Tagged: Living Justly

Celebrate Mother Teresa with a Day of Service

Anjezë (Agnes) Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born in Albania in 1910. Growing up, she was fascinated by the stories of Catholic missionaries, and thought she very well might enter religious life herself. When she was 18, Agnes entered the Sisters of Loreto, taking the name Sister Teresa in honor of St. Therese of Lisieux.

Eventually, Sister Teresa ended up teaching at a convent school in Kolkata, India (formerly known as Calcutta), where she served for nearly 20 years. While she enjoyed the work, Teresa became increasingly troubled by the poverty, hunger, and violence that surrounded her in the city.

Traveling by train to a retreat on September 10, 1946, Teresa experienced what she would later refer to as “the call within the call.”

“I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order,” she said. “To fail would have been to break the faith.”

She shifted her ministry to begin working with the poorest of the poor in Kolkata, and started a new religious order called the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. Without knowing it, she had changed from Sister Teresa to Mother Teresa, and the rest is history: She built up a community of sisters that accompanies thousands of the most poor and vulnerable people around the world, extending the compassion and care of Jesus to those who are so often ignored or forgotten.


On Sunday, September 4, Pope Francis will canonize Mother Teresa at a ceremony at the Vatican, giving her yet another name change: Saint Teresa of Kolkata.

I love that image of a “call within a call.” Teresa’s religious vocation did not end, but its contours changed. I try to listen for those calls in my own life. My primary vocation is as husband and father, but how might God be calling me to live out those vocations more deeply and faithfully as an employee, neighbor, or friend? Do I have the trust that Teresa had to try something new that’s worthwhile but risky? Mother Teresa’s witness is compelling, but so very challenging.

At the annual Romero Lecture sponsored by Camden’s Romero Center Ministries a few years ago, social ministry expert and founder of JustFaith Ministries Jack Jezreel led the audience through a thought experiment. “If you can imagine Mother Teresa standing in front of the room, I picture most of us looking admiringly at her, applauding,” he said. “Meanwhile, we’re looking out of the corner of our eye for the exit, backing up slowly, so as not to be too noticeable – all the while applauding. We admire her, but we want no part of her.”

Mother Teresa’s ministry makes us uncomfortable, Jack said. She and her sisters worked with the desperately poor and dying. She did not a run a back-to-work program; there were no traditional success stories. To most of the world, how she spent her life makes no sense. Why would we want to be a part of that?

Some people, Jack said, are able to pass up society’s version of “the good life,” cross over the boundary and enter into the reality of Teresa, the experience of universal caring that embraces the needs of all. “If somehow we can cross the boundary and engage in the mystery of faith and love, what opens up is a whole new world, a whole new vocabulary, a whole new set of touchstones for life’s living,” he said. “Once people make it across that boundary for the first time or the second time, they do not want to go back to the old ways.”

A move might like this might seem overwhelming or just flat-out impossible. We’re busy with all sorts of obligations and activities. But sometimes, taking just a small step in the direction of compassion can provide the spark the Holy Spirit needs to transform us into disciples who are empowered to live as Mother Teresa lived.

On Saturday, September 10, you’re invited to take a small step together with Catholics from all over the diocese as we spend a day in service to the community to celebrate Mother Teresa’s canonization. We’ll gather for opening Mass in Collingswood and Atlantic City, and then head out to serve with community groups like Catholic Charities and local nursing homes, food banks, and shelters. Disciples of all ages are encouraged to attend; visit www.camdendiocese.org/motherteresa to learn more and to register.

The date of the service day just so happens to be the 70th anniversary of Mother Teresa’s hearing her “call within a call.” What a fantastic occasion to participate in her legacy of love in action. And who knows – maybe you’ll hear a call that day, too.

Questions about the event? Email michael.laskey@camdendiocese.org.







The Encounter Series: Seeking Christ in the Poor and Vulnerable

In his modern spiritual classic Tattoos on the Heart, Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, writes about the gang-intervention ministry he runs in Los Angeles called Homeboy Industries.

