NVFG Keynote Address, April 2005 – Expanding the Circle of Solidarity.
Some stories come along at the right moment in your life. Here’s a story that has never left the back of my head since the day I heard it’
A villager is walking by the river early one morning. The villager looks out into the water and sees a baby floating down the river. Horrified, the villager races into the water, grabs the baby, and brings the baby to shore. The baby is fine. Relieved, the villager looks back into the water and sees another baby floating down the water. The villager again dives into the water and rescues this baby as well. Once more, the villager looks into the water . . . and sees dozens of babies floating down the river. The villager calls out an alarm, and the entire village comes running to the river to rescue as many babies as they can before the water carries them away. This is a village that is mobilized. Every villager is at the river, trying to save the babies from the water. This is a village that is improving lives. Many of the babies are being saved. But the babies keep on coming . . . because no one is going upstream to find out who is throwing the babies into the water in the first place.
You may have heard this story before. The United Way tells it all the time in its fund-raising efforts. It’s simple but it came along at a time in my own life when it changed the way I looked at the world. I was drawn to the Vincentian way of life because of its charity, and the way real, flesh-and-blood people were assisted. I loved working in the soup kitchen; teaching people to read in the literacy classroom; building up the self-confidence and spirituality of youth in an innercity youth groups; getting people into housing; spending time cooking, cleaning, speaking with, and housing people overnight in the shelters; referring people to social services that would make a difference; referring people to legal aid to help them stay in this country’ so much more. Those were tangible projects. When I went to bed that evening, I had done something real.
Then came this baby-in-the-river story, and it was like I opened my eyes and saw something I hadn’t looked at before. I had wondered about the conditions that made other people’s lives so different from my own, but it was such a big question, and I really didn’t know much about it, that I usually set the larger questions aside, and just continued doing charitable work. This story made me stop and wonder if I was just like those villagers who kept rescuing the babies, and never solved the problem. What difference was my charity – and life – making?
I have come to believe that it is not enough to give food and shelter, important as that is. If I do nothing to change the situations and structures that make people poor, then I’ve only dabbed a bleeding wound. I haven’t stopped the bleeding. I now believe that God wants us to stop the bleeding. He wants us to go upriver, to fix the problem, not just minister to the symptoms of the problem.
Let me give you a current example: Social Security and Medicare. Before these programs were first begun, over half of the country’s elderly lived in poverty. Since that time, most elderly now have an income and basic medical care. These programs might not be perfect, and there might be some who aren’t benefited, but overall, the elderly are far better off than they once were. I believe that God wants us to fix social security before it goes bankrupt. Actually, I don’t know if God cares about social security. I know he cares about the elderly and the poor. I know he wouldn’t want us to sit around and do nothing. So, what do we do? I’ll tell you what I think about social security over lunch if you want. My point here is simply that it is not enough to give seniors clothing, or money for their heating bills, if we sit around and do nothing to save social security.
We must be advocates for the poor. We aren’t professionals. I know that. We aren’t government officials, policy wonks, economists, analysts, or anyone important who can change society. But even if we aren’t professionals, we must be advocates. Advocates are important. There aren’t enough professionals out there to make a political difference. Things change because enough people come together and create energy. The professionals can’t make that change, only large groups like us. Advocates.
So, what did I do after I heard that story about the babies in the river? I joined an organization that was working to make change happen. I started out by writing letters for Amnesty International. If I couldn’t change the big picture, maybe I could contribute in some small way to an organization that could. I donated small amounts of money to Network and a couple other organizations that were trying to make systemic change. I try to read and talk to people about what I learn. I’ve started a book club at the university to discuss major issues of the day. I try to talk about the poor when I preach, or when I have the opportunity meet political figures. These days, I spend time lobbying state and federal politicians to provide more financial aid for poor students.
But that’s just me. I’ve been wondering about the larger Vincentian Family itself. In Vincent’s day, no one even thought of changing larger structures to keep people from becoming poor in the first place. They thought about charity. But in our age and time, we have realized that if we make changes to our laws, to our government programs, to our city and educational policies, that many more people can be helped that way than can ever be taken out of poverty by our charitable works. So, I’ve been thinking for some time about what the Vincentians in the U.S. can do. We don’t have policy experts among our
I’ve been wondering about the larger Vincentian Family itself. In Vincent’s day, no one even thought of changing larger structures to keep people from becoming poor in the first place. They thought about charity. But in our age and time, we have realized that if we make changes to our laws, to our government programs, to our city and educational policies, that many more people can be helped that way than can ever be taken out of poverty by our charitable works. So, I’ve been thinking for some time about what the Vincentians in the U.S. can do. We don’t have policy experts among our
I’ve been wondering about the larger Vincentian Family itself. In Vincent’s day, no one even thought of changing larger structures to keep people from becoming poor in the first place. They thought about charity. But in our age and time, we have realized that if we make changes to our laws, to our government programs, to our city and educational policies, that many more people can be helped that way than can ever be taken out of poverty by our charitable works. So, I’ve been thinking for some time about what the Vincentians in the U.S. can do. We don’t have policy experts among our ranks, or politicians, or economists. What can we do? What do we have to give?
