Seeds of Change Chapter 6: Start Modestly

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

From Vincentian Family News Blog's introduction to the Systemic Change: Seeds of Change series: Pope John Paul II encouraged people to analyze the situation of the poor carefully, to identify the structural roots of poverty, and to formulate concrete solutions.

This article continues a twenty chapter series offered by the members of the Commission for Promoting Systemic Change about strategies that are useful, often even essential, for bringing about such change.

Adopting as its starting point a group of projects in which systemic change has actually taken place, the Commission analyzed stories of leaders of successful projects. From these stories, the Commission sought to identify the strategies that helped produce lasting change. It soon became clear that many of the strategies that led to structural changes and transformed the circumstances of individuals and communities flowed from the Gospels and from our Vincentian tradition.


Systemic Change Strategy Six: Implement coherent strategies, starting modestly, delegating tasks and responsibilities, and providing quality services respectful of human dignity.


By Sister Ellen Flynn, D.C.

Sister Ellen Flynn, D.C.

Practical, concrete and effective services are the hallmark of our Vincentian pragmatism, underpinned by the absolute belief that each person is made in the image and likeness of God and is a temple of the Holy Spirit. The spark of divine life in every person is to be brought forth as we serve them both corporally and spiritually, in ways that are well thought out and achieve lasting results. All projects for the poor start modestly and grow into being. The original story of Vincent’s experience as Parish Priest of Chatillon les Dombes in many ways sets the pattern for the next strategy in our series:


Implement coherent strategies, starting modestly, delegating tasks and responsibilities, and providing quality services respectful of human dignity.


Start modestly: Chatillon

Vincent hears of a family in desperate need and gives a moving homily, thereby enlisting others - ‘God touched the hearts of my listeners’.


Upon visiting the family later he finds many others on the road offering assistance, including a great pile of provisions. He observes that suddenly the members of the family have more than they could possibly need, realises that some of the food would perish and be wasted – and they would be just as badly off. But this was a great, local beginning. What was needed was organisation!


Vincent made a plan, called a meeting, formed an association and delegated tasks and responsibilities to the people of the parish. From this seemingly small start a whole movement began. (Cf. Roman P. 123)


“There is a great charity”, he had said, “but it is badly organized”. Thus was born the Vincentian style of charity. (Like a Great Fire, 17). He gave birth to a network of grassroots organisational initiatives that channeled individual good will into effective service of the poor.


Start modestly: Madagascar

A similar story can be found in a present-day story of the AIC in Madagascar which began with a humble start and grew into an impressive network.


The first AIC groups in Madagascar began in 1988. Initially, four women, moved with compassion at the plight of street children, began to care for 15 of them. After a time, however, the number of children grew while the resources to care for them remained slight. The women became aware that, if they were to care for these children properly, they would need to find a new and more effective methodology.


With help of AIC International the volunteers organised themselves through the creation of a local network of mutual support and help. The situation in the country was alarming, and exacerbated by the lack of organization and structure. A small grant of one hundred dollars was obtained to start a nutritional project that has now become a national network against hunger and malnutrition, one that is now recognized by several international organisations such as UNICEF.


From Vincent’s story and from the AIC story we can see that Systemic Change begins with:

  • Defining a local and specific need
  • Starting to respond in a modest way
  • Building awareness
  • Enlisting and empowering an organised, multi-faceted response


Both Vincent and Louise, and later Frederick Ozanam and Elizabeth Ann Seton, insisted that services be carried out with competence, relevant skills and adequate resources. Louise, ever the practitioner, fretted if all was not right and would give enormously detailed instructions as to how tasks should be carried out. The quality of the service offered must provide a foundation of gentleness, respect and attention to the individual in need. The fact that we provide a quality service, gives a message to all about our regard for the human beings we serve, no matter how low their own self-esteem is, or how serious and degrading the issues.


What better way to sum up than in the compelling words of Frederick Ozanam:


‘Do not be afraid of new beginnings. Be creative. Be inventive. Organise new works of love in the service of the poor. You who have energy; who have enthusiasm; who want to do something of value for the future; be inventive, launch out; do not wait.’


Index of Systemic Change: Seeds of Change series