Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bridging the Language Gap

Editor's Note: The following entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works. Fr. Mike reflects on his experience of trying to learn Spanish in his new ministry in Camden, and the challenges that accompany this new task. It is easy for us to resist anything that takes work, but by embracing the challenge, we can understand more about what it means to be human and enter into meaningful relationships with those who we believe are different from us. Work for justice is meaningless unless we are willing to meet people where they are and enter into their worlds. Language is one important aspect of all people's worlds, and Fr. Mike captures this well in the following entry.

Is there anything closer to us than our language? We use language inside our minds to think. Words enable us to connect to others and to God. They enable us to understand feelings and experiences. We have vocabulary to express everything from the light and fun to the profound and serious. Language is such a complicated and human thing: nearly as close to us as our breath or each beat of our heart.

Language is a huge part of the experience of Camden. Most of our people are new Americans from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, or Mexico. There are also families from other regions of Latin America, and even one French speaking family at Mass each Sunday from Senegal. Though we have been here since August 2008, I have just in September begun leading the celebration of Mass in Spanish. I began gradually, starting with the opening rites: the sign of the cross and the litany of praise at the beginning of Mass, “Senor, ten piedad. Cristo, ten piedad. Senor, ten piedad.” ---Familiar, short and repetitive. Over the months of this semester, I have haltingly expanded the amount of Spanish prayers to the point where I can read the entire Mass---minus gospel and homily---in my new language. “Read” is the correct verb; I barely raise my eyes from the page. One Sunday, I got to the word “merezcamos” toward the end of the Eucharistic Prayer and thought to myself, “Why did I not practice more?” Defeated by the sight of all those consonants, I just said, “and an ‘M. word’ that I can’t say … por tu Hijo Jesucristo. Amen.” Not very professional.

The recent comment of a woman after the Spanish weekday Liturgy encouraged me to plunge into the entire Mass. She said, “You know more Spanish than you think.” (“No,” I thought, “I really don’t.”) She went on, “No matter how badly you pronounce all the words or how many sounds you get wrong, we are grateful that you try.” I was tempted to just let her comment stand as a well-meaning, backhanded compliment. But what she says is true; there is something to just doing it. The fact that I am getting better with the prayers I have been using for a couple months—gives me confidence that there can be progress.

I never studied Spanish in school. I took French beginning in 8th grade and continuing into college. French has been very helpful for pilgrimage to Salesian sites: Troyes, Annecy, and Dijon, and for greeting our African family at Mass, “bon jour.” We had to take Latin in the seminary. I resisted it at the time, but I am now grateful for the exposure.

Language is so complicated. But the woman from morning Mass was right to push me to try more.

My Spanish is emerging from a primordial soup of sounds. Music at our newly combined parish is amazing---uplifting and full of energy. For two and half years I have sung along, making Spanish sounds---more than actually singing. It has been like what babies do learning to talk---cooing, trying out sounds, playing with words. Now that immersion experience is paying off, albeit in the very specific context of the Mass. In addition there are more Spanish words than I realized that are part of U.S. culture: names, place names, names of food, common words and phrases (hola, adios, gracias, nada, vamos, santa, san, amigo, senor) all help. Familiarity with Latin and French give some clues for Spanish words in the soup. Cognates, Spanish words that are similar in English, help a lot.

The analogy with baby sounds brings us to a major issue for people learning a new language. It can be very humiliating---or humbling. Essayist David Sedaris writes about the frustrations and realities of trying to make a new language your own in his book, Me Talk Pretty One Day. He writes that he realizes he sounds like his immigrant Greek grandfather in the U.S. He realizes that his vocabulary and understanding of how things are said is just never going to be anything like natural and smooth. And he is a writer---someone who relishes expressing ideas with crisp and vivid language. There is no way to get around the fact that this is a handicap. He’s an adult, but in his adopted culture, he has to talk baby talk and endure the assumptions that come with that.

My experience of learning another language in this way, gives a partial window into the experience of our immigrant neighbors. The Oblate pastor here, Matt Hillyard, often comments how patient people are about his Spanish language efforts, noting that trying to speak a foreign language is what they do all day. So they know what it is like to make errors---and to just go on doing the best they can.

DSW volunteer, Tim Gallagher, teaches English to four young guys newly arrived from the Dominican Republic. Observing this process has given another window into how complicated language is---even though native speakers can take it for granted. One day I drove them home with Tim, and I listened to them learn to use the words “right” and “left.” What could be more simple? But it was not for them. Listen to how many sounds are involved in “left.” Look at the word “right;” how do we get that sound from that combination of letters? (Another example is the word I messed up recently in a newsletter: medal ---or metal, meddle, mettle.)