Frequently, Fr. Greg says Mass at juvenile detention camps, and he shares the story of a meeting with one of the teenagers there. After Mass one day, a kid walks over to Fr. Greg, “all swagger and pose,” with a scowl fixed on his face.

Fr. Greg and the homeboys.

“What’s your name?” Fr. Greg asks.

“SNIPER,” the kid replies.

Fr. Greg pushes back – there’s no way the kid’s mom named him Sniper.

“What’s your name?” he asks again.

“Gonzalez,” the kid says, easing up a little.

But Fr. Greg wants to know what the kid’s mother calls him. The replies with a Spanish word that loosely translates as “blockhead.”

Fr. Greg tells the kid he doesn’t doubt it. “But, son, I’m looking for birth certificate here.”

Softening right before Fr. Greg’s eyes, the kid squeaks out his full first name: “Napoleón.”

What a historic, noble name, Fr. Greg tells the kid. But there’s no way your mom uses the whole thing. What does she call you?

Fr. Greg writes: “Then I watch him go to some far, distant place – a location he has not visited in some time. His voice, body language, and whole being are taking on a new shape – right before my eyes.”

Speaking just above a whisper, the kids says, “Sometimes, when my mom’s not mad at me…she calls me…Napito.”

“I watched this kid move, transformed, from Sniper to Gonzalez to [Blockhead] to Napoleón to Napito,” Fr. Greg writes. “We all just want to be called by the name our mom uses when she’s not [ticked] off at us.”

Names are powerful things. By digging down through Napito’s five layers of names, Fr. Greg started to build a relationship with the teenager. Napito felt valued and cared for. He felt important.

I think names might be one key part of building what Pope Francis calls “a culture of encounter.” In the Holy Father’s native Spanish, the word encuentro means much more than a mere run-in. Instead, it implies the sort of mutuality and kinship present in Fr. Greg’s meeting with Napito.

Pope Francis talks about encounter as an antidote to what he calls a “throwaway culture,” in which people who are seen as useless – the unborn, the elderly, the poor and homeless – are pushed to the margins or even literally discarded. However, if we encounter individuals and communities that are usually pushed aside – if we get to know their names – the throwaway culture begins to crumble. You don’t throw a friend away.

The importance of building a “culture of encounter” has found a new emphasis during the papacy of Pope Francis, but it’s not a new idea. Indeed, Christ himself spent so much of his earthly ministry building a culture of encounter, as he dined and conversed with tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, the poor and hungry, and other people who were usually excluded. Pope Francis’ call is the same as Jesus’ call.

Reflecting on Fr. Greg’s story makes me think about how we might deepen our commitment to building a name-based culture of encounter here in the Diocese of Camden. Here’s one question that I keep mulling over: How might the Church be different if every Catholic knew at least one person by name who had been threatened by the throwaway culture? What would it take to make that goal a real possibility?

To get this “culture of encounter” momentum going, I’m excited about an upcoming initiative called The Encounter Series: Seeking Christ in the Poor and Vulnerable, a three-part experience set for this May.

Co-sponsored by Life & Justice Ministries and the Office of Lay Ministry Formation, The Encounter Series is designed to engage your whole self: open your heart to encountering Christ in the poor on a daylong retreat; open your mind to at an informative lecture by a leading young moral theologian; and open your hands to those living on the margins at a day of service in the city of Camden.

Participate in one, two, or all three experiences, and join us as we strive to live the Holy Father’s call to encounter.

The Encounter Series: Seeking Christ in the Poor and Vulnerable

The series includes a retreat day (Tuesday, May 5; Holy Family, Sewell), an informative lecture (Monday, May 11; Catholic Community of the Holy Spirit, Mullica Hill), and a day of hands-on community service in Camden (May 16; Romero Center Ministries). All adults welcome. For more information and to register for one, two, or all three experiences, visit www.camdendiocese.org/encounter or contact Colleen Mayhew at 856.583.6118.

