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I Was Hungry and You Fed Me

Fr. Brooks Ledford

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On a crisp autumn afternoon the telephone at the San Antonio Catholic Worker House rings, and one of the volunteers answers. The man on the phone explains that his family -- himself, his wife and six children -- needs shelter and that they have no money. The volunteer conducts a short interview, then invites the family to come in for a face to face talk with our volunteer staff. Two hours later we are sitting in the living room. The children, all remarkably well-behaved, allow us to converse with the parents so that we can determine if this is the right place for them.

After a lengthy conversation, we offer them hospitality: housing, three meals a day, a family atmosphere (we are not just a shelter), and referral help.

Like most of the families that come here, the Sanchez family has no real direction. They have been living day-to-day. We tell them about a two-year program -- SAMM -- which provides housing plus training in skills they need so they won't end up on the streets again. The hitch is that, before entry into the program, the family has to go through three interviews, get a credit and criminal background check, and assemble pertinent papers such as birth certificates for the children. One of the parents (if there are two) must have a verifiable job working a minimum of thirty hours a week, and they must have $150 before they can take possession of a room. All this takes time, and that time is one of the niches we fill. While the family is working on getting into the program, they stay with us for as long as it takes. This is our way of practicing the vocation of hospitality.

As the late afternoon sun casts lengthy shadows over the neighborhood, two of the volunteers walk the Sanchez parents around the house; the other volunteers take the children out to the back yard to play on the swing set. The house is old, dilapidated. The rooms are clean, but the beds are worn out and the furniture would be hard to give away at a garage sale. The house needs to be razed and rebuilt. Nonetheless, there is a history of much love in this house, and it is certainly better than being on the streets.

After both parties agree that this is the right place, we invite them to move in, have dinner, and join us for our evening meetings with the families. Each Thursday after dinner, the volunteers have a general meeting with the families to discuss any issues, problems, or needs that the families might have in common.

After the general meeting, the volunteers split up to sit with each family individually and discuss any problems or specific needs to that family. The main topic is always the weekly setting of goals. The volunteers are not trained counselors and don't try to play that role. The function of this meeting has more to do with helping families prioritize their needs -- an activity that entails common sense rather than training -- and giving them moral support rather than taking on the role of a counselor.

The goals that were set at the previous meeting are discussed and new goals which the family comes up with are written down. Methods for attaining those goals are discussed, and then the volunteer and the parents sign the non-binding "contract."

The Sanchez family is something of an exception. They are what a counselor would call a cooperative client. It's not always so easy. Many families have no desire to enter a two-year program, or any program, for that matter. Some want more independence and simply need a place to stay until they save up enough money to get an apartment. Others have no goals at all. They want a place to hang out until they are asked to leave or something better comes along.

In any case, once accepted, hospitality is provided as long as they agree to abide by our rules: no drugs or alcohol, no violence or abuse, and an agreement to be a positive part of the community (minding curfew, being on time for dinner, and being respectful to others).

Again and again I am asked: How did an Orthodox priest become part of the Catholic Worker House in San Antonio?

Like my priesthood itself, it happened in a most unlikely manner. After seven years spent revitalizing an Orthodox parish in the Midwest followed by a three-month sabbatical in southwest France, I was called to a parish in Philadelphia in the Albanian diocese of the Orthodox Church in America -- a caring and devout group of parishioners in one of America's great cities. The parish had gone without a permanent priest for over a year, relying on visiting priests. My plan was to do what I had done in my previous parish, staying perhaps five years, enough time to set things up for the next priest.

For my wife and me, our goal after this assignment was to return home to Texas and be near our relatives. We had been away for about 12 years while I was in seminary and serving parishes. But there was another element -- a vague dream I had to do some kind of hands-on work for the poor.

Work as a parish priest provided invaluable lessons and skills that now serve me well in my work the poor. It also provided a different outlook, one that took in various aspects of helping people: what worked, what didn't work, how to be more efficient, etc. Experience gained through travel in Europe, Asia and Mexico also helped.

One snowy March morning while still in Philadelphia, an old friend in San Antonio telephoned with the news that the local Catholic Worker House was going to close down if it didn't find a director. She invited me to come down for a visit and I agreed. My visit to San Antonio was compelling. I spoke with the present coordinator, then met with the five resident volunteers -- four young people from Germany and one from Pennsylvania. Impressed with both the ministry and the volunteers, I made an inventory of what needed to be done. There were two houses involved, and both needed major renovation. The ministry itself needed to be revitalized and better organized, and the volunteers were in need of a mentor. I boarded the plane back to Philadelphia wondering if this was what God had in mind for me. Not only was the task at hand enormous, but I had to convince to my wife, my spiritual father, and my bishop. Without the agreement and blessing of all three, I couldn't say yes.

The Catholic Worker movement, founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, centered on hospitality. The Great Depression left millions of people homeless and hungry and also threatened their sense of self worth as bearers of an immortal soul. Today there are over one hundred Catholic Worker houses throughout the United States and several other countries. Each house is autonomous and determines its own ministry and method of hospitality while remaining faithful to the basic tenets of the Catholic Worker movement.

