A Vincentian Reflection on
Listening and Systemic Change
Someone actively engaged in ministry told me recently that he ran into a person from his former place of service, who thanked him profusely for helping her with a problem years ago. The minister was uncomfortable, remembering that he actually was able to do very little to help. Upon saying so, he was told “maybe so but you listened to me. That’s what I needed most.”
Ministry is not just about doing, about carrying out projects. It’s also about being with people, present to them in their difficulties, and listening to them attentively and compassionately.
Listening is a Gospel value. Although Jesus obviously preached the Good News continually, we also find him at table with others, engaging in give and take with the Pharisees, and receptive to the crowds seeking him. Even prayer is fundamentally listening, opening ourselves to God’s promptings. “Speak Lord, your servant listens.”
It is rare in society that the poor find a listening audience. No one typically seeks their opinion. They are not seated at decision-making tables. While “experts” discuss what the poor need, and what they should do, why not just ask them? Those burdened with poverty know what they need, and in fact are the only ones that can ultimately change their situation.
Vincentian ministry is people-centered. Better yet, poor people-centered. People stuck in poverty should not be merely the objects of studies and proposals, but actors who develop the proposals and carry them out. This is the first principle of systemic change work: that the victims of poverty become the artisans of their own journey out of poverty into the “abundant life” Jesus proclaims.
Good listening is ministry. Listening to those living in poverty is the necessary start to help them change the structures and systems that keep them poor. Our Vincentian ministry invites us to become active and compassionate listeners, believing deeply in the insight and capacity of the people we serve.
Jim Claffey just retired from the St. Vincent de Paul Society on Long Island, where he served as Director of Formation and Programs. Jim currently serves as the executive secretary of the Vincentian Family’s International Commission to Promote Systemic Change.