Three Tips for Introducing Christmas to Toddlers: Story, Simplicity, Sharing

Recently, my sister-in-law texted me a photo of my niece, who’s 18 months old, covering her gaping mouth in pure wonder at the sight of a chintzy Christmas-light display in a big-box store. It reminded me of the uniquely wonderful time of year this is for young kids.

But you don’t have to watch TV for more than a minute these days to be reminded that our culture’s focus on buying and getting stuff can undermine Christmas’ meaning. Here are three other S-words that might be good to keep in mind while introducing Christmas to toddlers: story, simplicity, and sharing.


In the wonderful “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, Charlie Brown, frustrated by the commercialism of the season, wonders, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

Linus knows, and he stands in front of the gang and recites from Luke’s nativity story. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

There are few stories more awesome and meaningful. As a family, spend some time with the Christmas story – and take advantage of the great tangible symbols of the season, like an Advent wreath and a kid-friendly, hands-on nativity scene.


The photo of my niece reminded me that it doesn’t take much to excite a little one! Here’s another example of this truth: Over Thanksgiving weekend, family friends with two kids – two years and five months old – stayed with my wife and me for a couple days. The two year-old’s current favorite activity involves crayons. She doesn’t color with them, though. She just removes the paper, bit by bit, and throws it away. That’s it. On Christmas, I imagine she’ll enjoy playing with the box a toy comes in more than the toy itself.

In an article I read recently, blogger Joshua Becker described his family’s Christmas gift-exchange practice. He and his wife give their children three gifts: one thing they want, one thing they need, and an experience to share with the family. By establishing those expectations early, their kids aren’t disappointed at this seemingly small pile under the tree, and it has allowed them to shift their focus from stuff to friends, family, and faith.


Back to Charlie Brown and Peanuts for a second. In a classic strip, Violet approaches Charlie Brown with a piece of paper in hand. “This is my ‘git’ list, Charlie Brown,” she says. “These are all the things I figure I’m gonna ‘git’ for Christmas from my two grampas and two grammas and eight uncles and aunts!”

Charlie Brown replies, “Where’s your ‘give’ list?”

“My what?” asks Violet,

“I knew it!” harrumphs Charlie Brown as he walks away.

Violet has no conception of giving, but it’s probably not her fault. Her doting, well-minded family sees her as a recipient with nothing to contribute herself. But Christmas is a great time to work on building habits of generosity and thoughtfulness. Participate in a food drive together (dropping cans in a box is always fun), or make some homemade Christmas cards for loved ones.

With the three S’s of story, simplicity, and sharing, you can help young children learn what Christmas is all about.

three s words

Three Things the Formerly Incarcerated Can Teach Us About Mercy

By Laurie Power
Director of Lifelong Faith Formation
Holy Child Parish, Runnemede, NJ

As part of the Matthew 25 Project, Holy Child Parish hosted a speaker who volunteers in Camden’s recently launched Welcome Centers, an outreach to the formerly incarcerated to help them secure healthcare, find employment and stay on the right path. As James Rodriguez, a parishioner of St. Josephine Bakhita and volunteer with Camden Churches Organized for People (CCOP), told his story and described his experiences serving returning citizens, the conversation became a lesson in mercy — the mercy described in Matthew 25, the mercy we, as Christians, are all called to share. What did we learn?

James Rodriguez leading a Matthew 25 Project event

James Rodriguez leading a Matthew 25 Project event

  1. God’s mercy is for all. It can reach anyone, anywhere. James recounted the night he sat drinking outside his house and, from a place of profound sadness, started a conversation with God. He knew something had to change. God answered his prayer, but not in the way he had expected.  That night he was arrested and spent six months in jail. God continued the conversation and James took advantage of all the programs offered there. The time he spent incarcerated changed his life. God is now using him to reach out to those who are where he once was.
  1. Mercy has to be shared. It means meeting people where they are. When individuals come to the Welcome Centers, an immediate physical need is met by getting them enrolled for health insurance. Because of this, James related, they can begin to believe that they are part of society again and not written off as non-entities or “mess-ups.” They are then given an opportunity to speak. At listening sessions, they share the barriers that keep them from thriving in their communities. They are not simply offered advice, but a place to be heard.
  1. Communities are built on mercy. James felt strongly that it is only through real concern for each other that communities can survive: “It’s when we stop caring about one another that things of a bad nature start happening.” Welcome Centers not only offer practical resources, but introduce returning citizens to people who care about them.

