Dear Sister & Brother Vincentians,
Peace be with you. I hope that you remain safe and are doing as well as possible during this dreadful health crisis. Heartfelt thanks to those who, like our staff, remain active helping others during this quarantining.
I am also deeply grateful that, thanks to a very concerted team effort, our Council – Vincentians and staff alike – continues to serve those in need while adhering to recommended safety protocols. In addition, relative to many other Not-for-Profits, our Council continues to maintain financial stability. That is essential if we are to continue helping others, especially in light of anticipated, increased needs ahead.
Our Leadership Team worked very hard on all aspects of our operation during the three months that our offices were closed. Our entire staff has made extraordinary efforts for the past three weeks as we have safely, carefully, and successfully re-opened operations. I am deeply grateful to all of them for their extraordinary efforts.
1. A New Normal
Naturally, a frequent comment heard lately is “I cannot wait until we return to normal”. While totally understandable, comments like that cause me to wonder what is normal anymore and whether that should even be our goal.
For months, our nation has been staggered by two existential crises: an insidious health pandemic and the resultant economic crisis as well as the killing of an African American man in custody. The death of George Floyd unleashed illuminating light on many other such tragedies that has caused our nation to erupt into a fury of widespread, sustained cries for justice. Troubled times have come to our nation (& world). While it is true that difficult times can bring out the best in people, crises undeniably also surely trigger other, less desirable reactions as well.
In our May 2020 Conference Connection, I addressed the alarming rise in inequality in our nation (and in Southeast Michigan) in regard to health care, education, housing, employment, criminal justice, among many other essential aspects of life. In effect, that situation was part of our “normal” prior to anyone ever having heard of Covid-19. We now know that those unaddressed inequalities left so many, particularly among our African American sisters and brothers, terribly vulnerable to this ferocious virus. And the Covid-19 crisis is far from over.
Covid-19 has inconvenienced all of us. But it has devastated so many. They are our neighbors. They are in need. The question that I ask is “together, what more can our Vincentian community do about this worsening situation? Our humanity depends upon everyone’s humanity.
2. Defining “Community”
We just celebrated Mother’s Day and then Father’s Day. Both are truly wonderful occasions that recognize the immeasurable contributions that parents make as a result of the love, guidance, training, and efforts that they willingly bestow on their beloved children. Families are a cornerstone of our society.
Perhaps the next most critical social group after family is “community”. Unlike family, however, that term lends itself to considerably different definitions. To demonstrate, some define community as only those who live in their neighborhood, look like them, vote like them, and basically share the same religious and socio-economic beliefs. Others have a much broader sense of the term. Some believe that all should be considered part of our community.
When one views another as a fellow member of a community, that person tends to receive the benefit of the doubt, e.g. he/she is “one of us.” Unfortunately, the converse tends to be true as well, e.g. no benefit of the doubt if “he/she is not one of us.” Consequently, how one defines the term community, e.g. narrowly or broadly, is quite critical to one’s willingness to accept differing views and people of different backgrounds.
Consider the following. If we brought together a two year old from the African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, Arab American, Native American, Caucasian, and other racial and ethnic “worlds” that comprise our diverse nation, they would have no problem “getting along”. To the extent they had problems, it would surely not be because of racial, religious, or ethnic differences. But if we brought that same richly diverse group back together sixteen years later, a different ambiance would likely exist among the group. That tells me that cultural and partisan differences are acquired traits. Once acquired, they tend to galvanize through constant interaction only with those who share those views, whatever they may be. This can be a terribly destructive disease in a pluralist nation like ours.
Undeniably, within our richly diverse nation, many priceless cultures – “worlds” – exist. But, at the end of the day, we are one nation. For many reasons, we should view our nation as one community. The same holds true for our Society of St. Vincent de Paul, i.e. we are One Society, one community. Both are aspirational visions.
The reality is that, currently, we live in “divided houses.” Cultural differences get emphasized and attitudes harden. Whether liberal or conservative, old or young, or one race or ethnicity or another, it is time to examine and better appreciate the reality that, while divisiveness may work well for some, it is simply contrary to our nation’s and our Vincentian core beliefs. Our charge as Vincentians is to advance our inspirational mission and to adhere to our core values of Friendship, Spiritual Growth, and Service.
We are about to celebrate perhaps our most significant national holiday. It celebrates our experiment in democracy that affords “liberty and justice for all.” All includes those without fathers or mothers. It also includes people of all races, backgrounds, and beliefs. In the inclusive spirit of our nation and our Vincentian Society, we should strive to help each other broaden our sense of community. In that important sense, perhaps community is more a state of mind than a geographic area.
3. Our Vincentian Rule Promotes Inclusion, i.e. a growing community
We belong to an extraordinary global organization founded in 1833 by a remarkable group of students at the University of Paris. Our Vincentian mission calls us to follow Christ and thereby bear witness to His compassion and liberating love. It encourages us to provide any form of personal help to anyone in need, e.g. regardless of creed, ethnic or social background, health, gender, or political opinions.
We strive to seek out and find the forgotten, the victims of exclusion or adversity, and the vulnerable. Our Rule expressly encourages us to adapt to changing world conditions and the new types of poverty that may emerge from continual change. We are encouraged to give priority to the poorest of the poor and to those rejected by society. Why?
The gospels reveal that those who tended to follow Jesus were those outside or on the periphery of communities: e.g. the lame, crippled, blind, deaf, prostitutes, and foreigners. Jesus chose to view them as neighbors. He consistently invited rejected people to be part of His community. How truly inspirational.
