To Hell With Good Intentions

by | Jan 16, 2020 | Formation, Reflections | 1 comment

Colorado Vincentian Volunteers (CVV) is a program for young adults ages 22-30 to put their faith into action by working full time in local non-profit organizations that serve as resources for people who are living in poverty and are marginalized. But perhaps more importantly, these young adults engage in a process of reflection on their work in light of their faith. If we are to truly assess our work according to how we are responding to present issues of social justice, then we must look deeper into ourselves, our core values, and the beliefs that we bring to the table with us.

Once these young adults have had an opportunity to work for a few months, they are deemed ready to face some of these harder questions about their motivation and their way of entering into relationship with those whom they daily encounter at their work sites. That’s when we share with them “To Hell With Good Intentions.”  This was a piece that was originally presented by Ivan Illich to a group of students visiting Mexico for service trip in 1968.  Funny thing…it is relevant to our intentions today. Though we do not agree with all that Illich presents, we find it provocative both for ourselves as an organization and for our participants as they dig deeper and reflect on their own intentions.  And ultimately, do intentions matter?  Paradoxically the answer is yes and no. These are some of the reflections our group grappled with as they listened to the words of Illich.

“I have become known for my increasing opposition to the presence of any and all North American ‘do-gooders’ in Latin America.”  While Illich is speaking of those who were coming to Mexico where he was living at the time, we adjusted the talk to include American “do-gooders” wherever they find themselves, including the work they are doing here in Denver.  Are we simply do-gooders who have come to give of ourselves, hoping to “save” someone or to have pity or to “serve?”  Or are we entering into an encounter with those who are living in the margins so as to look into the face of Christ, thus also looking into a mirror to see our own need for growth, our own flaws and to receive what that other person has to offer us?

“Existence of organizations like yours is offensive (to us)….. I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the ‘good’ which you intended to do.”  This is one of the most challenging comments from Illich.  It strikes to the core of who we are as an organization as Colorado Vincentian Volunteers.  If we are clear about our mission of inviting young adults into a process of transformation through companionship with those who are living in poverty and are marginalized, then we must always be examining our intentions. And to hell with good intentions?  Yes, if it is always about me/us, if it is about how much “good” are we doing, if it is about “us and them.”  But if it is about always finding ways to recognize the presence of Christ in one another, if it is always about reflecting on what my encounters are teaching me, if it is always about finding our own powerlessness and allowing God to work through us, then our intentions do matter.

Peter Mayer, a songwriter from Minnesota, wrote a song called “The Longest Night,” and a line from that song is, “There is a diamond in the soul of the longest night of the year.”  Mayer is speaking literally to the shortest day of the year, when darkness seems to be pervasive, and yet even a miner finds a diamond in the dark.  Our intention is to help these young adults to reflect on their intentions because they do matter. We each can find that diamond in the soul of the one we encounter. And they help us to find the diamond in our own soul.

1 Comment

  1. Mark Pranaitis

    As usual, Mary Frances nails it! I am reminded of a column by Ellen Goodman in The Boston Globe in the mid-1980s. She wrote of being at a fancy reception after a presentation at Radcliffe at which two women from Guatemala presented on the violence in their country. Goodman’s zinger that said it all, “Have another chocolate-covered kiwi for the poor.” Getting beyond noblesse oblige and good intentions seems an endless process. Thank you for the reminder to keep at it.

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