This experience in 21st century Camden fits the pattern of immigration to the U.S. since the beginning. People describe neighborhoods in Camden in the 30s and 40s where everyone spoke Italian or Polish or Puerto Rican Spanish. At one point in the 1800s New York City had the largest German speaking population of any city, more than Vienna, second only to Berlin.

Though I try to claim that I am 200% Irish, my father actually is Polish. His parents came from Europe as young adults and learned to speak only very broken English. His parish grade school taught class in both languages. This was bilingual education before the word was invented. But no one taught our generation even a single word of Polish.
This is often the pattern in our neighborhood as well: older people speak only Spanish, working age people speak both, but children understand Spanish, but are most comfortable with English.

Highlighting the other half of my background, I sometimes joke that I grew up speaking Gaelic at home, but of course that is not true. But the experience of the Irish having our very language taken from us, gives some understanding of older generations of Latino people here who morn the fact the youngest generation might lose the language of their people. Language carries the culture and part of their identity. But the Irish have famously made our own the language of our bullying neighbor. Our writers and talkers make masterful use of the English. So Latinos make English their own, enriching the living language in the process.

This experience colors how we might hear comments like, “Why don’t they just learn English?” Or “He/she doesn’t even try to speak English.” Or “This is America; speak English.” Language is a complicated tool; patience and understanding are called for.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Teen Reflects on Service in Camden

Editor's Note: The following entry is from Emma Dolson, a student at Georgetown Visitation Prep in Washington, DC, who did service in Camden this summer with De Sales Service Works.

This summer, I went to Camden, New Jersey for a week, with the intention of getting 50 service hours. This summer, I left Camden, New Jersey a changed person who gained SO much more than required service hours.

To put it simply, Camden was life-changing. I know most people say that about service trips, but I really, really mean it, as I am sure the rest of the girls that went on the trip would say as well. I’ll tell you one of the many experiences I had, to give you an idea of what we did from August 2 to August 6, 2010.

The first morning we were there, half of us went to the Cathedral to give out sandwich bags to the homeless. At first, all we did was pack the bags with different snacks. But after, we each got a chance to actually hand them out to the people. We were instructed to say hi, and have a smile on, which didn’t seem too hard. For my turn, I went up to the door and began to give bags out.

Most of the people that came up looked homeless. But then a girl came up, and she told me her name was Kelly. She is 24. I had a skewed vision of what I thought homeless people looked like, and she definitely did not fit the profile. She was pretty, young, fit. She looked just like us. I remembered her because of how out of place she looked. The next day, we went to a homeless day shelter. Again, we were instructed to say hi with a smiling face, and try to start up a conversation. This was the hardest part for me, and I think for most girls there. My mom, one of the chaperones, came with us that day. She, like the rest of us, was uneasy, but—I’m sure to try and set a good example for us—sat with a couple and began to talk. It was Kelly and her boyfriend. Apparently, Kelly was from a wealthy family in Philadelphia, and an avid swimmer in high school. However, she got addicted to heroin, and her family kicked her out. So now, she and her boyfriend are living under a bridge and struggling through every day to help each other stop taking drugs. My mom got the whole story, and by the end all three were in tears.

After we left, my mom said she was going to buy them a month’s worth of bus tokens so they could temporarily live with Kelly’s boyfriend’s family, and try and sort their lives out. They only had enough money to pay for medicine to keep them off heroin, but not enough for transportation to his mom’s house. The next day, I saw Kelly again at the sandwich service. I told her who I was, and the look on her face when she remembered my mom was the happiest face I’d seen on anyone in Camden. Both she and her boyfriend could not thank my mom (through me) enough.

So my mom gave Kelly a month’s worth of bus fare. But more than that, she gave the gift of her time and recognized Kelly’s humanity. People in poverty are not used to others listening to their stories, so simply giving your time to listen really means a lot. At that moment, I realized that little acts of kindness can go a long way. You don’t need to do something huge to make a difference. When people have nothing, giving a smile and a happy hello seriously impact that person’s life. My mom made a difference in their lives. All of us there made a difference in the lives of the people that we met. And, most importantly, they made a difference in our lives.
It’s hard to explain a service trip, as most people who have been on one would say. There is just something about the experience that cannot, no matter how hard you try, be put into words. So I can’t really tell you how it feels to go to Camden. I can, however, tell you to go. So go. Go play in an open fire hydrant with kids from the projects. Go talk to a homeless person, give them your story and listen to theirs.

Camden changed my life. And I know it changed my mom’s. Helping others, especially this close to home, and realizing that they aren’t much different from you and me, put my life into perspective, and I am so grateful I participated in this trip.

Thank you!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

November Saints of Justice

Editor's Note: The following blog entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ.