It crystallized for me during the recent presidential election. No one mentioned the poor. Neither side – republican or democrat – mentioned the poor. The poor were invisible in the last election. And that’s what where we can help. We know the poor. We may not be policy experts, but we know the poor.
I want to make a proposal today. And I want to propose something that would require all of the Vincentian Family to work together in the U.S. Several years ago, we agreed that we should work together more than we have in the past. I’ve seen some small attempts to assist one another’s formation experiences. I’ve also seen some local meetings for mutual support or prayer. This conference itself fits within that purpose. Perhaps there are even some combined works, but I haven’t seen those. To my mind, we haven’t been very successful in bringing our organizations together to make something significant happen. I know we want to say that ‘we are greater together than the sum of our parts,’ but it’s not true right now. We are not greater together than the sum of our parts. So here’s my proposal:
Let’s get the poor into the public eye. Let’s make the poor visible again, and let’s do it together. Poor people don’t vote, so those in charge need to see other groups take interest in them.
* On a local level, let’s get every group of boy scouts and girls scouts, and neighborhood associations, schools, churches to do something for the poor. To see the poor, to meet them, not just drop off bags of clothing for people they’ll never meet.
* More regionally, let’s meet with elected officials, and give them tours of the neighborhoods we work in. Let’s tell them the stories and needs of the poor.
* Let’s meet with local newspapers, give them story ideas.
* Let’s get people at our churches and institutions to write letters about the needs of the poor.
* When there’s a larger issue, get them human interest stories (example of DePaul using student stories with congressman)
* Nationally, let’s hire a PR firm to help us figure out how to get the needs of the poor back on the political agenda.
* Let’s mobilize the national foundations to put the poor back on the map of public concern.
* Let’s work with existing national organizations, such as Network and others, to provide them our access and knowledge of the poor.
* And let’s use the poor to do this. Empower them to speak on their behalf.
* Let’s work across church lines.
Let’s create a national visibility for the poor. Let’s foster a national desire to do something to help the poor. This will require focus and coordination, a small central office staffed and funded by our organizations. This will require our time and cooperation with that central office. Real time, real cooperation; not ‘prayerful support’ or ‘sympathetic interest.’
We have a big head start on this. The Society of St. Vincent DePaul has done an extraordinary job with their ‘Voices of the Poor Initiative.’ We can learn a great deal from them.
Let me put some money where my mouth is. If the combined Vincentian Family will take on this work, I will put the resources of DePaul University behind it, including an offer to house it and defray some of the operating expenses. DePaul University will not, however, start or lead this initiative. I say that because I know too well that this could become nothing more than one university’s work, while everyone else looks on and wishes us well. For this to be nationally successful and make a true difference for upcoming elections and legislative sessions, this must be a national initiative, supported by all the branches of our Vincentian Family. DePaul University stands ready to be help.
In the end, that is only one idea. The larger point is contained in the story about those poor babies floating down the river. It’s not enough to give charity. Not in this world. Not at this time. The poor need our advocacy as well as our handouts.
Youth and Young Adults
I’m not an expert on this generation. I get to talk with a lot of them, but my knowledge is limited to a subset: I know the ones who go to college. Let me offer a few reflections on them, and then an encouragement for you to work closely with them.
First, let me assure you that the present 18-22-year-old’s are not a ‘me generation.’ This generation has a great heart. Volunteerism is at an all-time measured high among this group, even before they get to college. They are idealistic and immediately moved to action when the world treats the poor unfairly. You see it in the college movements against free trade; for fair trade coffee; against coca cola; against sweatshops; against Sodexco prison labor; for gay rights, and more. They are both generous and idealistic.
This generation does not have heroes, or at least not the political or social heroes that we remember. Their heroes tend to be parents, other relatives, or adults who had a formative effect on them growing up. Their heroes are local and known to them. In short, you have the potential to be their heroes.
Their knowledge of the poor is spotty at best. Most are shocked and surprised to learn very basic things about the poor ‘ such as that the poor or largely female and children, that the primary cause for poverty is divorce, etc. They can learn much from you.
