Keynote address for “To know one another by name”: October 5, 2013

Social-Ministry-Gathering-2013

This is the outline for my keynote address to “To know one another by name”. I am very grateful for everyone at Catholic Charities for inviting me for this morning’s conference. I am so grateful to have heard from so many people who attended the conference of their great work in the Diocese of Colorado Springs. The names that are listed in this talk have been significant teachers in my life as a priest. I want to honor their stories with great reverence and thank God for my time with them to learn their names and witness their stories. 

Thank you all for this opportunity to speak with you today. I am delighted to know that this conference exists for all of you serving people in need. I want to thank you all for acknowledging the circumstances of people in poverty in your own parishes and our common call to extend our lives well beyond our personal and ecclesial boundaries. Thank you for your ministry. Thank you for getting to know the names of strangers, especially our sisters and brothers who experience urban and rural poverty, consistent loss and social neglect.

First of all, I want to give you just a little more background of my ministry during this past decade. I just arrived back in Colorado Springs after serving over eleven years in a small urban community in downtown Portland, Oregon. Saint Andre Bessette Church offers people in poverty a community in which to belong. The staff, volunteers and parish community serve people living with mental illness, people surviving long-term addictions and people who live outside.

The entire mission of that parish is focused on building relationships with all people. The parish offers a two-hour hospitality center in the mornings serving 100-180 people. People gather from sleeping under bridges or in doorways. Others gather after getting out of the shelters by 6:00am. Others gather from immediately arriving into town from the bus terminal or train station just down the block on 6th Avenue. People gather from being released from jail during the night. Some people are convicted of sexual crimes. Some people come to the parish from an overnight binge or from selling their bodies for drugs. Some people arrive because they are caught in human trafficking on the Interstate 5 corridor between Canada and Mexico. Some people arrive half-naked because they are just too mentally ill to remember to keep their clothing. Prostitutes, pimps, drug users and drug dealers all gather to spend a couple of hours in the morning to rest, drink coffee and to get out of the Portland rain.

People are eligible for clothing once a month and basic hygiene products once a week. People gather because parish nurses wash, massage and care for feet because diabetes is an issue of life and death for people on the streets, because feet are people’s primary source of transportation and because people’s feet are always wet in the damp Portland weather. People also have an opportunity for self-expression in our art program, get a voucher for non-narcotic prescription drugs and get a bus ticket for a job interview. We refer people for eye exams and other opportunities for some basic health care.

The focus of the morning with all of our volunteers and staff is not to offer “stuff” but to offer clean clothing, the hygiene products, and the foot care only as an excuse to know a new name and to learn about the person who needs the basics of life. The “stuff” of our ministry is secondary to the person surviving the horrific affects of urban poverty.

Even though I no longer serve in Portland, I want to bring the message of some of the things I learned in my years there not only to Sacred Heart Church and the Tri-community, but also here to the diocese and to us here at this conference this morning. This is the place where we begin the real message of this gathering. “To know one another by name” is the point of all of our social ministry and outreach among God’s beloved poor. I want to focus on this very sacred act. To call another person by name is to put all Catholic Social Teaching into practice, to begin the process of living out the Gospel of justice, to proclaim the message of Christ Jesus.

The most profound desire for every person on earth is to belong. We are all made by God to connect to other people, to find our place in this world and to have our voices heard. This desire to belong is sacred to us; it is a holy longing, a truth that we carry within us during our entire lives. We all want our lives to have meaning, to speak our stories, to enrich our generation and to love from the truth of our lives. We all want to find our stable place on the planet, to walk on the earth feeling safe.

We long to belong but sometimes we do feel we belong to our selves. We are often strangers under our own skin. We carry with us the shame of past abuse. We live in shame of how we offer our bodies to other people and get nothing in return. We live with regret about our past and we are certain most days of our lives that we are not loved or lovable to any other person. We often carry within our own hearts the blame for our past abuse, so much so that anything bad that happens in the world must certainly be our fault. We blame our selves for the fact that our families could not deal with us because of our mental illness or the fact that we just did not fit into our families of origin.

