result in helping fewer people, albeit much more substantively. We need to help the poor reclaim the ability to dream of and plan for the future. That is a tall order. We need to work together as one Society to do so. That is the neighborly thing to do.
Our Detroit Council, Districts, and Conferences should explore new and enhanced ways to serve. Moreover, we need to consider new types of needs to address. Finally, we need to be more proactive in finding those who need our help. Our Society’s express directives require no less.
This proactive examination of our Council can be both exciting and inspirational. In that spirit, our Council has several potential projects currently under consideration. They range from a training program aimed at systemic change, to a preventive health, wellness, and nutrition clinic, to training programs to teach practical skills at various educational levels.
In addition to these potentially impactful programs, I offer the following as examples of ways to further enhance our mission.
- In 1970, the AOD operated 108 Catholic grade schools in the City of Detroit. Today, only four remain open. How can we help young people?
- How many shut ins live at various independent and assisted living centers throughout the AOD? How can we visit and help shut ins?
- Many babies born into poverty should be held shortly after birth. Similarly, many who are dying alone need their hand held. How can we help?
- Many young adults have “fallen away” from our Church. How can we help the spirit that surely exists in all of them emerge?
- How do we help those who, for whatever reason, have lost hope? The concept is aptly captured by the following lyrics in Bruce Springsteen’s song, Downbound Train,
“I had a job, I had a girl
I had something going, mister, in this world
I got laid off down at the lumber yard
Our love went bad, times got hard
Now I work down at the car wash
Where all it ever does is rain
Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train.”
At a time when our nation’s War on Poverty seems more like a War on the Poor, how can our Council and Society help more “riders” on that downbound train by becoming even better neighbors? Let us See the Possible!
c) Our Future Has Not Yet Been Written
In light of the above, I urge our Districts to embrace the challenge in Rule 3: Statute 22. Then let’s continue to communicate. We have made initial strides at compiling a master list of innovative ways that one or more Districts (as well as other Councils) are helping those in need.
Improving communication between Central Office and our districts will also help this important effort. Together, let us build today’s St. Vincent de Paul Detroit. As we do so, we will surely sustain and strengthen current programs. But, pursuant to the practices of St. Vincent de Paul himself together with the express provisions in our Rule, we must also embrace new ideas and new people and thereby remain open to growth.
d) Our Communal Journey
As we embrace and create what lies ahead, let us support one another and work collaboratively on this blessed mission. May we help each other choose to view ourselves as “neighbor” and thereby help anyone in need. As we do, let us remember that we are on a communal journey back to God.
No more clearly is that journey and its communal nature better depicted than in a profoundly simple prayer that we have recited so often since childhood that we may not appreciate its profundity. The Our Father speaks powerfully and unequivocally of our need for God and for one another. Not once in the prayer is there any reference whatsoever to the individual. Instead, it provides as follows.
Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name,
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those
Who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.
As we embrace what lies ahead, we need to be neighbors and proactively explore how we can become even better neighbors to all in need. This includes not only improving our current community outreach programs but also exploring new ways to serve. Our staff is fully committed to this challenge; and I encourage all of our Districts and Conferences to be as well.
Our Council is more stable than it has been in some time. It stands as a tribute to what we can accomplish together. Thanks to our staff and each of you, we are positioned to enhance our service to others. Whether we do or not remains to be seen. We do know one thing for sure: many, many people in need are counting on each of us to choose to be a neighbor. God bless.