Two of my favorite saints have feast days in the second half of November. I want to share some highlights of their lives. Each gives us a good example of Christian charity and work for justice in the particular circumstances of his life and culture.

St. Roque Gonzalez, SJ, served in an amazing project referred to as the “Reductions.” The name comes from the Spanish verb reducciones, “to gather together.” These missions gathered the Guarani Indians together for their protection and advancement in the colonial world. The Jesuits shared the cutting-edge advancements of their day in agriculture, technology, arts, reading and writing and the gospel. They helped the nomadic Indian peoples establish settled communities where they shaped an economy that combined collective ventures with private enterprises, and where there was security from exploitation and enslavement.

Heaven on Earth
Summing up their approach to service, St. Roque wrote, “God does not command the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ to be preached with the noise of arms and with pillage. What he rather commands is the example of a good life and holy teaching.” In fact the sound that accompanied life in the Reductions was most often amazing music, both the highly refined Baroque music of the time and the sound of flutes, pipes, whistles and fireworks that the Indians loved. The movie The Mission tells the story and features Ennio Morricone’s breathtaking music capturing the love of beauty in these communities. http://youtu.be/MuyQQD-EAOQ The missionaries relied on the belief that the beauty, truth and goodness in human endeavors point to the Ultimate, to God, and will lead people to conversion and the rich, full life of the Gospel.

This approach is one that St. Roque shared with St. Francis de Sales, who remarked using a homespun image, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” The attitude stands on confidence that the attractiveness of God will do more to bring people to faith and good life than any amount of argumentation, appeals to guilt, or force. Roque is remembered also as one who worked along side his people, building, farming, healing, and teaching, as well as preaching and leading prayer.

Eventually Roque Gonzalez y de Santa Cruz gave his life with two companions, Juan de Castillo and Alonso Rodriguez, in a remote Reduction. The martyrdom was a tragic end to his life of service, but he really gave his life each day to his people for God, and we can still learn from him.

Make the World
At their highest point, as many as 100,000 indigenous people lived in 57 settlements in Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. They continued until 1768 when the Jesuits were suppressed in Spanish and Portuguese dominions, and the greed of the colonial masters destroyed the communities. The movie The Mission focuses on the events that led to the end. In the movie, after the San Carlos Reduction had been brutally destroyed, and the Indians and Jesuits massacred, the final scene of the movie ends with the papal representative, Msgr. Altamirano, musing with a colonial leader. The legate had agreed to close the Reductions in exchange for promises that Spain and Portugal would not expel the Jesuits from their dominions and thereby shut down all their good works there. Altamirano thought he was sacrificing these communities for a larger good. In the scene, we watch him realize how deeply wrong he was. He speaks with the official about how these communities were a clear example of God’s kingdom begun on earth and how awful it was that they were dismantled in a violent way. The official partially agrees with him, saying that it was unfortunate, but inevitable, “because we must work in the world; the world is thus.” Then the prelate replies, “No, Senhor Hontar, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.”

The example of the St. Roque and the Reducations challenges us and encourages us to do our part cooperating with God to make his kingdom in justice, peace, compassion “now as it is in heaven.”

This Latin America Jesuit and St. Hugh of Lincoln have no connection except that they, like all the saints, took the gospel seriously and made it real in their time and place. His world was very different from our own: medieval Europe, which is often treated either as a fairytale world or as dark, ignorant, and corrupt. The Middle Ages should not be romanticized or dismissed, the life of this man of his world has a lot of wisdom and inspiration to offer us in ours.

Rooted in Christ
St. Hugh (c.1140-1200) was a French monk and a member of the strict, monastic order, the Carthusians. He flourished in that life of silence and prayer. Hugh was chosen to establish the first Charterhouse in England, part of the penance of King Henry II for his involvement in the death of St. Thomas a Becket. As abbot, he distinguished himself by organizing the new monastery very effectively. On several occasions he had to oppose the King on issues of justice and Church jurisdiction. In setting up the monastic foundation, the King acquired land by various questionable means; Hugh insisted that he compensate fairly all the people whose land was given for the order, “to the last penny.” Another example: Henry frequently delayed nomination of bishops in order to claim Church revenues for his own purposes. This was particularly notable in the large Diocese of Lincoln, without a shepherd for 18 years. Hugh’s involvement in this justice issue, and his reputation for goodness and able leadership, led Henry to promote him as bishop of Lincoln. It should be mentioned that the king also relied on Hugh for counsel and spiritual guidance, despite the honest fraternal correction (or perhaps because of it.)