One of my great teachers in Portland was Carleen. She came to the parish in my early years there with great reluctance. She desperately wanted a place to belong. Even though she was in her sixties, she had never really had adult friends that she could trust. She had been severely abused as a child. Her family members emotionally and sexually abused her. Her mother would strip her, beat her, cover her with feces and put her in a closet. She was so damaged that her emotional life split into seven personalities. Carleen spent decades in therapy. Her real healing came when she finally entered into relationship with our community. She spent her entire life believing that her abuse was her fault and the consequences of that was that she believed that she had to heal herself. Imagine that, she thought that she would heal from all of that horror in isolation.

In the years of her therapy, she chose to rename herself, to literally bring her seven personalities back into one life. Carleen was not her childhood name. Carleen was the name that she decided upon when she finally integrated her story. We spent years in conversation and she slowly came to realize that God could heal her, that she was not responsible for healing such torture by her own power.

Of course, most people did not know her circumstances in our community. I listened to Carleen and she taught me how to believe in God on a daily basis. She taught me how to hear the grace of being called by name. When I left the parish, she spoke at the end of my last Mass on Pentecost. She stood up, approached the microphone and said, “My name is Carleen.” I wept and wept and hardly heard anything else she said because that first sentence said it all. She had clamed her name in great faith to the enter parish community.

To affirm the name of every individual is to affirm the Incarnation of Christ Jesus. “God so loved the world that he gave us his only begotten Son”. This radical understanding of God’s love on earth is invested within each one of us. We belong to God. We are the beloved servants of the God who became human. We affirm our faith in Christ Jesus when we reach beyond our own selfishness and affirm the dignity of all people.

However, first I need to know in the depths of my own heart that God names me before I can be of service to any other person. I need first to know that I belong to God before I can even get to the name of another human being. This has been serious work for me as an individual, as a priest, as a man on the earth. Each of us has to feel comfortable on the earth, that our voice is heard, that our lives matter, that our prayer means something. We have to start with how God names us, as beloved and not sinner, as child and not outcast, as holy and not human trash.

I believe that God asks of us two things on this side of the grave, that we learn to be loved by God and that we learn to love others. It is not that we need to learn to love God because that is acting out of our own power. No, we need to learn how to receive the love that God has for us. We need to know that we can come to God just as we are, not how we think we should be or could be or might have been. Our lives, just as they are, are God’s instrument of compassion on earth.

When we finally come to the conclusion that God loves us, then we will have the courage to move beyond our selfishness and into the unknown territory of another person’s life. Calling another person by name removes the silent barriers of resistance, judgment and uncertainty among us all. Remember last Sunday’s gospel passage from Luke, Jesus names the beggar at the door, Lazarus. The person experiencing poverty was named, given dignity, honor and power in that challenging story.

I want to offer a few suggestions for our ministries of outreach to people living on the margins of society. These suggestions come from my experiences of connecting our sacramental life of the Church to our service to the marginalized.

First, we need to create our communities from a person-centered language. We must speak about people first and then the situations people find themselves surviving. Let me give you an example. I invite you to never use the phrase, “the poor”. This phrase immediately sets up a power struggle with people who have and people who do not have. The last thing we need in the church is to create more divides. We need to become very sensitive about how we refer to the horrific life situations of people. So we need to use language that allows us to hear the real circumstances and struggles of life.

For example, we need to use phrases such as, “people surviving urban poverty, or people living with mental illness, or people battling long-term addictions or people who live outside.” These phrases tell people that we do not judge them, that we are on the same level, that people are not outcasts, that labels or categories do not define them or that we remove them from their human and emotional struggles.

We dare not label people except to call them by name. “Those poor people, those druggies, those drunks, those leaches, those dikes, those queers, those fags, those dirty bums, those lunatics, those beggars, those trash.”

