A conversation with...
What contribution to women’s spirituality do you hope to make with your book, Living a Spirituality of Action: A Woman’s Perspective?
Many times we think of making a difference in this world as the prerogative of the rich, someone like Bill Gates. What I’m trying to do is to invite women who are just the average woman to get involved in making a difference in the world. The average woman of faith can make a huge difference. That’s the woman I wrote the book for.
Was there a person you looked up to while growing up who embodied “living a spirituality of action” and who inspired you to a life of service?
I think my mom because she always kept her eyes open and then did what was necessary for particular cases. She didn’t have a political agenda; she wasn’t trying to change the world; she just watched out for other people. If they had a need, then she responded to whatever need it was. And she did this on a wide-scale basis. At her funeral, our family stood in line for seven hours, and at many times, there were mourners three deep as they came by. And this wasn’t Mother Teresa; this was just a farm lady. We just couldn’t believe how many lives she impacted. She had no organization; she had nothing. She simply kept her eyes open and did what was necessary. It was very impressive.
In the midst of all the sobering statistics about people growing up in poverty today, where do you find hope in the world?
There was an old Franciscan Capuchin priest who worked in the inner city all of his life. Someone asked him basically the same question. He looked at the person and said, “Just do something.” In a sense, it’s kind of like getting a diagnosis of cancer. How do you not get overwhelmed by the fact that there’s a good possibility that you’re going to die and have all this pain and suffering? You can allow yourself to become completely overwhelmed and frozen and cry in your beer over it, or you can say, “OK, what can I do?”
Plan it out well, and get something done. I can’t impact 100,000 children. But I can do a really good job with 100, so I do 100. In other words, instead of putting your energy into fretting, put your energy into doing something. If many people do this, the world changes.
Helping people in need is great, but you say in your book that giving people handouts without ever saying “no” isn’t an effective approach either. So when it comes to giving, where is the line between helping someone and inhibiting them?
That’s a discernment question. Recently, I sat on the couch and went through a list of the refugee families I deal with. For each family, I asked: What does this family need? What more can we do for this family? We basically liberated from our help about 25 families. They’re done. They aren’t invited into the pantry anymore. We aren’t paying bills anymore. We do this regularly. Some families will leave kicking and screaming from our program, but not to do this, not to free them, would be to make them dependent on us.
In one sense, all of us would like Mommy and Daddy around for insurance for the rest of our lives. But it’s not good for us. It’s the same thing when you do social services. Refugee families can move forward and get significantly better. Part of the goal of any social service program is to simply get out of the way. It’s kind of like being a good doctor. You listen to people; you diagnose what the problem is; you try some strategies; you go with what works; you refine it further. But at a certain point you don’t need another appointment—you’re done.
You mention how large institutions can have a tendency to get so caught up in bureaucracy, paperwork, protocol that it can be very difficult to get anything done. You mention how sometimes just individuals banding together can do things quicker and more efficiently. What place do well-established institutions have when it comes to service to the poor?
I think the institutions that have served the poor best historically are health care institutions and educational institutions. For education and health care, we definitely must have well-established, well-endowed institutions for obvious reasons. You really don’t want to be in the hospital for a brain injury and have the hospital go out of business. You don’t want the hospital to not have enough money to open the doors the next day when you’re critically ill.
Social service institutions are another issue. It is really difficult for social service institutions to stay healthy and effective over the long haul. Now we have government social services—sort of. And then you have private groups that are trying to buy government contracts. The invitation to corruption is just there on so many levels that the longer a social service institution remains, the more it becomes progressively harder for them to get something done. What needs to get done often can’t get done. Do we need social services? Yes. But keeping them effective is really tough; it’s really, really tough.
For many people, giving to the poor means donating old clothing or canned goods to a shelter. Could you talk about the difference between giving out of surplus and actually addressing the needs of the poor?