I quote Sarah Thomas in Butler’s Lives of the Saints to again illustrate St. Hugh’s deep commitment to justice, in this case related to a minority group facing an outbreak of religious fundamentalism:
"Another salient characteristic was his fearless concern for justice. During the third Crusade, (1189-92), for example, there was a nasty epidemic of anti-Semitism in England, amounting to persecution. In Stamford and in Northampton, as well as in Lincoln, Hugh, alone and unarmed, faced an armed and vicious mob, and managed somehow to lower temperatures and persuade the rioters to spare their intended victims."

I would like to suggest that fearlessness and gentle strength we can observe in the lives of both these saints was connected very directly to their commitment to contemplative prayer and liturgy that grounded them in Christ for whatever they needed to face in work and service. A similar commitment to contemplative prayer and the liturgy in our lives will also inspire us to work tirelessly for justice and peace in our world.

St. Hugh of Lincoln, pray for us.
St. Roque Gonzalez, pray for us.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Finding a Calling in Camden

Editor's Note: The following entry is from Jenny Mayo, Communications Director for Georgetown Visitation in Washington, DC. The article reflects on the experience of students and faculty from different Visitation schools throughout the country who spent a week of servie in Camden, NJ, with De Sales Service Works. The Oblates have a strong connection with the Visitation Sisters because one of the founders of the Oblates, Mother Mary de Sales Chappuis, was a Visitation nun. We both treasure Salesian spirituality and seek to spread this spirituality in everything we do. This post originally appeared in the Summer/Fall issue of Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School Alumnae Magazine.

Camden, New Jersey, sits just across the Delaware River from bright, bustling Philadelphia, Pennsylvania---and yet, it resembles a war zone. Blocks of abandoned buildings crumble like bombed-out targets, and its alleys teem with bits of life left behind: old furniture, overstuffed bags of trash, used syringes. The stats aren’t reassuring either: Nearly half of Camden’s population falls below the poverty line, and its crime rate was the highest of all U.S. cities in 2009.

Beneath its decaying, dysfunctional surface, however----in fact because of it, Camden boasts a sizable community of individuals and organizations seeking to help improve the situation. This summer, students from three Visitation communities spent a week working with and learning from one such group: the inspiring De Sales Service Works, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales ministry that uses Salesian teaching to bring beauty and hope to those who so desperately need it.

The trip was this year’s installment of Vistory, a summertime meeting of Visitation schools for service and sisterhood. Georgetown Visitation’s Christian Service Director Kathleen Looney was instrumental in anchoring this year’s program in Camden and believed that De Sales Service Works had a lot to teach the participating students.

“When we were thinking about this year’s event,” she said, “we saw this ministry as a unique opportunity to experience Salesian spirituality in action. The true immersion into the community would offer us the privilege of seeing and learning first-hand the challenges and hope present there in Camden.”

Students from Georgetown, Minneapolis, and Mendota Heights, Minnesota all saw Kathleen’s vision come to fruition over the course of Vistory 2010. Their temporary residence was the Service Works house in the heart of Camden, which despite the surroundings, immediately felt warm, safe and welcoming---largely due to the tireless work of Service Works director, Father Mike McCue, OSFS, an impossibly kind, respected figure in the community. From this home base, the Visitation women set out to a variety of volunteer placements: passing out lunches and food bags at the Cathedral as part of its Sandwich Service, sharing conversations with the homeless at New Visions Day Shelter, and providing a free Bible camp for area youngsters.

Vistory participants were continually pushed to the edges of their comfort zones throughout their time in Camden, yet they embraced the experience, facing some rather shocking scenarios with courage, patience, and compassion. At New Visions, for example---where students were to provide a “ministry of presence” or be supportive companions for the homeless---one Mendota Heights student, Mary Sicoli, embraced a woman who intimidated even the chaperones. She was 30-something, olive-skinned and dark-haired. In a different set of life circumstances, the woman might have been what some people would consider beautiful. But now, sporting cuts across her face, a tube dress that didn’t stay put, and the most haunting drug-induced nod you’ve ever seen, she was difficult to look at. Mary did more than that; she grabbed the woman’s hand and held it for nearly half and hour, asking her name (Kelly), soliciting details of her life when she could (from a good home in the Philly suburbs, turned to drugs, got kicked out of her house and forced to live on the streets, recently in the hospital for pancreatitis), and telling her things were going to be OK.

“She didn’t want to let go of my hand,” Mary told the Vistory group while walking home with an awed look on her face.

At daily morning and evening prayer services, other students shared similar stories of how they had engaged the downtrodden in a loving, Christ-like manner, and how the people of Camden expressed their appreciation for these interactions. Vistory volunteers described massive smiles on the children at camp, and the heartfelt gratitude they witnessed when they did something as simple as hand out a sandwich. Even amid all the despair, these glimmers of hope and small moments of happiness uplifted and inspired the students. They found it possible to find beauty in ugly situations, and recognized that it felt good to do good.