The take-home message was one of hope. Welcome Centers are a small step, but one with remarkable potential, for whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me (Matt. 25:40).

To learn more about Welcome Centers and how you can serve returning citizens, contact Frank Stiefel from CCOP at 856-966-8869 or stiefelccop@verizon.net.

Guest Post: Grace Before Full Plates

By Fr. Kevin Mohan

DiPaul & Shea

Last month, one of my go-to Catholic bloggers, Mark Shea, quipped, “Instead of Cafeteria Catholicism, I prefer All You Can Eat Catholicism.” I was instantly reminded of one of my favorite catchphrases of the late Larry DiPaul.  Shea’s phrase reminded me of how Larry would point out the common excuse that “there’s a lot on my plate” and in response would wonder, “How big is your plate? Is it a salad plate? A coffee saucer?”

Asked to offer grace before meals at this year’s Justice for All Dinner, the two quotes came together in classic Ampersand fashion. Here in the Diocese of Camden, we have a lot on our plates. Two of the poorest cities in our nation are members of our Diocese. But, we also have many gifts for use in the face of those full plates. “All-You-Can-Eat Catholicism” is a great image for the work of Catholic Charities.

Grace Before Full Plates

Almighty God, thank you for putting a lot on our plates. Thank you for making it harder and harder these days to avoid the people we encounter on the street and in the mirror – the poor and the sick, the distressed and depressed – and for nourishing us with your presence there in distressing disguises. Thank you for giving us big plates, great big appetites to serve, to engage, and to love. Thank you for the gifts you give us in your Spirit to serve your church and your world; increase your gifts in us.

As we consider these plates before us, soon to be obscured by food, help us to appreciate what you ask us to do, to see how you bless us in the fullness of our plates, and to increase our generosity toward the people you place in our way. We offer you our lives as readily as we accept our portion of food. As we sate our appetites, reveal to us our hunger for you, and remind us that our lives and our plates are made for your glory: to be filled and cleaned so as to be filled again. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Fr. Kevin Mohan is parochial vicar at Our Lady of Peace Parish, Williamstown.

The Matthew 25 Project: Put Your Faith Into Action

In a powerful YouTube video produced by a New York City-based homeless shelter called the Rescue Mission, five individuals are interviewed about relatives who are important to them.

“Nobody meets in bars anymore, but I met my wife in a bar,” says Tom. “You know, 34 years later, it’s still working!”

Alison offers a short reflection about her brother. “My whole life, I’ve always felt like we were a team – my brother and I,” she says. “I think there’s nobody who can understand you quite like your family.”

Unbeknownst to the interviewees, as they walked through the city to the studio for filming, each one passed their respective family member, posing as homeless on the street. Tom, Alison, and the three others were filmed surreptitiously as they walked right by their loved ones without a second glance.

The video producers show the hidden-camera footage to the five, and then each heads back to the street for a tearful embrace with their relative.

Text on the screen at the end of the video reads, “Change how you see the homeless.”

“Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

This famous line comes from one of my favorite Scripture passages, Matthew 25: 31-46. It is a foundational passage for all Life & Justice ministries, in which Jesus tells his followers that they will be judged based on how faithfully they fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the ill, and visited the prisoner. What is particularly striking to me about this passage is that Jesus identifies with these vulnerable people in a one-to-one way. We are not caring for others on Christ’s behalf; we are caring for Christ. Like the Rescue Mission’s video, this passage is all about changing how we see those who are poor and vulnerable. They are not statistics or sad stories. They are our brothers and sisters; they are bearers of Christ himself.