Usually, the first thing a person does when trying to do something that’s effective for the poor is to call the people involved in serving the poor and say, “We’d like to have a parish drive for your organization. Can you tell us the current needs, or what can be most helpful?” Recently I got a call from a deacon who wanted to help. He had already published a request for these items in his parish bulletin. This guy didn’t call us first to ask what we needed. He just assumed we needed old clothes, old furniture and canned goods—which we do not need. Now it’s going to be a huge problem for us to get rid of [it all]. Just because people are working with poor people, they can’t assume to know what poor people need. We don’t know what each other needs, and so we have to find that out; we have to ask.
So often, as soon as you say “poor” or “needy,” we go back to the Depression agenda, which is weird because most of us don’t remember the 1930s. But the Depression has been so programmed into American society that cans and old clothes are the immediate response to any kind of poverty. There was some disaster in Africa, and they were actually paving streets with old clothes that Americans sent to Africa—they couldn’t use the clothes! Cleaning out my old junk and getting rid of it can be more of a problem instead of less of a problem.
What tips do you have for someone who wants to find out what small groups and organizations there are working in her community to help serve the poor?
I would, first of all, ask, “What are you interested in?” Are you interested in education, in health care, in social services, in food? In order to be passionate about something, we have to know what we really love. Once we find out what we really love, then we need to see what’s out there and what’s working, just like you’re applying to a business. You talk to people who know the company or nonprofit; you look at stats. You talk to families who have been under the care of the institutions; you visit the place yourself; you volunteer in it—it could even be a short-term thing. You go online and see what’s going on and what’s working and what isn’t. You need to do a little bit of investigation. Just throwing money out there can often do more harm than good.
You mentioned in your book something that sounds absolutely blasphemous: the failure of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Jesus as a failure. But how can reflection on the fact that Jesus died humiliated, abandoned by all but a few of his followers, aid our own ministries?
When you are actually working on the ground with real people, it isn’t all jolly-jolly. In other words, working with the poor and needy is hard, it’s exhausting, it is dangerous work. If life would have been just a picnic for Jesus and everything went great, I wouldn’t know how to follow a guy like that with the poor. But it’s not all a picnic. It is the cross; it is hard; it wears you out. Why one makes that choice is because one makes a choice to follow Jesus and to love. Instead of joining the problem, one chooses the choice; one makes the choice of being a loving person in the world. Jesus helps me with that because he chose love too. He chose love over equity of life or over luxury or those kinds of things. Love was more joyous; it brought him more joy.
For many people who are working with the poor, it seems that the goal is progress. You give an alternative goal: love. How would that outlook—not worrying about the outcome, just trying to love people—affect the way we view our life and our ministry?
Catherine of Siena has this thing of “doing the truth in love,” this element of loving with a discerning heart. Now there are times when you can love people and push them forward and invite them forward and give them the resources to move forward. We have a whole tribe of Sudanese that we have done this with, and they just simply cannot move beyond a certain level. They came out of the bush; they’re very, very primitive. They will never be homeowners; it is not possible for them. They are nomads—having a house is just devastating to them. So in a sense you can say, if we measure progress with benchmarks—like how many Sudanese after six years of work own their own homes—we have a lot of them that do. But this group cannot. It is not loving for us to push them into failure because of our benchmarks. It is more loving for us to say that this particular group needs to stay at this level for their own mental, emotional and economic health.
So while progress is always a goal, because you do want to move people forward the best they can, all of us, it’s just human, have our gifts and our liabilities. And to push people so deeply into their liability that they disintegrate is simply cruel. It might be good for my benchmarks, but my benchmarks aren’t worth that. I think when your goal is love, you just operate differently. You listen to people’s hearts, and you listen to people’s souls, and you listen to people’s abilities and you do what’s realistic. And you love them there.
How do you envision women using your book?
Certainly individual women who are interested in this can read it. I think anyone doing social justice in a parish, on a social justice committee, Christian mothers—any women’s group that tries to do outreach—would really benefit from discussing this book. This would be a great text for a social justice course for women in Catholic high schools, especially women’s high schools, and Catholic colleges. It would stimulate discussion and thinking that would move us beyond this Depression “old clothes and empty pantries” mentality. We need to imagine differently regarding how we respond to each other when people are down.
Friday, August, 29, 2008