Guest speakers like New Visions director Kevin Moran and Camden-based painter Brother Mickey McGrath, OSFS, further challenged the young women’s notions of poverty and dared them to do more to help others. Social worker Sister Helen Cole, SSJ, who mostly counsels the families of murder victims, gave an especially powerful, thought-provoking lecture. Her anecdotes encouraged girls to ponder what life might be like as a working, single mother without a washing machine, or as a school child who hasn’t eaten in two days and is coping with domestic violence at home. The unspoken question that lingered: “What do you take for granted in your own life?”

Mendota Heights’ Sarah Neuberger responded to this query during the Vistory closing night ceremony. She’d been pondering the fact that during the service week, she’d gone without many of the creature comforts she’s used to: a stereo, Internet, unlimited cell phone use, and so forth. She told her fellow volunteers, “It was really nice to realize so many things we think we need, we don’t actually need---because I had a very full life without them this week.”

Many other students admitted they also had new perspectives on a lot of things. Georgetown’s Tiffany Ogundipe ’13 said that now she understood that service was much more that just giving someone a meal; it could also be just listening, or even playing cards with someone in need of a friend.

Molly Ledwith ’11 said, “I think that Camden has taught me a lot of things, but mostly, it’s not to judge anything. Before I came here, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, something bad is going to happen.’ but that’s obviously not the case. I’ve met some really amazing people here.”

One of the last speakers of the evening, Tonia Ogundipe ’13, opened up about her attitude about service before the trip---one that she surely has shared with others----and how that changed. “Starting out, I just wanted to get the service hours required by the school. But by staying here, I wanted to help people.” It is a mission she and many of her fellow Vistory volunteers will remain committed to far in to the future, long after they leave 35ht Street.

To learn more about De Sales Service Works, visit www.oblates.org/dsw.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Power of the Little Virtues

Editor's Note: The following entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ.

The alley near our house provides a quick spot for addicts to shoot up after a drug purchase out on the street. It is hard to know how to deal with people engaged in this activity. Our neighborhood, North Camden, is known as a center for drug activity, being close to highways, the Ben Franklin Bridge, and bus and train lines that allow easy access, in and out, for customers.

During the summer, members of the Mission Club from Bishop Verot High School in Ft. Myers, Florida, put up a stockade fence to keep people out of the yard of an abandoned house off the alley that was a popular spot for drug use. The students painted it a cheerful yellow and printed uplifting quotes from former Camden resident Walt Whitman and from St. Francis de Sales. We were under no illusion that this barrier or its positive messages would end addiction, the drug trade, and poverty, or even stop individuals from finding another place to get high. But we hoped perhaps it could make at least one person pause, and maybe penetrate the fog of addiction enough to help someone imagine another way.

One sure thing is that some people have found other places to take drugs. We continue to see the evidence of drug use all over the alley, especially in corners or anywhere there is not a clear sightline from the street. One place that has become popular is another abandoned backyard near us. Addicts have pealed back enough of the chain link fence to slip into the trash-filled, overgrown lot.

Recently, James, the son of our neighbor two houses away, cleaned up in that abandoned lot behind his elderly parents’ home. He is a tall, very solid looking guy; whenever addicts came to the yard, baseball bat at hand, he chased them away. This made me think.

When I see someone involved in drugs, I generally ask them to stop. Trying to be reasonable and respectful, I’ll say, “Hey, we are asking people not to shoot up here, with the church, and kids here and all.” Frequently I will introduce myself and ask their names to try to show respect, to try to normalize the encounter.

One example: recently I noticed a young woman crouched behind the trash dumpster, syringe in hand, arm out. I interrupted, getting her attention, asked her not to do that. She stopped and slid the orange cap back on the needle and tucked it into her top, as she prepared to move on. “I’m not from here; I didn’t know,” she said. I asked her name. “Lindsay.” “My name is Mike McCue, Father Mike, one of the priests here.” “Is there anyone you could call?” Clearly I was trying to disrupt her anonymity and make her uncomfortable with doing what she is doing. “Are you really addicted?” I asked. “I am sorry you are out here.”

I suppose a non-threatening, middle-aged man dressed as a priest can have that kind of conversation. But I have no idea what affect this approach has on anyone, beyond getting them to move on, especially with individuals whose freedom and reasoning are compromised by potent chemicals. I hope it makes connections that can lead to help.

One reason the Oblates are in this poor city is we bring the spiritual insight of Francis de Sales. Camden is a particularly harsh climate to test the value of little virtues St. Francis de Sales recommended so highly. Over and over we preach the power of the little virtues, but it is healthy to ask questions that examine the validity of axiomatic statements whose truth we take for granted.

