Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Catholic Worker and St. Vincent de Paul: Two Approaches to Charity

When I became a Catholic six years ago, I went straight into my Finnbar phase. Finnbar was the pastor’s dog, a rambunctious puppy famous for sprinting around the rectory garden eating everything in sight, including the Baby Jesus in a crêche. And so did I.

Within twelve months of my confirmation, I was lectoring, serving at funerals, singing in the choir, teaching religious education classes (like what did I know?), attending daily adoration, and joining Communion & Liberation. Plus several other activities, including my first blog, “Why I Am Catholic.”

Puppies grow up, and so I guess did I. I quieted down, panting heavily in the shade, shedding some of my activities like drops of sweat—though along the way I did walk the Camino and continue daily life as a “meat-and-potatoes Catholic.” I credit the expression to my friend James, who goes about his religious life seriously but quietly, e.g. without blogging.

In recent months, partly through the inspiration of a Cursillo made last spring, I have thought about getting back into action, perhaps more thoughtfully, maybe like a grown-up dog now. After a three-year hiatus, I began singing in the choir again, an activity I adore. And now this blog has reared its ugly head once more. As another friend, Vincent, texted me, “The sleeping giant awakes!”

Last night, inspired by two things, I attended a meeting of the St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP) Society to check it out.

My first inspiration for this new activity was reading and re-reading Dorothy Day. Dorothy’s story has led me to wonder what I can do to serve the poor in my community as she did in hers. Day started the Catholic Worker movement, which includes “houses of hospitality,” roughly soup kitchens with some spare beds. The first was opened in lower Manhattan at the bottom of the Great Depression. Above photo is from Haley House, which opened in Boston’s South End in 1966.

My other inspiration was a female friend, a real-life Dorothy whom I will not embarrass by giving her full name. EJ, who is easily embarrassed, had told me for several years about the SVDP Society and how it always needs volunteers. So last night I went to a meeting, having already accompanied one SVDP volunteer on a client visit in our community.

Dorothy Day offered food, shelter, and kindness in a fixed locate, opening its doors to those in need. SVDP goes out into the community, visits with needful clients in their homes, and determines what (if any) financial help the Society can reasonably offer for such things as rent, food, and utilities. The SVDP Society’s resources are limited; our parish group’s annual budget is under $100,000; and all of that is used to provide aid, since all SVDP work is volunteer. SVDP is, as one person said at the meeting, an “under-the-radar outfit.”

But an outfit worth getting involved with, was my initial judgment, and I am going out on another visit with a volunteer this evening, since there is a lot to learn. No one in our parish group is a trained social worker. We bring only our experience, common sense, and very thin checkbook to each case, along with our charity.

The world is more complicated than it was in the Great Depression, when Dorothy Day was starting out. The poor in 1933 had little aid to rely on, beyond private charity, much of it religious. Today’s disadvantaged person or family sits in the middle of a network (spider’s web?) of aid: federal, state, local, private. In a few minutes of listening at last night’s meeting I heard about Food Stamps, Bootstraps, Fisher Fuel, AMP, NSCAP, and half a dozen other sources of money, goods, and/or services available. It’s all confusing at first glance.

In my brief experience listening to others’ experiences, I realize that many people in need have learned to “work the system,” and they recognize SVDP as another lever they can pull periodically to keep the system working for them. This could make a volunteer cynical.

But the beauty of the Catholic Church’s call to charity—a call to every Catholic—is that charity is needed in all circumstances, no matter how complex or barbaric the “system.” And the SVDP Society, represented in our parish by a very good, very human group of people meeting once a month around a table, then going out into homes to do the best they can, seems to me a beautiful expression of that call.

I am looking forward to accompanying JG on a visit this evening, to see what little we can do.

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