What’s just as remarkable as the reading itself is where the Church places it in the lectionary. Once every three years, including this coming November 23, we hear this Matthew 25 story on Christ the King Sunday. On a feast day in which we celebrate the King of the Universe, we hear that we will not find him on a throne in an impenetrable castle, making proclamations from on high. Instead, our King is found on society’s peripheries, in the faces of prisoners on death row and hungry children at soup kitchens.

A few months ago, I was meeting with a newly formed social concerns coordinating committee at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Collingswood/Westmont. The group wondered when they should introduce the ministry to the parish. We decided Christ the King Sunday, with every Mass-goer hearing the Matthew 25 reading, was a perfect opportunity. Excited by the natural tie-in, the group decided to create a five-week series leading up to Christ the King, focusing on one of the conditions Jesus describes in the Matthew 25 reading each week: hungry/thirsty (October 19-25), stranger (October 26-November 1), naked (November 2-8), ill (November 9-15), and imprisoned (November 16-22). How do we see Christ in these marginalized groups of people today, and how can we journey with them? The Blessed Teresa group started to plan a handful of social ministry activities that all parishioners could participate in. We’d call it “The Matthew 25 Project.”

Their creativity inspired me. Why not invite other parishes to get involved? A number of faith communities all over the diocese decided to participate, and I’m thrilled that about a dozen parishes will be hosting over 20 events as part of the inaugural Matthew 25 Project. We have sandwich makings for social service agencies, an educational panel featuring former refugees and immigrants, meal service a homeless shelter, a communal anointing of the sick, diaper drives for Catholic Charities, and more events lined up. The complete series is open to everyone. Find activities at a parish near you by accessing a complete calendar of activities at camdendiocese.org/matthew25.

The hope of The Matthew 25 Project is similar to the Rescue Mission’s video, as these experiences can change how we see those who are poor and vulnerable and how we respond. Prayerfully consider participating in this opportunity to live our Gospel call.

Matthew 25 logo

Guest Post: Christ Our Light Is Building Relationships in Guatemala

By Glenna Harkins

In June of this year, I had the opportunity to go on a mission trip to Guatemala with the Catholic Community of Christ Our Light in Cherry Hill. Guatemala is a country of about 16 million people located in Central America, just to the South of Mexico. It is a place of great beauty, with a horrifically violent recent past and a less than stable present.

glenna photo 2Over the past eight years, Christ Our Light has established a relationship with the indigenous Maya community in a remote mountain village called La Puerta, located about five hours northwest of the capital of Guatemala City. The village was a target of both the government and the guerrillas during Guatemala’s thirty-six year civil war, and lost close to thirty of its catechists and community leaders during the bloodiest few days of fighting.

Unlike many mission trips from the United States, the Christ our Light mission is not about building projects and physical labor. Instead the groups of about 15-20 adults each year offer a “ministry of presence” and catechesis to the people of the village.

For those readers who aren’t quite sure what a ministry of presence seeks to do, its main purpose is to build relationships and greater understanding between groups of people. Over the course of the week spent in La Puerta, we shared meals and stories together, read and studied the story of creation, celebrated Mass together, and visited community members’ homes together.  Even with the language barrier (conversations had to be translated from English to Spanish to their native Quiché and back again); by the end of the week the two groups had bonded.

I think about La Puerta and the people that I met there every day. There was Marcela, an older woman with a warm smile and crooked second-hand glasses, who welcomed us with hugs when we arrived. Lorenzo and Domingo, hardworking church leaders who served as tour guides and translators each day that we were there.

