UPDATE: “I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions.”
― Dorothy Day
Thank you for the Reccs. Keep hope alive.
I am of that strange tribe of left-wing social activist Catholics. The Pope has a pet name for us.
He calls us Protestants.
Paul Ryan, in his bumbling heavy handed way, has just called attention to one of the institutions of social-concious Catholicism that I hold dear.
Here are my thoughts.
When I was growing up, St Vincent de Paul lived in that walk-in closet off the church hall, the one just down the stairs from where us cubs kept our pack stuff, and kitty corner to where the acolytes kept the closets of musty cassocks and surplices. Every couple of weeks at mass there was a special collection, or a call for volunteers or donations.
I never saw anyone go in or come out of that room. As far as I knew, it was empty.
I didn't think I knew anyone who used that service. I was wrong.
During week days, while I attended grade school next door, not a few of the parents of my classmates would come by, once a month, to get needed groceries. These were not welfare recipients, or not all. They were the families of tool and dye men and machinists laid off from Allis Chalmers, or the other engineering works. They were cleaning women and widows. They were young marrieds with kids. The box of canned goods and pasta would see them fed when the choice was rent or hunger.
In my adult years I worked at soup kitchens in the States and Canada. You want to know what REAL volunteers live for? You want to know why they volunteer? It ain't for cheap photo ops.
The first time I volunteered at a Catholic charity kitchen I spent the first hour or so pot walloping and stirring stew in the kitchen. Then, as soon as the first shift of diners was served, the front-staff came into the kitchen to switch with us.
I asked why. I had signed on reluctantly, and figured that the experience would be dreary and sad. I mostly enjoyed cooking, and figured that my contribution with the spuds and beef would be enough. The table staff said that we should go out front so we could "have our time" with the clients.
I thought I knew what that meant. I figured to see a lot of bible waving and hear a lot of Jesus talk, but I scrubbed and dried my hands and went anyway.
You know what most poor people have in abundance? The gift of meaningful conversation. Too many are alienated and isolated or scared most of the day. They get to a safe place and see a friendly face and they generally want to talk. Many have a lot to say - some not so pretty . Some horrendous. Some crazy. But almost all interesting and - yes - entertaining.
In Montreal I got tips in sleeping rough; learned ways to stretch food and share goods; heard funny stories and accounts of local gossip and lore; heard colourful expressions and descriptive and invective language; connected with real people.
In Minnesota I listened as veterans of Korea and Vietnam compared notes and discussed personalities and events, tactics and logistics, and common experience with the VA.
I worked the clothing donation rooms, and I learned something. Wool socks are a miracle. They keep your feet warm even when wet. Even when the heat is off in your room. If need be, you can wear them as extra mitts. White shirts are valuable. White shirts are a necessity when interviewing for jobs, even just day labor. As one of the clients said "A white shirt makes you look serious." We ran out of white shirts every week. All the clients wanted them.
My Dad, retired from a job in finance for 16 years now, was Shanghaied into doing the books for the local StVdeP. He HATES online accounting, preferring the old days of hand-cranked calculators and account books and little nubby pencils. Yet every year he'd have me sit down over Christmas so we could enter the annual report on spreadsheet on that dag-blamed computer machine.
Why did my Dad do it? Why did I do it?
Because we know these are real people with real stories and we listen to them and hear our own. They are us, or could be. They are deserving of our attention and concern, not because they need, but because they, like us, ARE.
When I had my second heart attack a few years ago I also had severe post-op complications. I went on disability for almost a year. We had two kids under five. My wife had to fold up her business. We lost 80% of our net income for almost a year.
St. Vincent de Paul was there for us. They listened when I had something to say.
If Ryan was truly sincere in wanting to help and connect with real people he might have wanted to arrive when there were still people in the soup kitchen. By listening he might have learned something. He might have even had a good time. I've seen stranger things happen in soup kitchens.
That Ryan did not choose this option speaks volumes - he lacks the sense and generosity to listen.
And ours if he is elected.