said to his disciples: "Be constantly on watch! Stay awake! You do not know
when the appointed time will come. It is like a man travelling overseas. He leaves
home and places his servants in charge
you do not know when the master of
the house is coming
do not let him come suddenly and catch you asleep. What
I say to you I say to all: Be on guard!"
- Is a periodic visitor at our hospitality house, usually coming to stay after
a stretch in jail or in the hospital. While our guest, we works regularly, takes
his medicine at scheduled times, and, in general gets healthy. But one morning,
just as he seems to be adjusting comfortably, he disappears. In the ensuing weeks,
we will see him on skid row: underweight, haggard and drawn in face, nervous and
tense from lack of medication. Then we won't see Hector for a while - perhaps
a long while - until he again contacts the house from a hospital or from jail.
Cheryl - The mother of three children, addicted to crack and alcohol. Because
she is HIV positive, she can only last three or four weeks on the streets before
she arrives, abruptly, at the threshold of death. Last night she left us to return
to the streets. When she comes back in three or four weeks, the question will
be whether we take her in again. If we don't, she will surely die in a matter
of days; if we do, we are, God forbid, her Co-dependants. Leroy - Is perhaps
our greatest success: he doesn't do drugs or alcohol; he doesn't have AIDS; he's
never been to jail and he is hard working. In the four months that he was here,
he gained the distinction of being the first person in over a decade to actually
save more than $200 while living with us. Working at a job that he detested, telephone
sales, he was able to save almost $1,500. We urged him to keep saving until he
had enough for first and last month's rent on an apartment. But, alas, the only
thing that he wanted was a car. The last we heard from Leroy was a call from the
discount jewellery store, which wanted to know if he was a good credit risk. Now
Leroy has his own transportation, nice clothes, jewellery - and sleeps in his
What are we really doing here anyway? When we are really
honest with ourselves, when we wake up in the darkness of the early morning plagued
with doubt and even despair, we must admit that we have not accomplished all that
much. We have not changed the work; the poor and the hungry are still with us
in even greater numbers than when we started. Though we write and speak unceasingly,
though we appear with some frequency in the media, though our founder, Dorothy
Day, is considered by many to be the single most important Catholic in the history
of the American Church, we remain virtually a secret movement. What we are doing
here, making beds, preparing soup, and cleaning toilets. What are we doing here
breaking up fights, arguing with community members and battling unceasingly with
petty bureaucrats? What are we doing here going to endless meetings, talking to
high school students who would rather be watching MTV, explaining to our parents
for the millionth time why we don't get a salary or have health insurance or pay
into Social security, apologising to them again for that time their new Buick
got graffitied while visiting us?
What are we doing here
wasting our time on folks who are probably going to die anyway? What are we doing
here wasting our time on losers and drug addicts, people who are never going to
make it? We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless; we offer
hospitality, community and friendship to the poor, but in 20 years of doing this
work, what have we really accomplished? When we first started, it was easier for
me to dismiss our failures because we were "just a bunch of hippies running
a free soup kitchen." No wonder we failed; we simply didn't know what we
were doing. I use to envy all of the professional agencies filled with certified
experts who ran effective programs that claimed to "re-connect the poor"
or "mainstream the poor" or "empower the poor." But I have
come to realise that we are not failures, because of our lack of knowledge, education,
sophistication or professional staff. We are not even failures because the poor
whom we serve fail so consistently.
We are a failure because
we are in intimate contact with the brokenness of our culture. When Jesus told
us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and visit the imprisoned, he knew
that activities would take us directly into the heart of all the injustice, oppression
and brokenness in our society. He assumed that such simple activities would cause
us to ask questions about both ourselves and society. He assumed that such activity
would involve us in a continuing process of becoming human. He assumed that this
causes us to deny both power and status. He assumed that this ministry of prophetic
compassion would be the ongoing work of his church.