It was a young mother named Manuela and her children Maria, Maricruz, Jose, and Gregoria, who especially made their way into my heart and my prayers. Manuela had recently moved to La Puerta with her parents and brother and her own small children, while her husband moved to the coast of Guatemala to work on a coffee plantation. He had been sick, racking up medical bills that they couldn’t pay, which forced them off of their land and into a situation where they no longer live together. The father is able to come to visit the family only once per year, and that is only if he’s willing to forgo being paid. Their home in La Puerta was a three room log cabin where eight people lived. There was no electricity, no running water, no latrine, no stove. I’m about 5’10 and I couldn’t stand up straight inside. Yet the whole family radiated love. For God, for each other, for what they had, for their new community, and for us.glenna column photo

This trip to Guatemala was my third mission, and my seventh trip to Latin America. For me, one of the most difficult parts of any trip outside of the United States is trying to explain the depth of the experience that I had to folks back home. It’s like the feeling I get when people ask me about my work in Camden, NJ.

These places and their people are special, and you just kind of have to go there to get why. So, if you have it in your heart and your means to serve God and others by going on a mission, I encourage you to do just that. You will be enriched beyond anything you can explain.

Glenna Harkins is the Director of Programs at Catholic Partnership Schools in Camden, NJ.  

Local Couple Helps in Border Crisis

The following story by Peter Feuerherd appears in the July 24, 2014 edition of the Catholic Star-Herald, and it is reprinted with permission.

It’s one of the big stories of the summer: As tens of thousands of migrants from Central America made their way to the U.S. border, the American public watched with a mix of compassion and sometimes scorn at their desperate plight. Meanwhile, most political leaders focused on sending them back as quickly as possible.

Brian Wagner, 48, a Catholic Charities worker in Vineland, reacted differently: he offered to help. A military veteran schooled in logistics he used to assist New Jerseyans affected by Super Storm Sandy, Wagner spent much of July in a resettlement center in McAllen, Texas.


It’s about “sharing God’s love,” he said about his experience in a phone interview during a short break. He was accompanied by Nancy, his wife, who also volunteered. They responded to a call for help sent out by Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Brownsville, located on the Mexico/U.S. border.

The work was all-purpose: Brian alternated as counselor, security guard, tent cleaner, driver, media chaperone, coffee brewer – whatever was needed to assist. Nancy compiled data, provided orientations, and served breakfast, among other duties.

While attention has focused on unaccompanied children who made the long journey through Mexico to the border, the McAllen facility processed children accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Sometimes the center, located next to a Catholic church, served as many as 200 people a day. Other days the numbers went down as low as 40.

The families were issued new clothes, offered food by the Salvation Army, shelter tents, and then a shuttle bus to the local Greyhound station. There they would be sent as far away as Washington State to Rhode Island, where a family member or friend lived who had purchased tickets for them. Each migrant was given a court date that would determine their legal status.

Almost all the families came from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, but others came from disparate places such as Brazil, Albania and Cuba.

The center was filled with children, said Wagner, mostly with their mothers, sometimes with their fathers.

Why did they undertake what has been documented to be a perilous journey, where so many have been victims of accidents, extortion and the unscrupulous who take advantage of their vulnerability?

“Most are saying it’s because of the violence, poverty and fear for their children’s lives,” said Wagner. Why the migrants made it to Texas was peripheral to his task. Wagner focused on what had to be done to smooth their transition to wherever they eventually end up.

Wagner’s experience – eight years in the military combined with leadership in Sandy storm relief and knowledge of Spanish – has trained him to “seeing the task at hand and getting it done.”

By July 25, he was prepared to leave Texas and return to his duties with Catholic Charities in Vineland. Still, the influx of migrants remained unabated. “I don’t see any end in sight,” he said.

Asked how he would advise President Obama or the leaders of Congress about handling the crisis, Wagner said his time in Texas provided no easy solutions. “I have no idea. I don’t know what the answer is.”

He does know, however, that Americans sharing God’s love through the work of agencies such as Catholic Charities will be essential in resolving the crisis.

What’s happening in McAllen is a small witness to that effect.

Because of Catholic Charities, Wagner noted in an email, the migrants “start to see the true compassion from everyone here and that we really are here to help them and not take advantage of them, as so many people were in their journey.”