Their positions on most world issues are unformed, largely because their high school education (and frequently their college educations) did not introduce them to the larger structures that shape the world (economics, geopolitical forces, etc’) They believe strongly in freedom movements, especially movements that enhance the position of women and other traditionally marginalized groups, but these positions are frequently not informed by any real knowledge of history or culture, but a strong belief in self-determination. For that reason, they have little idea of how to be supportive, or how to make a difference. Their economic positions are also somewhat shaped by their fears that they will not enjoy the same economic living standards as did their parents ‘ which appears to be a well-founded fear. That fear thus limits their abilities to talk about a larger social compact.
For those college students who are poor, it is not the case that they are in college simply to improve their economic prospects. That is certainly a goal, but many want to and fully intend to give back to their communities. A number of them are already doing so. That said, it is similarly true that this particular group of students is hardest on and least sympathetic toward the poor. They see themselves as having risen above their circumstances, and they have little patience for those who have not done so. In addition, they are so stretched by work, school, more home responsibilities than other students, and often more difficult commutes to and from school, less home support or understanding of their school requirements or challenges, that they cannot add much more service into their lives. Not now.
So, all that said’. Good hearts. Not a lot of deep understanding about the poor or about the world structures that create poverty. Idealistic. Little time and heavily in debt. How do the organizations represented at this conference bring the youth into this work?
You invite. One young person at a time. A few at a time. You get to know their names. You invite them back repeatedly. YOU INVITE THEM ALONG
And then’, YOU GIVE THEM AUTHORITY, responsibility for a task. They can tag along at first, but you can’t wait for very long before you give them something important to do that will succeed or fail because of their efforts. Help them, to be sure. Give them the support and assistance they need. But let them fail or succeed, and learn from either one. You will lose them if all you do is invite them along. Give them something to be in charge of.
Then, and only then, YOU MENTOR THEM. Help them problem-solve. Give them advice when they make rookie mistakes like you did. Show them how to make a difference. Tell them how you got started doing this. Tell them why you do this. Tell them of your failures, your doubts, the challenges. Not all at once. Just slip these things in from time to time. It’ll work. They respond when someone from another generation takes real interest in them. So few do!
You’ll need to respect the rhythm of their lives. They are highly scheduled, and they tend to be free and willing to work at times when those of us with full-time jobs or who are retired are less inclined to work. Late afternoons, through the traditional dinner hour, late evenings. You’ll also need to respect the amount of time that they can offer. Many have part-time jobs on top of school, and must fit service into the spaces leftover.
You’ll need to accept the fact that most have no interest in a celibate life. If vocation promotion is your real goal, they’ll realize it soon enough and quietly disappear. I have been the youngest Vincentian at every work I’ve ever been assigned to. The truth is, if I thought I was simply finishing out the backend of something that used to be wonderful, I’d leave religious life. I can’t muster enough energy to keep me going for a lifetime, just to keep something going a bit longer. But, if I see my time and task in religious life to be part of designing what’s coming next for the church, I can wake up in the morning and say my life’s important. Consider your invitation to the youth to fit into that category ‘ ‘designing what’s coming next’ ‘ instead of ‘squeezing out some last recruits before it’s too late.’ (And then if some vocations come, wonderful!)
Perhaps one last thought. I believe that we have a responsibility to the next ‘generation’ of servants of the poor. I mean that seriously – a responsibility. Just as you may be responsible for your children, or for your elderly parents, or your loved ones, or your parishioners, you are responsible for the poor of tomorrow, and those who will serve them. You cannot just take care of today’s poor, you have a responsibility that someone will follow you to take care of the poor tomorrow. Play your part, invite younger people along with you. Tell your stories. Give the young something to be in charge of and responsible for. Live with the fact that it won’t always be perfect, as you judge ‘perfect.’ The point is, we were once welcomed and invited into this work by others. We must do the same.
I began this talk with an assignment to speak of three things ‘ Formation, Advocacy, and Youth. Separate things, to be sure, but they intertwine. The reason we’re here is an intuition that the work and organizations we are part of could be strengthened if we worked more closely together.
Perhaps it will be some sort of shared, or cross-fertilized formation experience. Perhaps we’ll find new ways to invite youth into our works, helping one another to do so. Perhaps we’ll find a way to advocate for the poor together. Perhaps someone may even find the idea intriguing to do something to put the poor back on the national consciousness. Perhaps another idea altogether will come out of the discussions at this conference.
Whatever it is that comes from this, allow me to end with a word of gratitude.
Work for the poor is not always as rewarding as people might think, not most days. Most days it asks work, patience, a little frustration. It’s much easier when others work with us. And so, permit me a personal ‘thank you’ to each of you. Your work for the poor is an encouragement for me. Your steady, long-term service helps me to keep going as well. Our mutual witness, our camaraderie, laughter, prayer, simple interest in one another, goes a long way. Thank you for all you do. If we decide to do something further together, we already begin in a place of generosity and mutual support.
Thank you for that. God bless you.