The San Antonio Catholic Worker House started in 1985 as place offering hospitality to families in transition -- "in transition" meaning, in the world of social work, the homeless. At that time, the only local shelters would break up families by dividing them into the men and women's wings of the shelter. The founders of San Antonio's Catholic Worker envisioned a home-like atmosphere where families would not be separated and where they would live temporarily in community -- receiving housing, meals, and mutual support -- while getting back on their feet. Before long the live-in volunteers also started running a soup-line, providing a hot meal each day for anyone in the area in need of a meal. In time, a second house was acquired. This enabled the live-in volunteers to establish residence in one house, making more room in the first house to host families. The resident volunteer house was christened "Faith House".

Those aware of the Catholic Worker movement tend to associate it with the left wing of the Catholic Church. Even its name somehow suggests socialist principles. When I told my former deacon what I was considering, his immediate response, with a chuckle, was "Oh, going to work for the Communists, eh?" There is no denying that the movement has long been associated with radical causes. However, each Catholic Worker house is independent and each has its own identity and focus. For Dorothy Day the focus was never radical ideologies but simply Christ. She once remarked, "Those who do not see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed."

As we know from Matthew 25, Jesus makes clear that our eternal fate rests not in our church affiliations or our political philosophy, but in whether or not we have taken care of our weaker brothers and sisters. Christ comes down hard on all of us to the extent that we fail to let his mercy to us to pass through to others.

I found myself reluctantly telling my associates in the Orthodox Church that I was considering laboring in the vineyards of the Catholic Worker movement. Perhaps it was comforting to my more conservative friends that the San Antonio Catholic Worker House was not politically oriented, was supported by people from a wide variety of religious affiliations, and that one of its biggest supporters was the Orthodox friend who initially called me.

I expected the main obstacle to my taking the position in San Antonio would be my bishop, not because of any personal objection but because it would mean having once again to find a priest for Philadelphia. To my surprise he graciously arranged my transfer to the Diocese of the South. By mid-September, my wife and I had bought a house in San Antonio -- and I was the new director of the Catholic Worker House.

As an Orthodox priest, I have confronted the issue of homelessness and other social concerns on a limited basis. It must be admitted that within the Church our record for social activism is pretty dismal. The reasons for this are myriad, and it is not in the scope of this reflection to explore that issue. Nonetheless, it seems to me time for us to re-evaluate our responsibility as Orthodox Christians in today's world. We have a good deal to say on the concept of being in communion, but what we actually do with the communion we receive at the Divine Liturgy every Sunday leaves much to be desired.

If there are three stages to the Christian life -- baptism, our personal calling in this life, and Judgement -- it is the middle one that must be most actively worked out, and I would posit the notion that the connection between communion and our personal calling in this life is what gives validity to our baptism and hence determines our Judgement. This is not to say that we earn a ticket to Heaven -- a heresy -- but that there is a connection between communion and what we do with our life on earth.

I'm often asked: What can we do via the parish? Neither the parish where I was assigned after seminary nor the one in Philadelphia had, when I arrived, a charity and benevolence or social action committee. Of course different groups in the parish -- ladies' society, women's guild, youth group, etc. -- did engage in charitable activity, most notably around Christmas and Pascha (Easter), but there was no ongoing charitable work throughout the year.

In my first parish, we started a specific charity and benevolence committee. Its function was to meet on a regular basis and determine what projects we, as a church community, should support. The two aspects of our ministry lay in fund-raising in order to support certain projects and finding hands-on projects members of the parish could participate in. The committee worked independently of the parish operational budget. This independence allowed us to make decisions without having to go through the parish council. We received donations from those parishioners who welcomed what we were doing -- most parishioners, thank God! The charity and benevolence program was a tremendous success.

Most Orthodox Christians, given the opportunity, are eager to help those in need in whatever ways they can but too often they don't find a parish channel for their generosity.

The fact that we don't do more is often the result of clergy being too interested in minute details about services, the size of our parishes, our difficulties with choirs and parish councils. Our world is too small. We forget about the poor. Looking at Scripture and consulting such Church Fathers as St. John Chrysostom, our attitude is inexcusable.

It is a bitterly cold afternoon for south Texas. The temperature is to drop into the lower twenties. Luckily we've got new space heaters for the families staying with us as well as for the volunteers in Faith House.

I think of the Sanchez family and admire their decision to take advantage of the SAMM program. I expect they will be one of our success stories. We cannot force families who come to us to get involved in such long-term programs. We offer hospitality regardless of a family's goals. In most cases families have stayed with us until they made enough money to get an apartment or moved out unexpectedly, leaving us only to guess what might have happened to them. In many cases the families probably end up back on the street before long because they still lack survival skills. Hopefully, this won't be the case with the Sanchez family.

If we can find a way to renovate our houses and maintain our operational funding, we will be in a better position to provide proper hospitality to those families in need and also to continue our lunch time soup line. In the new house there will be a chapel, something we lack at the moment. It is my prayer that we can extend our hospitality so that we can better address not only the physical but the spiritual needs of those who come to us.

Perhaps one day I will return to my life as a full-time parish priest, but for now I must answer the call that I have heard to do what I can to help the poor. In this effort, I am relying on help from Christian traditions. Working together for the people with whom Jesus Christ most identified himself may be the best way to take a step toward restoring unity among all Christians. If we can't exercise it through the call of the prophets and the summons of Christ in Matthew 25, how can we possibly hope to ever be in communion?

Fr. Brooks Ledford is an Orthodox priest who directs the San Antonio Catholic Worker House.

Copyright 2003 Brooks Ledford. Reprinted with permission of the author.



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