Best Practices: Service & Justice with High Schoolers

This is the fourth in a series of “Best Practices” posts that will cover various aspects of Life & Justice Ministries. (To see the all the entries in the series, click here.) Today, the Ampersand interviews Jason Kidd, director of youth and young adult ministries at Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego, Oregon. 

Jason grew up in the desert of Phoenix with his family.  He studied Electrical Engineering at Northern Arizona University.  It was during his college years that he more fully realized God’s abundant love and grace and began to explore the depth of his Catholic faith.  Shortly after, he felt called to serve in ministry full time.  Jason married his high school sweetheart, Sarah, and they followed God’s call to Portland, Oregon.  Jason and Sarah have been blessed with four beautiful children, Hannah, Grace, James and Matthew and a growing community to call home.  In 2011, Jason completed his MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame.  After a decade in ministry, he still yearns to share the radical call of Jesus and building His Kingdom.  In his free time, Jason enjoys basketball, eating his wife’s delicious cooking, wrestling with his kids around the house, theology and exploring the gorgeous Northwest.

What different successful service and justice activities have you included in the youth ministry program you coordinate? What made them successful?

We have done a number of activities during which the middle & high school teens have served including: assisted living centers (playing cards), homeless shelters, soup kitchens, poverty/famine retreats, summer mission trips, CRS rice bowls, and other collections of food or clothing. In my experience, there are two pieces that have helped make these experiences more impactful.

First, hands-on serving people face to face is invaluable. This challenges teens’ preconceived notions about poverty and those who live on the margins. When we see a young family without shelter in line for dinner, it breaks down walls. When we spend time with the elderly, they recognize Christ in them and recall their own grandparents whom they often forget. Interacting with people reminds our teens that regardless of the situations that them on the margins, they are still people; with a name, a story, and the longing to be loved.

From these relational experiences, God enters into our lives and it is harder for us to ignore or overlook our neighbor in need. We are now more aware than before of the need for justice; because its not just numbers, but there is a person we have encountered. Even more importantly, through these conversations we see our own “need” and brokenness. We recognize how God, through our neighbor, is working to restore us.

Secondly, teens must be prepared beforehand and debriefed after. It is important before we go to be reminded of why: as disciples of Christ – NOT to serve so we can pat ourselves on the back.  God wants to transform us through these experiences.  Serving the marginalized is one of the Church’s proper roles. One hundred years ago, it was the church directly that gave drink and food to the needy, sheltered the widow and orphan and cared for the sick.

Part of our prayer and worship of God is to go out and love our neighbors. Working directly with the “least of these” and doing adequate prep and follow up around the service has really helped our teens integrate charity and justice, not only into their faith life, but their whole life.

Why do you think including Catholic social teaching in the formation of young disciples is important?

Catholic Social Teaching is a beautiful hidden treasure of our church, but most especially we need to teach it to young people because Jesus clearly taught his followers to love and serve those in need.

With the push by the church for the “New Evangelization” we are being encouraged to personally renew our relationship with God, those who identify themselves as Catholic, and to share the faith with others. After hearing and reading Frank Mercadante’s book Engaging a New Generation, I think the key to this New Evangelization is Catholic social teaching in practice. He suggests that the older process of conversion (believe, belong, then behave) has been rewired. Postmoderns don’t first find Jesus then live that faith. Rather, they want to see the faith lived out and through that experience and find Jesus.

Pope Francis models this perfectly. He speaks and witnesses to being a “church for the poor” and look at how it has resonated with the world, especially young people! They fall in love with Jesus because he models Jesus’ sacrificial love, putting the other first.

Pope Francis visits a poor area called a favela during his trip to Rio.

What advice would you give to a youth minister looking to deepen his or her ministry’s involvement in service and justice activities?

First off, don’t wait. Organizing a service project is not difficult. Find a good non-profit and get the teens serving people face to face. There may already be opportunities in the parish.