Vincentians are not clones. Neither are Americans! Each of us is different. Like members of all organizations, our members likely have varying definitions of the term community, some less inclusive than others. Rather than focus on where each finds oneself currently, the real question is where are we heading both individually and as an organization? As we embrace and create the future ahead, let our inspirational mission and Rule serve as our guide.
Our Vincentian Rule clearly encourages us to broaden our definition of community (and help others do the same) through loving service to those in need. We are all on a journey back to God. But we take exquisitely unique paths getting there. Along our path, love is the best gift that can we bestow on one another. Our Vincentian Rule invites us to be part of this solution.
Rather than strive to “return to normal”, therefore, we should assure those excluded that they are welcome in our Vincentian community. We need to bring more goodwill to so many in desperate need of it, including each other. By our actions, we need to say to neighbors in need and to each other, “you are welcome in our inclusive community.”
4. Racism is a pandemic that destroys community
How can the concept of an inclusive community be credibly discussed and celebrated without addressing painful, destructive walls of exclusion that another pandemic has wrought upon our nation? Like the term community, it is apparent that minds differ on how to define the term racism. Notwithstanding how one defines the term, one thing is undeniable: unlike Covid-19, racism has cast darkness, despair, and death upon our nation for centuries. It stands as a major impediment to building and growing community. Unlike what we hope to discover soon for Covid-19, there is no vaccine to cure racism.
Racism has been roundly condemned by our Vincentian organization at every level. We have rejected it as being a “cancer that corrodes our society”, i.e . our sense of community as contemplated by our Rule. Part of the eventual solution mandates that we listen. Particularly in light of the recent, shocking tragedies, I have committed to doing so; and I urge you to do the same. Numerous, powerful African American voices are speaking out. I reference just one herein.
NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently shared that “racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible – even if you are choking on it – until you let the sun in. Then you see it everywhere.” Systemic racism is a shameful yoke that weighs heavily upon our nation’s soul. We should all listen and reflect when our African American sisters and brothers share their experiences. For a host of reasons, racism is totally irreconcilable with our faith and our Vincentian values.
Listening, while essential, is only a first step. As a Dutch proverb says, “between saying and doing one often wears out a good pair of shoes.” We need to “walk the talk” and follow up with intelligent, impactful action by reaffirming our commitment to serve the excluded, the needy, the voiceless, and all those who suffer hateful discrimination based upon the color of skin.
Recently, our national Voice of the Poor committee hosted three webinars on systemic racism. They served as an example of how our Society can convert listening into action. I urge you to take the time and listen to them (see link below). Doing so would be a necessary “next step” to creating a future consistent with our faith and our Vincentian values. As we do, let us be ever mindful that so many of our African American brothers and sisters continue to endure the heavy burden of unjust, unequal, and abusive treatment. Racial prejudice – illegal discrimination of any kind – should have no place in our nation. It should not be welcome or tolerated in our Vincentian society, either.
Our Council is exploring impactful ways to convert our talking on this important topic into “walking”. This may include education, advocacy, recruitment, and encouraging voting. We need to (and will) walk the talk. Please share any additional suggestions that you may have.
This message, of course, is not new. In fact, striving for racial justice seems more like a marathon than a sprint. But it is a struggle that should be sustained and won. In that regard, fifty-two years ago, Senator Robert Kennedy had this to say the day after Dr. King’s assassination. He was comparing a sudden, savage murder to a slower, more agonizing destruction. Given the profundity of his comments, I share the following, rather long, quote.
” . . . there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions – indifference, inaction, and decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books, and homes without heat in the winter. This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man amongst other men.
We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers [and sisters] as alien, alien men [and women] with whom we share a city, but not a community, men [and women] bound to us in common dwelling, but not in a common effort. We learn to share only a common fear – only a common desire to retreat from each other– only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force.
But we can perhaps remember – if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers [and sisters], that they share with us the same short moment of life, that they seek – as do we – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment that they can.
Surely this bond of common fate, surely this bond of common goals can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at the least, to look around at those of us, of our fellow man [and woman], and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and [sisters] countrymen once again.” (emphasis added).
Senator Kennedy’s profound and powerful words still resonate today.
We may never return to the “normal” we knew before even hearing of Covid-19. But that may not be necessarily bad. These are days of unprecedented challenge. They may also be days of unprecedented change. The future has not yet been written.
St. Ignatius believed that every experience, good and bad, has the potential to motivate within us a deeper response to God and to one another. During these most challenging times, let us focus on helping transform our incredible nation into a community that is less destructive, more peaceful, and more inclusive. Choosing to do so is precisely the essence of our faith and of our Society. Fr. Matt Malone, S.J. recently observed, “This is our faith. . . . It is the faith of an Easter people; a people who recognize that Good Friday contains the seeds that bloom on Easter Sunday.”
Clearly, some see ominous darkness, uncertainty, and fear during these unsettling days. Let us feel the spirit of optimism that, as we draw closer to Christ through loving service to others, it will no longer be us who loves, but Christ who loves through us.
Let us also see the possible and work together toward “what can be.” Perhaps at its most basic, let us commit to helping each other to broaden our definition of “community” and thereby become in our hearts “brother, sisters, and countrymen once again.”
As all who have eyes can see, something is dying. But perhaps something is being born as well. Valarie Kaur, an attorney and filmmaker, recently put it this way, “what if the darkness we see around us is not that of a tomb, but of a womb?” Our noble struggle continues.
In the true spirit of community and the “self-evident propositions” upon which our richly diverse nation is founded, I extend you, your families, and all those you love a healthy and Happy Fourth of July! Stay safe. Please continue to practice both social distancing and emotional closeness. God bless.
In Blessed Frederic Ozanam’s name,