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Parish ministry
The following article originally appeared in Salt of the Earth. It is posted here for private use only. It may not be reprinted in whole or in part without the permission of Claretian Publications.

Serving soup can lead
to just desserts

Some parishes have found a good way to mix direct service with social action—and they'd like to share their recipe.

Alexandra Peeler

A LAW THAT TENDS TO DISCOURAGE charity toward the needy is perverse, and I'm glad we killed it," said George M. O'Brien, then a member of the House of Representatives from Joliet, Illinois, after Congress passed the Rockford Amendment to the Social Security Act a few years back. His words also expressed the sentiments of parish social-ministry volunteers in Aurora, Illinois who were instrumental in killing the law that discouraged charity. They run a food bank sponsored by Aurora parishes.

Before the Rockford Amendment became law, poor elderly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients who received food, shelter, or clothing from service groups such as the Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry or the Aurora Soup Bowl, faced the possibility of having their monthly checks reduced by as much as 40 percent. The Rockford Amendment changed all that. The story of how this amendment came about furnishes a great example of parishioners combining service with action.

The government policy that penalized the poor for accepting food, clothing, or shelter from charitable organizations came to the attention of Rockford Catholic Charities parish-outreach coordinator David Hougan when an official of the Social Security Administration contacted the director of the Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry. The official wanted to know the value of the food it distributed and the names of the SSI recipients who received help. His inquiries suggested that the value of the donated food would be deducted from the SSI recipients' checks.

THE FOOD PROGRAM HAD GROWN PROGRESSIVELY to the point of assisting over 6,000 individuals a month with a two-day food supply. "The pantry has been exceedingly successful in terms of gaining broad-based parish support," Hougan says. When the Social Security official asked for the names of the recipients, "the pantry volunteers blew up and refused."

Parishioners, with help from Catholic Charities, immediately went into action. They contacted their legislators. A lawyer from Holy Angels Christian Service Committee investigated the legality and implications of the existing SSI regulation. He found that the government could indeed penalize poor people for accepting charitable donations of food, clothing, and shelter.

Hougan drafted a letter to the diocese's four congressional members and also contacted the National Conference of Catholic Charities Governmental Relations Office and the U.S. bishops' Social Development Office for assistance. (The food pantry had received a local Campaign for Human Development grant for initial start-up costs).

During this time Congress was reviewing Social Security revisions. "Our documentation of the abuse incurred because of this regulation gave the only solid piece of support to a dying amendment sponsored by Representative [Charles] Rangel [D-N.Y.]," Hougan says. He hand-delivered letters to the four members of Congress representing the Rockford diocese, asking that they investigate the situation and offer some solutions. Representative O'Brien lobbied for support of the Rangel provision. It passed, becoming part of the new Social Security law.

IT'S A BEAUTIFUL STORY," says Mi Loran, coordinator of Christian service ministry at Holy Angels Parish in Aurora. "It shows church people moving through channels all the way to the top to speak for the poor and do something concrete."

"This example demonstrates how we attempt to interrelate our works of charity and the works of justice," Hougan says. "The people who were close to the poor in Aurora saw very easily how the 'system' was unjust and was oppressing the poor.

"It was a natural and logical step for us then to encourage those involved in this work of charity to seek a systemic change by legislative advocacy. By our interrelatedness—the parish with the diocese, the diocese with the national offices—I believe our pressure and presence could not be ignored."

Because of the action taken by parish social-ministry troops, all charitable organizations can now serve the poor without fear that the poor will be penalized. "We actually won a victory for the poor in the United States," Hougan says.

COMBINING SERVICES AND SOCIAL ACTION in parish social ministry may require special efforts. Sometimes parishes develop two separate components in their social ministry, one for services and another for action, and they may or may not relate to each other.

In recent years, some Catholic Charities agencies have used a specific process, often called the parish development process (sometimes also referred to as a community-building process), which allows for the development of both action and services in one social ministry effort.


Building community, step by step

ALTHOUGH ALL PARISH SOCIAL MINISTRY SHOULD aim toward the building of the parish community, this process explicitly and self-consciously sets as its main goal the development of the community. Service and action become the means toward that end. Emphasis centers on involving all members of the parish in social ministry, with the prime objective to create community. Services and action develop as by-products of the process of building the community, rather than as the primary goal. In practice, however, this difference lies more in emphasis than effect.