Brueggemann said in his book Prophetic Imagination "Compassion constitutes
a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously,
that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural, but it is an abnormal
and unacceptable condition of humanness
Thus, compassion that might be seen
simply as generous good will is, in fact, criticism of the system, forces, and
ideologies that produce the hurt. Jesus enters into the hurt and comes to embody
it." Our tasks is to do the same. To enter into the hurt is to realise that
the system is rigged. It is to realise that the poor can never be conformed to
the rigorous, self-serving standards of progress, education, and consumption -
patterns demanded by our culture for even minimal social acceptance. To enter
into the hurt is to realise that there standards are the exact parallel to the
pharisaical codes of first century Palestine that kept the poor of Jesus' time
landless, marginated and debt ridden. The great temptation of people in our line
of work is to abandon the basic human effort of responding compassionately in
favour of a so called "effective strategy." But whether those strategies
of salvation are job training programs, political action, substance abuse therapies,
or just simple minded religion, their pre-disposition toward operational effectiveness
and quantifiable results tend to cover over the depth of the wounded-ness.
are not here to cure the poor or to fix the poor or to mainstream the poor; we
are not here to create programs, make converts, raise money, or build great buildings.
We are here to enter into the pain of the poor, to expose the wounds that make
the suffering of the poor inevitable. We are here to offer healing and compassion.
We are here in response to Jesus' challenge to be human. We are not here to submit
to that radical surgery which will take away our hearts of stone and exchange
them for hearts of flesh. We are here to morn with the poor and tell their stories.
Anything less than this witness of prophetic compassion covers over the wound
without healing it. Anything less than this is pious serf-aggrandisement or pompous
professionalism. It is not enough to be merely people who have faith and hope
in Jesus Christ. We must also be people who have a corresponding lack of faith
and hope in Jesus Christ. We must also be people who have a corresponding lack
of faith and hope in institutions and structures of worldly power. We must not
be seduced by professional technique, or therapeutic jargon, or political power,
or mindless religion.
To be an instrument of God's grace
is to reject the idols of power, it is to reject the instruments of professionalism,
religion and professional bureaucracies. To be an instrument of God's grace is
to be human and to respond to hurt in a human manner, which is today personally
and communally rather than collectively and bureaucratically. The personal, communal
witness is the only means that opens a path for our God to act in the world. Only
by being human can we make the world more humane. Only by being Christian can
we make the world more Christian. Only by exposing the wound as terminal can we
then make room for God to work. While it does not seem very effective, this work
of cleaning toilets, making soup, healing wounds and offering prophetic hospitality
is what our God asks of us in order that we might be human. To be human is to
recognise that we are not God, that we are not all powerful. The greatest evil
in all of history was perpetrated by good people who thought they could fix all
human problems in one great "final solution." Whether through war, revolution
or technical progress, these strategies of effectiveness share a common disregard
for the relationship between means and ends.
experience of the last century demonstrates so clearly the "little way"
of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin is not some outdated, pious, pie in the sky theology,
but it is rather the only appropriate means of achieving our noble end - a more
human world. The instruments of power, whether political, military, or bureaucratic,
can achieve only disaster, even though the world would wish us believe otherwise.
As Dorothy day wrote so many years ago in Loaves and Fishes of the greatest evils
of the day
sense of futility. Young people say "what good can one person
do? What is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one
brick at a time, take one step at a time, we can be responsible for only the one
action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts
that will vitalise and transform all our individual actions, and know that God
will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes. Finally,
we must ask ourselves what it is that the master should find us doing when he
returns? Running successful programs? Acquiring advanced degrees? Transforming
political systems? Should he find us filling stadiums with converts, administering
massive building programs, developing sophisticated fundraising strategies? No,
the master has a right to expect that the servants to whom he trusted his house
will be serving still - cleaning toilets, making soup, binding wounds. This is
what it means to be human and not be faithful and not be effective. This is what
it means to be an instrument of grace and not an instrument of power - to be servants
of the poor and not administrators of poverty programs.
may not be able to cure Cheryl, Hector, or Leroy, but we can serve them and welcome
them as best we can. We can embody their hurt and tell their stories. And we can
let our god do the rest.
Links to other Catholic
Youth Ministry programs.
Ministry Resources and gospel reflections.
Rebeccas Community Youth