Ever since becoming a young adult, I have been blessed with faith, and have taken seriously Matthew 22:
37 “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.
38 This is the greatest and the first commandment.
39 The second is similar: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
For years, I sensed that I was called to a higher standard. There was a desire to live up to what my beliefs required, but I also felt that my personal efforts were hopelessly inadequate. What was needed was transformation, which could only come with grace and time. My efforts always seemed insignificant and ineffective when measured against the need. A little over a year ago, my wife and I went to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago. I began the pilgrimage with few expectations other than to experience Spain and to spend time being with Jan, but the pilgrimage turned out to be a grace-filled time. I took a copy of “Evangelii Gaudium” for reading and reflection. It seemed to bring the pieces of the puzzle together, making me see the whole picture. Each passage struck me with power and inspiration, but one stood out: 47. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems. 48. If the whole Church takes up this missionary impulse, she has to go forth to everyone without exception. But to whom should she go first? When we read the Gospel we find a clear indication: not so much our friends and wealthy neighbors, but above all the poor and the sick, those who are usually despised and overlooked, “those who cannot repay you” (Lk 14:14). There can be no room for doubt or for explanations, which weaken so clear a message. Today and always, “the poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel”, and the fact that it is freely preached to them is a sign of the kingdom that Jesus came to establish. We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor. May we never abandon them. “Evangelii Gaudium”
By the time I returned home, I was convinced that as a Church we needed to heed the instructions in Joy of the Gospel, and to take them on as the mission of our parishes to come together in joy, and to work together to both grow in love and to bring the love of Christ to those, who most need that love, “those who can’t repay you”. I believed that this mission of service would show young people that faith does make a difference and that this common purpose of bringing the love of Christ to the poor would bring joy and unity to our parishes.
However, while the above made sense to me, I still had problems connecting the desire to serve, and connecting with the poor in a practical way of doing just that. I had been a Vincentian for over 4 years doing home visits, and some of the friends we served I had known for years, yet I was discouraged at how little difference we made in the lives of those we were trying to serve. It seemed that both the material aid and personal connection was quite limited.
Then in July, I attended with other Voice of the Poor Vincentians the SVDP Hope in Action Systemic Change Workshop in Los Angeles that provided additional answers on how we could be more effective in serving the poor. The workshop introduced me to the Bridges out of Poverty constructs, which helped me to understand poverty, to understand the causes of poverty, and to understand that our perspective of the world is greatly influenced by the lens of class. The workshop also convinced me that the only way we are going to enable change in individuals, institutions, and communities was through relationships of mutual respect where all members and classes in the community work together to empower the individual and create community changes that allow all citizens to develop their human potential. The program made use of all the resources available to make the necessary changes and investments to build individual and community resources.
The comprehensiveness of the program was daunting. What could just one or two, or three do to bring such a comprehensive program to Tucson? However, I was encouraged and excited by several considerations:
- First, the program seemed to be a perfect match with the Society’s Vincentian spirituality, which in turn meshed with Pope Francis encouragement to engage in a renewed evangelization and mission of parishes for the preferential option for the poor. It provided a path for individual spiritual conversion coupled with action.
- Second, the understanding of poverty, middle class and wealth through the hidden rules of class, helped to break down barriers to significant relationships of mutual respect across class. This not only, enabled relationships between individuals in poverty to mentors in middle class, but understanding the hidden rules of class brings about an appreciation that everyone sees the world through a unique lens determined by our experience. This understanding helps individuals from all sectors of the community to form the network of relationships necessary to create and build opportunity for all.
- Third, the bridges constructs applied at any scale. Just one individual applying the Bridges constructs could benefit from their own spiritual growth and from the relationships with others in the community. Even so, the benefits of the Bridges constructs increase proportionally as the community adopts them, and once the benefits of the Bridges constructs begin to be recognized, they generate additional growth.
- Finally, it was clear that Bridges was just a tool that made use of the latest social science addressing the causes of poverty and the obstacles to climbing out of poverty. As such, it was easily adaptable to new research and was complimented by other programs bringing similar understanding to the community. The Bridges constructs are just a tool to give motivated individuals who are trying to live the gospel values, the understanding needed to connect with others to bring the love of Christ to all of the community, but especially to those caught in the cycle of poverty.
With the understanding and enthusiasm gained by a few of us who attended the LA workshop, we began our efforts to form a systemic change startup community. In a few months, we deepened our understanding of the Systemic Change Initiative. Our startup group grew to over 15 people, who worked together growing in knowledge of the Bridges construct and in enthusiasm for the program. For the first time, members of five parishes are working together to implement the many parts of the initiative. It did not take long to begin making contacts in the broader community who, already, was independently interested in the Bridges model as a strategy for addressing poverty issues. The Tucson Council of SVdP approved $8,000, which along with some additional contributions, is funding the first Getting Ahead Workshop, which started the end of March. We are currently, recruiting mentors to walk with the future graduates from the Getting Ahead Workshop and we are making final preparations for completing the mentor training. At the same time, we have prepared and given presentations to introduce the SVdP Systemic Change Initiative to faith communities.
As I look back on the progress we have made over the past 10 months since the LA workshop, the progress has far exceeded expectations. The initiative seems to have taken on a life of its own and we are encouraged by its enormous potential for connecting motivated, under resourced, individuals with mentors to journey with them to a better future.