The primary service consists of the enhancement of the community itself—the self-realization of the parish as a people of God.

On another level, parish social ministry that emphasizes building community provides, perhaps, the most valuable service of all, especially in this age of individualization where community often remains a lost value. A parish survey by Salt Lake City Catholic Charities indicated that the parishes' number one concern was greater communication among parishioners and parish/community spirit.

Reflecting and acting on life experiences in the context of gospel values are the tenets of the community-building process. In this way, social ministry relates directly to the parish liturgy and religious education. Instead of being relegated to a few social activists, social ministry becomes part and parcel of the entire worshiping community's activity.

The steps of the process are:

1. Listening, beginning with the pastor and parish leaders, to what the parish envisions for itself.

2. Formation of a parish development team (a core group) that reflects upon its experiences and the gospel message, and also establishes a vision of parish life. The core-group members bring in other parishioners to similar group reflections.

3. Involving the whole parish/community (which may include those in the parish neighborhood) to reflect on the gospel message and their concerns and vision of community life.

4. Development of a group plan to act on the concerns surfaced during the community listening period.

5. Assembling the parish to give visibility to and prioritize its concerns and to establish committees to act on these. This step also includes celebration and liturgy.

6. Formation of action committees to carry out the mandates of the parish assembly.

7. Networking with other parishes, groups, or organizations on issues of mutual concern.

This is the nutshell version of the process, which takes minimally about a year to the time of the parish assembly. Parishes that have experienced the community-development process find bonds between parishioners strengthened, for they are based in the realities of the community's life experiences, which, in turn, are reflected in the liturgy and educational functions of the parish. 

Power arrangers

OF COURSE, THE COMMUNITY-BUILDING PROCESS takes time and will often encounter obstacles. Conflict could arise over authority, for example. Obviously the parish assembly draws extensively on parish resources and requires full support from the pastor, who plays a key role, not only during the assembly but throughout the entire process as all aspects of parish life may be affected by the resolutions that the parishioners pass.

The pastor must be thoroughly convinced of the value of this new form of parishioner power. This process demands a high level of maturity on the part of parishioners and pastor. There needs to be a thorough understanding and resolution of the lines of authority before the process begins.

Problems may also arise from a tendency in some parishes toward parochial issues, such as forming a Bible study or youth group. Economically comfortable parishes may tend to provide relatively easy services rather than accept more challenging actions for justice. The democratic nature of the process demands vigorous emphasis on gospel values.

Other possible drawbacks include the lengthy time span of the process and the need for highly trained and skilled staff. Because of these potential obstacles, the process requires a highly skilled facilitator with sophisticated listening skills, thorough understanding of gospel values, diplomacy, and an ability to facilitate the parish group to action.

The community-building process offers a challenge to combine service and action. The thoroughness of the process in involving a substantial number of parishioners in social ministry makes it an effective approach. Moreover, the process adheres to most parish social-ministry principles.

PARISH SOCIAL MINISTRY IN THE Pittsburgh diocese dates back to 1972, making it one of the oldest diocesan organized parish social-ministry programs. The diocese's parish social ministry has evolved over the years from primarily a parish referral service toward community building. Catholic Charities supports the parishes mainly through training, supervision, assisting the parish staff, and helping parishes form networks. The parishes hire the social minister. Catholic Charities provides an initial four-week training, followed by monthly seminars.

In Pittsburgh, networking with other denominations and organizing parishioners to negotiate with elected officials have been successfully combined with direct services.

Social justice is in the house

ST. JAMES PARISH IN WILKINSBURG, Pennsylvania already offered a variety of social services when it joined forces with nine other Wilkinsburg churches to tackle the housing needs in the community. Many parishioners had called Teddie Miller, the parish service minister, about housing needs. The Wilkinsburg area has a high number of senior home owners who are living on limited incomes and who are having difficulty maintaining their homes. The community also has an unusually large number of vacant buildings.

A few years ago, St. James' pastor, Father Warren Metzler, began discussing the community housing problems with Miller. At the same time, the Second United Presbyterian Church and the South Avenue United Methodist Church were also discussing and gathering information on community housing needs. The pastor of South Avenue Methodist contacted the Wilkinsburg ministerial association to address the issue. From that meeting the ten churches moved to form the Interfaith Committee on Housing.

