Near-sighted shepherds? Are we too close to the people we serve?

Huh? Isn’t Pope Francis urging us to have the smell of the sheep? Even Pope Benedict, in more intellectual terms, urged us to practice a theology of encounter. Bear with me. I love this image!

My concern in raising the question is that it is not enough. I am not alone in raising the question.

  • Over 175 years ago Frederic Ozanam wrote “Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveler who has been attacked. It is Justice’s role to prevent the attack.”
  • Martin Luther King wrote: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
  • On February 4, 2017, Pope Francis echoes the words of Frederic, “We must work toward changing the rules of the game of the socio-economic system, imitating the Good Samaritan of the Gospel is not enough.”

Rephrasing my question…These quotes illustrate the need for the Vincentian “AND” which holds things together: (See Regina Bechtle’s seminal article)

We also need to have the all-seeing eyes of the shepherd

A near-sighted person typically will have difficulty reading road signs and seeing distant objects clearly, but will be able to see well for close-up tasks such as reading and computer use. When all we see is the individual in front of us we become like the near-sighted shepherds. Imagine a near-sighted shepherd so focused on the immediate needs of the sheep, such as food, that he is blind to the surroundings of the flock.

We need to see and understand the context in which this particular person lives. We need to understand the complexities of this person’s life. What factors limit responses. For example…

Eva goes to a school with no textbooks or a leaking roof; if she doesn’t earn a living wage; if there is a lack of safe, affordable housing; if the public transportation system in her city is inadequate, money spent on education will be of limited benefit.

William doesn’t take out payday loans at 278% because he doesn’t understand that the interest rate is high; He does it because he doesn’t have the ability to take out affordable $300 loans, nor does he earn enough to generate $300 in savings.

These are all systemic change issues that a clear-sighted servant/shepherd needs to be alert to.

First responses and systemic change are two sides of the same coin

We need to acknowledge that both immediate aid and understanding root causes are important.
We need to honor the fact that integral ministry with our brothers and sisters calls for accepting the importance of both direct service and systemic change.
We need to admit that some of us will be better suited to one approach rather than the other.
We need to understand and learn from each other how to deliver emergency care and foster prevention.

Self-Awareness questions

On a scale 1-10 how would I rate my having:

  • direct contact and the smell of the sheep?
  • the all-seeing eye of the shepherd?

Which part of the Vincentian “AND” do I tend not to pay enough attention to?

Do I recognize and support those who are more skilled than I am as either first responders or systemic change agents?


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