Second, ride the wave of the “Francis Effect.” He has captivated the world’s attention, so intentionally use that in your promotion of the event.

Lastly, make sure to do the prep before (even 15 minutes before) about WHY we are doing this. Remind them to stretch themselves, get to know someone’s name and their story, and look for Jesus’ face in the people they serve.

Then process the experience after (even on the ride home). Questions like: “Where were you uncomfortable? Who did you meet? What surprised you? Was the service what you expected? Why/why not?” are perfect.

(Resource: 20 Questions for Reflection After Service)

Any favorite resources for forming young disciples in Catholic social teaching?

The Life Teen & Edge resources are great. They have whole semesters on Catholic social teaching that include teaching outlines, relevant small group discussion and great media resources. They have also started a number of missions across the country (Houston, Nashville, St. Louis & Atlanta) and one in Haiti where young people can go serve.

Catholic Relief Services also has a “Food Fast” retreat resource for free. World Vision (a Christian Non-profit) has a “30 Hour Famine” retreat resource with some great videos and activities.

We have used the Center for Ministry Development’s “Young Neighbors in Action” for our Mission trip this past year. Ave Maria Press’ Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter has a great chapter titled “Be Restorers” on how to get the whole parish serving outside the walls.


Catching Up With “Rebuilt” Event Speaker Brian Crook

This is the third in a series of “Best Practices” posts that will cover various aspects of Life & Justice Ministries. (To see the all the entries in the series, click here.) Today, the Ampersand interviews Brian Crook, director of missions at the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, about parish-based justice work. Brian was one of two fantastic guest speakers at the diocesan “Rebuilt” event last month, along with Fr. Michael White, pastor of Nativity and co-author of the smash-hit book.

Brian, center, on parish mission trip to Nigeria in 2011.

What is the role of missions within the parish? Why is it essential for our parishes to be reaching out to those living on society’s margins?

We are all called to be missionaries. The Church, the Body of Christ, exists for people outside of the church, and as members of the Body we share in that mission. Church isn’t ever just about one thing. It’s a movement, a movement that is ever-evolving and ever-expanding. It’s been said that a parish should always be going “deeper and wider” — that is “deeper” in the faith of its members and at the same time “wider” in its reach to outsiders. Both are necessary. Both are essential.

In my experience, service activities can be great igniters of faith for people. Why do you think that is?

Seeing God at work is inspiring. Even more so, experiencing God at work first-hand and being a part of that in the world is precisely what we’re made for. I think you’re absolutely right: by it’s very nature Missions ignites faith. We can’t just come to church for an hour each week and expect to experience all that God intends for us. We have to get involved and take responsibility for our faith, and when we do, we learn about who God is, who He has created us to be, and our purpose in the world. That’s exciting.

What are some practical tips you’d have for parishes looking to deepen their engagement in service and justice work?

Do fewer. That’s not good English, but my point is not to “do less” but to “focus more.” So many parishes I know simply have way too many social justice ministries and outreach programs. As a result their efforts get spread too thin and a significant impact is never made. We’re called to do something, but not everything. By narrowing the focus of your parish’s service and justice work, you can actually accomplish more. Think of it this way: when someone asks what your parish does for Missions, try to answer them in once sentence.

Why do you feel called to the work you do?

My story has revolved around Church of the Nativity for many years. I know God because of this local church. More than serving as the Director of Missions, I feel called to serve the kingdom movement that God is unfolding in Timonium. I would say though that my Jesuit education and past experiences with service trips have ingrained in me the importance of Missions. I am most passionate about Missions work because by serving others, it has helped me understand how desperately I need of God in my own heart and in my own life.

Any favorite Scripture passage that inspires your missions work? Any favorite quote from Catholic social teaching?

I love Galatians 5:13-14: For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I love these verses because it drives home for me that Missions overflows from the freedom we’ve received in Christ. It’s not an obligation, it’s not a duty, it’s an honor. It’s an honor, and it’s simple, so simple that it could be summed up by saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”