Another ministry that we had in Portland was an evening meal. I remember a volunteer telling me about her experience one Friday evening. Her service was standing at the door writing nametags for people who entered our hospitality center. She told me how sensitive people were about their names. They were afraid that they would be recognized or that we would use their names against them. They were afraid because they were former prisoners or sex offenders. So the volunteer would simply ask them, “What would you like on your nametag?” People came up with all sorts of fake names and phrases and she began to realize how sensitive naming people could become.

At the end of the evening, as people were leaving she was collecting nametags so people would not stick them on walls or the sidewalk. She asked this elderly gentleman if she could take his nametag. He suddenly put his hand on his chest and quietly said to her, “No, I want to keep my name on my body so that when I sleep on the sidewalk tonight, people can read my name tag and know that I am a real person, that I have a name and an identity.”

Secondly, naming people suggests to others that we want to create an environment that is safe for people. This act of naming people sends a message that is so vital. In our parish communities, this simple gesture goes a long way to creating and building relationships. This goes much further than creating another parish program. Naming actually creates a place of safety and security, a place of trust. Most people living on the margins simple do not trust the fact that we care. So often we judge first and ask questions later. We blame, people, call people sinners and put up walls to keep people away. People simply want an environment that is safe for all people.

In our Portland parish, there is sign on the last pew of the chapel. The sign reads, “Reserved for Peter Curtain.” This sign tells everyone that Peter’s place in our community is extremely important. Peter has been coming to every Mass for thirty years. Peter has been living with mental illness since high school and he has found a home in that particular community. We named his spot in the chapel because he has days when he wanders around during Mass and then other people come in and sit in his place, which causes a disturbance.

Peter however breaks down barriers in his own way by greeting everyone when they come into the chapel near his assigned seat. He rather loudly proclaims to everyone, “I love you,” as they rather shyly enter for the first time. Peter will be the first one to know a stranger’s name. Peter has his good and bad days, but he is a great example of how his mental illness actually becomes a vehicle for other’s to be welcomed and even experience safety.

Safe environment begins with our ability to pray in our communities with acceptance and integrity. People are longing for such a place; it is rare to find a community in which all people are welcomed in prayer at the Eucharist.

Thirdly, we must recognize that all human beings experience poverty in some way. We are all poor. I believe that every person on this side of the grave experiences some sort of poverty and that is our need for God. We hurt when we are ill, we experience anger and grief, and we ultimately do not have power to control our lives and the lives of other people. When we finally come to the conclusion that we are all human and all in need of something greater than ourselves, we will be able to honor the dignity of the stranger, the person desperately in need. Our fear will go away. Imagine that, our fear will go away.

I spent eight years in Portland offering a monthly retreat called, “The Personal Poverty Retreat,” This was a thirteen hour immersion into the issues of urban poverty, with hands-on work in our hospitality center, a tour of our neighborhood connecting to other agencies who work with people surviving poverty and then a two-hour session connecting to the reality of our own lives. I generally worked with a group of 6 to 10 people. The purpose of our gathering was not only to expose people to people living on the streets and witnessing the reality of mental illness, but also to get people to realize their inner poverty. Poverty is not something external to us; it is an inner condition of our dependency upon God.

I watched people come to this retreat from all walks of life. So many people who were employed, educated, partnered, and especially male came to the retreat with the sense that everything we did could be “fixed”. All we needed were the correct resources and people could be fixed, changed and they could get out of their situations.

So by the end of many of those retreat days, it dawned on people finally, that it was not their responsibility to change other people. In fact, as people began to enter into relationships with people, they began to realize their own need for God, and that people in poverty were in fact real people. Sometimes they even realized that their cultural power of education, employment and family actually deadened their senses to experience the reality of people’s lives.

There was one man on one of those retreats I will never forget. There were seven people on the retreat that day. We got to the afternoon session and people’s stories began to emerge. Four people out of seven in that retreat group had children who were living with homelessness, addictions and mental illness. And one of the children had committed suicide. I had never worked with the parents of people surviving the streets before. The group was very surprised, the stories started spilling out, and tears and silence became messengers of support and prayer.