Does love really have power? What is the potency of respect, gentleness, loyalty, forgiveness, patience, kindness…? The ultimate, big picture answer is that of course God will set all things right in the fullness of his kingdom. But here and now, what is the power of these virtues? How does it compare with the power of a stern attitude or a baseball bat, which seems to inspire respect, or at least fear and results? And is brandishing a bat necessarily unloving? And conversation, persuasion, kindness are not necessarily impractical or weak. What advances the justice and peace of the kingdom of God? What does the power of love, gentleness, and humility look like?

There is nothing like good questions to provoke thought. This essay represents my thoughts regarding these questions. I invite comment, feedback, disagreement, and sharing of your experience in this area.

One of Francis de Sales’ most familiar quotes is, “Nothing is a strong as gentleness; nothing as gentle as true strength.” Gentleness provides a good test for the power of little virtues because it is one, along with humility, that De Sales focused on. His quote implies a definition of gentleness that is not passive and “nice” because options with more impact are not available. Before I say any more about what gentleness is not, let me offer a definition. Gentleness is the power to give enough space to neighbors to allow them to be themselves, to let their individuality unfold and be expressed. We can describe gentleness as “strong” because it requires inner discipline to put self-interest, feelings, and ego concerns on hold to allow the other to have space.

Oblates and the volunteers who have joined us in Camden express Salesian gentleness in conversation and respectful encounters that have been our “tools,” so to speak, impacting the difficult situations in our city. This is in line with general Christian life: don’t we often face the dark powers of sickness, death, tragedy, guilt and sin with seemingly insignificant tools at our disposal: sacramental actions, compassion, prayer, faith, and just showing up? Like these, little virtues that seem like nothing have significant power.

Too often it is easy to put aside the Lord’s tools and revert to anger, passive aggression, or devaluing people, sometimes just to get things done. One week during the summer, a group of volunteers put on a vacation Bible camp. On the first day a dozen elementary school aged kids came for the camp. Three young teenaged boys, newly arrived from the Dominican Republic, also came. From the beginning, it was clear that they were not enjoying or getting much out of the day. They made it very clear, projecting an attitude of cool that put off all attempts to connect. I just wanted them to go home; we had enough going on without needing to deal with challenging adolescents. Fortunately, two members of the team had the gentle strength to persist with them. The kids ended up having a great week, teaching the team some Spanish, and opening up enough to begin the long process of learning a new language.

Aim for the Heart
In service we accomplish many tasks, but perhaps the most important goals focus on the interior, where progress or effects are hard to measure. I have a picture cut out from a newspaper. The setting is a civil rights event accompanied by a counter-protest involving skinheads and neo-Nazis. The photo is of a young Black woman physically shielding a young man, a skinhead, who had been taunting and antagonizing members of the gathering. The woman is quoted saying, “you can’t change anyone’s mind by hitting him over the head.”

Most often a “hit over the head” leads to hardening of differences and defenses. But there are times when a good “kick in the backside” can have power, can lead to good because it gets our attention. St. Paul knocked off his high horse provides a vivid example. He moved from being an official with no doubts or questions, to someone with a deep realization of how wrong he was and a willingness to begin again, from ground zero. I imagine most of us can think of times when a correction, an unwelcome truth, a difficult conversation or argument, failure, setback, sin, or humiliation stopped us in our tracks enough to get us to change direction or rethink choices.

A harsh word or a firm hand can come from vengeance or desire to crush. Anger or stern-ness can be defensive, cover for insecurity, all about ego things, expression of alpha male domination, or they can be tools in the service of good. Challenge or harshness from someone motivated by genuine concern for good and growth can make a significant intervention. The Christian range of tools includes firm language, anger, and “kicking in the backside,” when appropriate. Look at Jesus’ approach to some leaders in his time. These confrontations cannot be characterized as nice or weak; Jesus is firm, clear, and on target. I would also argue that he is gentle because he knows these leaders very well and never aims to destroy or delete them. He is all about teaching, bringing them to grace.

Clearly harsh truths delivered in “hit-and-run” fashion, without gentleness, care or commitment can still provide opportunities for self-examination and growth. But the method can undermine the giver. Part of the power of virtues is that they form character. We do actions, and we become a particular sort of person. We act with gentleness, and we become a gentle person, over time. Or we act mostly with an angry, dismissive attitude, impatience, and we become that kind of person.

I wonder if a baseball bat doesn’t shape dynamics of interactions. It gets a result, but doesn’t it close off conversation? Doesn’t it invite the other party to arm similarly? At the other extreme, a na├»ve approach almost invites not being taken seriously, being stepped over, stepped around, or stepped on. And of course the need to be liked can compromise ability to stand for anything.

Part of the power of little virtues is how they form us, shape expectations and tone of interactions, and counter the usual way of acting that might be expected. Conversation, respect, humanity, civility, and gentleness can be disarming, could change the expected encounter.

