In Louisville, Kentucky, at the corner of what is now 4th and West Muhammad Ali Boulevard, stands a unique plaque. It doesn’t commemorate the birth of a political leader or the site of a famous battle. The plaque records the spiritual transformation of an individual. Author and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, describes the event in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness...I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate..."
We are then afforded the opportunity to help the individual and family also realize a transformation. It may be walking them through a credit card bill to point out that the interest charged each month is bigger than the minimum payment, so they are getting deeper in the hole even if they don’t use the card. Or helping them find an alternative to a car title loan that carries a huge interest rate and puts at risk the only means they have to get to their job. We help change their lives when we patiently listen to their story, even though we have other places to be. And we change them when we offer to pray with them. These are simple steps that every Vincentian does on a regular basis, almost as second nature, in the day to day work of our ministry.
As Voice of the Poor Vincentians, we use the stories of those we serve to help transform a wider audience.
Sometimes the transformation takes place at an individual level. During a recent visit with a state senator we told him the story of a single mother who had just started a minimum wage job and was proud that she could provide for her daughter and see a path to eventually getting off of public assistance. We pointed out that, if the senator’s bill to require drug testing for recipients of public aid were to prevail, this woman might lose her new job, taking a day to travel by bus to a crowded clinic to do a drug test. The senator was genuinely surprised to hear the story. He had lumped all “welfare” recipients into one image of drug abusers and freeloaders. He was transformed by hearing the real story of a person in need.
Transformation also takes place in communities when we collaborate with other organizations, in the continuum of system change.
In Tucson, Arizona, Casa Maria, a soup kitchen organized by The Catholic Workers, located a few block south of the Diocesan Council office serves about 800 meals a day to poor families in need.
Now, our Society is being transformed by the challenge to understand and tackle all of the systemic contributors to poverty in our communities. We are moving from a one-time transaction with a family to truly understanding the decisions that they made or the circumstances that led them to poverty. We need to better understand the resources that are available to help people. We need to collaborate with others to fill in gaps in communities where services are insufficient to meet the needs. And we need to work to change laws and policies that are roadblocks to self-sufficiency.