Paul was retired and came from a suburban parish. In our small circle he shared with us that his son in his thirties was an alcoholic and lived on the streets. Paul told us stories of trying to rescue his son with money and time. The more Paul spoke to us the more his anger and rage emerged. His face became beet red and the anger in his voice was harsh and terse. After Paul finished his story, I let the silence fall on the group and then quietly asked Paul if he had ever tried loving his son.

Suddenly, the Holy Spirit pierced Paul’s anger. He turned to me and said, “I have never loved my son.” A new awareness came over Paul, his face changed and his anger melted away. We all sat in silence again, grateful for this amazing breakthrough.

After the retreat was over, Paul went out to search for his son. He found his son Nick living in an abandoned car in a field. He began to spend time with his son. He started listening to Nick’s concerns and hardships about his life. Paul gave up trying to fix him or solve his problems. Paul just sat with Nick and listened and did whatever Nick wanted to do.

A couple of months later, Paul brought his son Nick to a Personal Poverty Retreat. I got to hear Nick’s side of the story. About a year later, Nick died from his years of alcohol and drugs. I sat in the last pew of the church from where Nick was buried. The priest told the story of how Nick and his father were reconciled from a retreat at Saint Andre Bessette Church.

Paul finally recognized the dignity of his own son as well as his own need for God’s love and healing. Paul now raises money for an outreach program that Nick was involved with in Portland. Paul now is a spokesperson for all the issues that he hated until finally he started loving his son.

Fourthly, naming people builds our integrity as a community in order for us to see how the social structures need to change.  The Church challenges us to be educated in all areas of social justice. We need reform. We need to change many of the social structures that keep people in poverty. We need to act for real change. The only caution I want to add to our notion of social justice is that we have to be careful not to impose our ideas of how social structures need changing.

I believe that first we need to enter into real relationship with people to find out from the grass roots perspective why things need to be different and how to effectively live out that change. We need to befriend people so to know their names, so that we can understand how the structures in government, Church and society need to change so that the dignity of people may shine forth with radiance and hope.

Let me give you an example. I hear from people who have jobs and social status that people living on the streets just decide to be homelessness. I do not think this is true. I do not believe any person decides that homelessness is the answer. I learned that perspective from our director of outreach services in Portland. He told me that people need to claim their lives, they need to feel they can control something, so they say they want to be homeless as a way of giving their lives meaning and feeling that they can control a piece of their future. However, their life stories suggest otherwise. The violence that they experienced as children, the drug addiction, the abuse, the lack of education, the lack of medical care, the disease of addiction, all point into the direction that people are worn down emotionally. We cannot blame people for their life situations and sometimes it is easier to just say, “I chose to be homeless.”

I know that we need to change our lives and change the structures of our society for people in need. But we also need to get our hands dirty in the reality of being in relationship with people. People in our parishes need to be involved getting to know people. Perhaps I am getting to old for structures to change, so I am going to leave that to the next generation. I want us to work on face to face reality that people need us today to do something about their mental illness, getting them out of the cold and hearing their stories of neglect and abuse. I want to hear with my own ears the names of people who suffer, so that we can listen together to a gospel that brings hope.

Our parish ministries cannot just bring people into volunteering to do good deeds. We do not need more “do-gooders” in the Church. We need people formed in the love of God, compelled to do good things for other people.

We must form our volunteers into the gospel message that love needs to be lived in ways we least expect. Every volunteer needs to process the experiences of serving in light of the gospel. The Eucharist needs to remain at the heart of social justice.  Our prayer and service informs us how to live in the world. As Catholics, we link the abundance of the Eucharist to the scarcity of people’s lives in the world. The promise of love is lived among all people who long to be called by name.

2 thoughts on “Keynote address for “To know one another by name”: October 5, 2013

  1. Thank you, Fr. Ron, for sharing these beautiful reflections and suggestions. I have added a prayer for this intention in our diocese, to my daily prayers. I’m so glad you are here with all of us! Pat Montesano

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