A Good Question
I need to end my reflection for this blog, but I am still going to puzzle over the questions. You are seriously invited to offer your thoughts and experiences about the real power of Francis’ little virtues in real life. Email me at michaelmccueosfs@aol.com or post a comment directly on the blog (it is not very complicated). And while you are there become a “follower” for the blog.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Meet the DSW Volunteers

Pictured (from left to right): DSW Volunteers Mike Morgan, Tim Gallagher, and Tom Briese.

Editor's Note: The following entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ.

De Sales Service Works presently has two aspects to it. First, we welcome groups who come to Camden for a time to serve here and to reflect on the experience in light of their faith. In addition, we have a program for year-long, full time volunteers. I want to take this blog entry to introduce this year’s volunteers. In the near future, look for blog entries from each of them sharing experience and insight from their time here since the end of August.

Tom Briese
Tom found DSW via online advertisement through Catholic Network of Volunteer Service. He is a recent graduate of St. Mary’s University a Christian Brothers school in Winona, MN. Tom graduated with a degree in biochemistry and has several research internships under his belt. In addition to serving as DSW volunteer, Tom has been doing the hard work of applying to medical schools in the Midwest. He is a skilled musician and can basically play anything in front of him. Trombone is his main instrument, but we have witnessed keyboard, guitar, tin whistle and fife. Tom is originally from Rochester MN, the home of the Mayo Clinic---one of his inspirations for a career in medicine.

In Camden, Tom works at a variety of service placements in the neighborhood. In the medical field, he works at St. John’s Pre-natal clinic and at Lourdes Hospital’s mobile clinic, Project Hope. Then he volunteers at Holy Name School and at Camden Center for Law and Social Justice each one day a week. In addition, he shares his musical ability in liturgy at St. Joseph Parish in East Camden and at Holy Name School Masses with Sr. Claire.

Mike Morgan
Mike is a recent graduate of Virginia Tech. He earned a BA is in the field of Public and Urban Affairs. He was a freshman at Blacksburg at the time of the tragic shootings in 2007; he says people always ask. He experienced the efforts at healing and processing of that event facilitated by the Catholic Student Center. Campus ministry also got Mike to Camden. He first served here in May of 2009 with two other guys from Tech and several Oblate Associates. That experience made an impression, and he kept in touch and now is here for the year.

Mike works full time at Hopeworks, the project nearby that uses computer skills and web design to teach life skills and job skills and is, at the same time, a business that designs and runs websites for non-profits around the nation. His has many responsibilities there, but spends a lot of time recruiting trainees for the program.

Williamsburg, Virginia, is his hometown. Mike also plays the guitar, runs, and enjoys woodworking.

Tim Gallagher
Tim has been part of DSW since we moved to Camden. As an Oblate Associate, he was part of the January 2008 service retreat held here. He was back with the Virginia Tech group in May and then participated in several groups that came from DeSales University last year, his senior year at DSU. Tim began his association with the Oblates in high school at Father Judge, a school we staff in Northeast Philadelphia. In June 2008 Tim even spoke about DSW at the annual Oblate Convocation.

Tim hears a clear vocation to teach, evident in his comfort presenting to our convocation and in his service this year as a DSW volunteer. This volunteer year, he works at Guadalupe Family Services, an agency that reaches out to the families of murder victims in Camden. In addition, GFS engages in anger management and conflict resolution training in the community. Tim does this at our parish grade school at all the various grade levels. In addition, he has been teaching English to four newly arrived young men from the Dominican Republic since August.

The volunteers live in a deliberate way as a community for the year. Each has his full time job, and each is involved with the various service groups who come to Camden to serve. They pray together each morning. They study Salesian spirituality and Catholic social teaching book-club style by reading and discussion some very good books through the year.

Camden has so much need, and because of that situation, many people come to serve here. A great thing for DSW volunteers is that there are three other volunteer groups made up of recent college grads in Camden. One group, five members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, live one block away from DSW on Vine Street . They are great neighbors because of friendship---and also because they like DSW’s internet connection.

Four retreats are part of the volunteer experience. The first one is this weekend at the DeSales Hall in Washington, DC. This will provide an opportunity to check on goals for the year, to evaluate and to reflect on themes of justice and Salesian spirituality.

We will also take advantage of some of the attractions the nation’s capital has to offer including a visit to the Holocaust Memorial and Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” on the Mall. Mike Morgan will get to try out DC’s new trail that runs from the Brookland section of NE Washington downtown, where it connects with the Mall and all the trails along the Potomac. He will be running 20 miles this Saturday in training for the Philadelphia Marathon on November 21st.