EACH OF THE CHURCHES DONATED $100. St. James donated office space, a telephone, and supervision of the part-time employee," Miller says. The housing group aims to match those who need shelter with available housing. Three types of housing matches developed.

The group helps seniors maintain their homes by matching them with middle-aged persons who will share utilities and rent and also act as companions. "It's more than a tenant relationship," Miller says.

They assist college students by matching them with empty apartments that have easy access to the university area in Oakland.

The organization also tries to match two low-income people to live together in one apartment. For those on public assistance, this is often the only way they can afford rent and living expenses.

Although the thrust of St. James' parish social ministry has been service to the community, the church did not hesitate to join in social action by networking with other churches to better meet the community's needs, especially the housing needs of the poor.

Appeals on wheels

WHEN A NATIONAL GROCERY CHAIN CLOSED ONE of its stores in Ross Township outside Pittsburgh, it left a great many elderly who lived in a nearby apartment complex without access to a supermarket. Many of these elderly were members of St. Sebastian and St. Teresa parishes. The two parishes quickly mobilized the elderly residents to ask the township to provide a bus so they could get to a supermarket. This led to a long struggle between the elderly and the township.

A group of seniors from St. Sebastian Parish met first with township officials to plead for transportation. Officials promised to investigate ways to fund the transportation. Three months later, nothing had been done. This time 50 seniors from St. Sebastian and St. Teresa met again with the township commissioners. At this meeting the township commissioners hedged, asking for more facts before the township could act.

At a third meeting, the township manager told the seniors that the township couldn't afford a bus for them. But the seniors and the parishes' social ministers pressed on. "Services in Ross Township are not adequate, and you as elected commissioners have the responsibility to address human needs. We're talking about survival, a means to get to doctors and grocery stores," said Sister Carol Sukitz, who was the social minister at St. Sebastian's.

The manager agreed to meet with the parish representatives again for further discussion. The commissioners next asked the seniors to present a specific proposal for their bus service. The group quickly surveyed 500 seniors through a form, distributed by the local churches and also placed in a local newspaper. Results revealed that 99 percent of the respondents needed transportation and outlined which areas were most in need.

ARMED WITH THIS INFORMATION and a proposal for bus service, the group again presented their request for service to the commissioners. After another three months and numerous meetings, the township officials finally approved the proposal and agreed to provide a senior-citizen van for six-month experimental program.

The experiment proved successful, as almost 2,000 seniors used the bus service during the trial period, and they came back in even greater numbers to meet with township officials to ask for a larger bus. "We should insist, if not demand, we get a larger bus," said one township commissioner, a year after the parish-organized seniors made their first request for bus service.

A working solution

ST. ALEXANDER PARISH IN VILLA PARK, Illinois initiated its social ministry through a yearlong process, assisted by diocesan social-ministry staff member Mary Ellen Durbin from Catholic Charities and Susan Stolfa from the social-concerns office. The parish engaged a social-ministry coordinator and established a Christian Service Commission to help link the parishioners with social ministry.

"The parish conducted a systematic, broad-based needs assessment, organized task forces to respond to four prioritized needs, conducted an inventory of parish and community resources, and recruited and trained volunteers for ministries," Durbin says.

On the issue of unemployment, 40 parishioners volunteered to organize a parish response. They formed a task force and developed direct services and looked into causes of unemployment in the area. Services include a support group, job development, and a job bank.

IN ADDITION TO PROVIDING SERVICES, the group studied the issue of unemployment more closely. "The group began to explore the current structure of employment in the area. A key consideration was the imminent closing of the Ovaltine Plant in Villa Park and action to address the problem of aging factories and companies leaving the area," Durbin explains.

The unemployment issue also led to closer examination of public aid. The parish Christian Service Commission organized a visit to a public-aid office and presentations from caseworkers and the Public Welfare Coalition, and studied the bishops' pastoral letter "Economic Justice for All." The commission also joined with other groups and became active in the Campaign for Family Stability, a statewide lobbying effort to raise monthly grants for public-aid recipients.

These examples make up a small portion of the many parishes engaged in social ministry that combine both direct services and social action. This dual aspect—charity and justice—offers an ideal expression of social ministry, and it provides the means to utilize every parishioner's gifts for the good of the community.—END

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