Seeing Those We Mean to Serve

Twice a year, the Archdiocese of Seattle hosts a "graduation" of sorts for participants in JustFaith programs. As you may know, JustFaith modules help Catholics and other Christians engage with the social ministry of the Church within their own faith communities. The graduation itself is really an opportunity to hear from organizations involved in social ministries, and to consider where we might enter into the Church's mission of being God's love to those most in need. As was said at the outset at this gathering, we are guided in this by the Jesus' words in Matthew 25:40, "Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me."

Accordingly, we heard excellent appeals from representatives of many organizations on ending hunger, advocacy for housing, addressing economic inequality, and many other issues effecting those most in need. But one recurring theme stood out to me, which I think can get lost in the shuffle of advocacy and politics: we must enter into authentic relationships with the people whom we are serving. Michael Reichert of Catholic Community Services of Western Washington said it best when he noted that advocacy, donating, writing letters to politicians, organizing food drives, making sack lunches - this is all the easy part (though necessary!). It is much harder to sit down and have a conversation with someone that may seem strange or even scary to you.

One of the speakers, Gregg Alex of the Matt Talbot Center in Seattle, spoke to this powerfully when addressing the story of a man that he had helped first by offering him a bed for the night. The man's name was Melvin, and when Gregg addressed him by name, he began to cry. Gregg asked what was wrong, and the man said that he had been living on the street for months, and seen people in many service agencies, but this was the first time that anyone had addressed him by name. In a similar story, though on the other side of the coin, someone spoke of an experience through which people who are not in poverty try to live on the streets for three days with only a dollar in their pocket. He said that most of the people that do not make it through the three days give up not because they are hungry, but because they are tired of nobody looking at them.

What makes it so hard for us to see - or want to see - those that suffer? What does it mean for us to enter into relationship with people whom we are tempted to ignore? All of us who serve are compelled to do so out of some measure of compassion and love, but we still may not have fully opened our hearts to abandon fear and step into the great unknown of these new relationships. I have been reflecting upon this as I prepare to co-lead my first immersion trip this summer, to Guatemala, and this fall to travel to Haiti on another immersion experience. I have entered into relationships with people in the United States that are outside of my normal cultural and geographical sphere, and I feel that my life is richer for it. Still, there is a certain level of comfort in being in your "own" country, speaking your "own" language. Now, I am being called to step out from this comfort zone and form new relationships.

It is often a great challenge for many of us to find the will and opportunities to enter into these relationships, but without them we are falling far short of both the call and the fulfillment of being, as Jesus advises, among people "as one who serves."