The Catechetical Review - Communicating Christ for a New Evangelization

From the Shepherds: Serving the Poor: Taking Five Steps with Two Feet

Authored by Bishop William Wack, CSC in Issue #10.1 of Catechetical Review

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When I served as director of André House, a ministry of hospitality to the poor and homeless in downtown Phoenix, we often spoke about “the two feet of service”: direct service to those in need and working for justice and a long-term solution. Both are important, and each one informs and strengthens the other. Inspired by Dorothy Day and under the patronage of St. André Bessette, André House leaned heavily on the foot of service. We labored all day to bring comfort, food, water, safety, and hospitality to the hundreds of people who came to us daily. We argued that we didn’t have a lot of time to devote to justice issues; we had our hands full with the work. And so we limped along.

I spent much of my time tending to the spiritual needs of our staff, volunteers, and guests, fundraising for the ministry, and managing the entire operation. I also delighted in doing the cooking, cleaning, and menial tasks. I came to see, however, that there was a great need for formation for the young people who dedicated a year or two at a time in direct service to the poorest of the poor. Yes, they were good at preparing a meal for 600 every night or cleaning bathrooms that looked like, well, hundreds of people had used them that day. They could deal with guests who were strung out on crack and threatening to harm them without flinching. They came to learn to be as Christ to the least of their sisters and brothers. But, as always, the Lord calls us to more.

Without setting out to develop a curriculum, I found myself assisting our staff and volunteers through what I see as formative stages for ministry. Upon reflection, I discovered that these steps have been ingrained in me from my parents and reinforced through my growth as a Catholic and my formation as a priest and religious. I offer the following five “stages” or “steps” for anyone who wishes to grow through service and in the faith:

  1. Overcoming fear
  2. Actually doing the service
  3. Dealing with anger, frustration, and feelings of helplessness
  4. Working for long-term solutions
  5. Settling in for the long haul

(By the way, having served six years as a bishop, I would say that I find myself somewhere between steps two and four, although I still find the need to come back to the first step quite often!)

 Service to and with the poor is not easy. We are called out of our comfort zones to go to places that frighten us. Besides, we have questions like, “What good can one person do?” “What if I don’t like it?” “What if I get hurt?” No wonder Jesus said “Be not afraid” so many times!

Jesus used the command form of various verbs, telling us to “go,” “love,” “serve,” and “humble yourselves.” We can argue and debate and delay, but in the end we must heed the voice of the Shepherd and share the Good News in real and tangible ways.

It is quite normal to experience heartache and feelings of hopelessness in ministry. There will be many roadblocks and failures to face. The scope of injustice and need in our world is overwhelming and often paralyzing. We have to come to grips with this through prayer, reflection, spiritual direction, and companionship.

While it is vital to provide food, shelter, and safety to our brothers and sisters, it is equally necessary to work to overcome injustice and inequality. How can I advocate for others? What laws need to be changed so that others may have the same benefits I do? How can I inspire more and more people to walk this road?

To be sure, direct service to the poor often brings immediate results: through our efforts someone may have a nutritious meal, clean clothes, or the benefit of a hot shower, the dignity of work or a bed instead of a place on the sidewalk. But as we saw at André House, they come back the next day with the same needs. Changing the status quo is the work of a lifetime, and we shouldn’t be put off because we do not see the results right away. After all, Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Mk 14:7). And yet we hear him speak to us when he tells his disciples, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:15).

Yes, there are two feet of Christian service, and there is a lot to learn along the way. It’s a long, glorious, challenging journey—even one with failures and detours. It begins with one step. Go.

The Most Reverend William A. Wack, CSC, is the Bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida.

This article originally appeared on page 25 of the printed edition.

This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting [email protected]

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