Look for blog entries from the volunteers reflecting on their insight and experience in Camden with DSW.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Experience of Student Visitors to DSW

Editor's Note: The following blog entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ. Fr. Mike shares the experiences of some seniors from Salesianum School in Wilmington, DE, who have been on retreats this semester in Camden. As someone who has participated in all of these retreats, I can attest to the powerful impact the experience of serving in Camden has on the students.

Salesianum School, the Oblate high school in Wilmington, DE, has been a great partner with DSW since we began in Camden. Last year 12th graders came in small groups for service, prayer, and reflection. This year seniors have been here again in groups of around 20 students for Tuesdays and Thursdays in September and October. In February and March juniors will come for service retreats. In addition, we will host two weekend retreats, one in February and the other in April. The school community has also been generous in donations of money and (very practical) socks and underwear. Participating with DSW is one way for the school to demonstrate its commitment to Salesian spirituality and Christian service.

Each service retreat begins with Mass followed by a morning service period where students go to one of three sites: our food service, New Visions day shelter, or working with Ken on the “peace garden.” As noon approaches, we tour part of Camden as we walk from the Cathedral in downtown to North Camden. Just in walking the 7 blocks, students get a picture of life in our city. We pass vacant lots, abandoned houses, graffiti-covered walls, all too abundant evidence of drug use and human desperation.

All this contrasts with the experience at the end of the walk: we join Holy Name School kids in recess. The middle school kids are very lively, friendly, and they enjoy the interaction with the high school students. Each group of Salesianum young men is made up of different individuals, but there is a sense in which the service has become a corporate project. The grade school kids meet new visitors each retreat, but they have come to expect good things from the “high school boys.” The same is true of the peace garden; last year’s seniors began it, transforming an urban desert into an ordered, flourishing garden. The Class of 2011 has taken up where they left off, working with Kenny and enjoying the comments and appreciation of all passers-by.

The retreat finishes with discussion of topics raised by the time in the city. As part of that we ask the seniors to spend a few minutes answering journal questions. I share some of these below, to give a picture of the reaction of these generous students to their time here.

Why is it important for me to be here for this service retreat today?

To see what it’s like to live poor so we understand it better.

When I wake up everyday, I have food to eat, clothes to put on, and a bed to come back to at night. People here do not have these things. We all need to see these things so we can learn how to fix them.

I think that, now that I see what goes on in this city, it means a lot to the people just for us to be here. I think that we also need to see what life is like in the world we do not see.

It is important because it opens our eyes to a completely different world. This place just makes you want to help and to make a change. This is not how America should be and those of us who are fortunate enough should help make a difference here. People need our help, even id it is just to listen to their story.

I need to see how an area so close to me was completely different from my life. I helped people by listening to their life stories; about how they became homeless and why they use drugs.

To learn about the lives of other people who live so differently from the way I live. To walk in someone’s shoes who lives in Camden. To see how someone can fall to the bottom so easily. It’s a learning experience that I will take with me for the rest of my life.

Because some people don’t realize how bad certain areas are in this country. For myself, I have taken my life for granted and have not appreciated the thing I have like a home, clothes, and food. This has certainly opened my eyes.

It is important for me to see how poor of shape Camden is in and see if I can make a difference.

To give people in need something money can’t buy: time. Just to give them some one to talk to.

I think that the importance behind my reason for being here is simple. simple, meaning doing small things like talking to kids at the grade school or making sandwiches makes mw realize how lucky I am to have what I do. All the things I need to live my life. Then a realization opens my eyes even more, looking at the big picture not just seeing what’s in front of me but the people and what they go through every day just to get a meal. It’s the small things I can do that really show the difference

What will I take away from this experience of service and reflections?

The love that everyone around me has shown me and the gratitude I’ve received through my actions.

I now realize all the bad things that can happen to you when you live on the streets. And it’s made me thankful for the family I have and all that they have given me. And I think that I can better understand why it is necessary to get a good education and to be successful so as to one day be able to give back to communities like this.

I have a feeling of how lucky I am for what I have been given. I want to help people and clean up our country. ---Really showed me that I am blessed and shouldn’t take anything for granted.

Coming out of this mind-opening experience, I take away images of people sleeping on the streets and how using drugs will not solve your problems. The kids at the school were smiling the whole time we hung out with them, and I think we made their day a lot better.

To be the best that I can be in any situation I am in because I saw today what can happen if I don’t. It really made me feel how lucky I was to have a nice home, to go to a great school and to live in a great place that I do with a great family.

The love that everyone around me has shown me and gratitude I’ve receive through my actions.

Not every one is a lucky as the next person but they know that they still have their pride and their life. I can take away anything and everything from this opportunity. Respect, forgiveness, humility, gentleness, civility and more.