Kevin Ryan is the President and CEO of Covenant House International. This year, St. John’s University will bring him to our campus four times as the holder of the Vincentian Chair of Social Justice. Somewhat technically, though accurately, Covenant House has been described as “the largest privately funded agency in the Americas providing shelter, food, immediate crisis care, and an array of other services to homeless and runaway youth.” A more personal description of Covenant House would capture much more of the human condition and the love of our children. From the beginning, this ministry has had Catholic roots. Our Sister, Mary Rose Mc Geady, DC served as President of this institution for 13 years and returned it to life at a bad time in its history. The work of Covenant House continues to demonstrate the Vincentian spirit.
The driving theme of Mr. Ryan’s presentations at St. John’s is “From Homelessness to Hope.” His first lecture made many important points, but one has stayed in my head in these weeks. Many of his stories reflected his own Catholic upbringing and the love of his parents. He spoke of how his mother always affirmed him. One time, for example, when he wanted to join a choir, his mother told him that he could sing well. This was not exactly true, but she always strove to build up his self-confidence and sense of self-worth.
Kevin used this story as a starting point as he spoke of the reverse experience of so many of the youth who make their way to Covenant House. Often, parents and other authority figures told them that they were worthless and with no future. Sometimes, these young people began to believe this characterization and lived it out. They made bad decisions and got involved with the wrong people. They gave reality to the harsh words of those who should have been their supports and guides. Covenant House strives to move these brothers and sisters off the streets, to help them get away from harmful acquaintances and substances, and to begin their lives in a new way with education. The wonderful element which it brings into the experience of these young persons is encouragement and, in one word, hope.
It takes little imagination to note the way in which Covenant House carries out a ministry that would have been close to the hearts of Vincent and Louise. Both of them recognized the huge potential of the young and their need for structure, education, and training. In August 1641, for example, Vincent said: “You (DC) have given yourselves to God for the service of the sick poor and the instruction of youth particularly in country areas.”
Telling stories of the manner in which Vincent and Louise dealt with the foundlings, poor girls, and the “little schools” come easily and warmly to our mind. (Particularly if we give attention to Sr. Louise Sullivan’s The Core Values of Vincentian Education, Vincentian Heritage Journal 16:2.)
Serving at a Catholic and Vincentian University offers me many opportunities to affirm and support our young sisters and brothers. Kevin Ryan reminded me of the importance of that ministry. The occasion may arise differently in the lives of each of us, but no less forcefully. Let us lift up our young, our future.