June 24, 2016
“Where did all this come from?” asked a parishioner from my former parish. This “it” was the care or predilection for the poor. Not that I was adverse or blind to the poor before, but my excuse was that I did not have the opportunity. I was now pastor for the first time and I found myself in Deland, Florida. Deland? Yes Deland a town of about 28 thousand residents, thirty miles west of Daytona Beach. My new parish, St. Peter, nearly 125 years old, had a great reputation for its annual Oktoberfest. If you asked the citizens of Deland they would tell you that we threw the best party in town. Nothing wrong with that, but sure short of our purpose for existence. I wanted to be known for more than a four-day festival but I just didn’t know for what.
I knew that we had to care for the needy. I wanted to have a heart for the poor. Everything I read reinforced that conviction. On September 27, the feast of St Vincent De Paul, I read his short counsel on the care for the poor in the Office of Readings. It was then that I knew I had to do something.
It began with our food pantry. We started with some bags of food in our parish office hallway and there transitioned into our own space for the pantry. We easily found parishioners who gladly and enthusiastically operated it. We had an old convent that served as our preschool, but now with our new school, the wing laid empty. Many suggested that we use it for meeting space (meetings ugh!), but I wanted more. We decided to run a home for pregnant homeless young ladies. We purchased a building across from the church and decided to open a medical clinic—Good Samaritan. They are now their own 501(3)(c), joining with the support of the surrounding churches. Believe me this surprised me as much as my former parishioners. I am not an organizer or detail person. Like many priests I know I can see the big picture but getting there is not my forte. But it all worked out
But helping the poor does not require clinics or home for young ladies. It was just circumstance. You do what the Lord puts before you. Pope Francis exhorts us to become a poor Church for the poor. If you see a need fill it. Each community has its own needs and challenges. First step is to notice the poor. The late Bishop Ken Untener of the Saginaw Diocese asked his parishes to begin every meeting regardless of its purpose with the question “how does this affect the poor?” The poor are a priority. I wanted that for my parish. I wanted St. Peter to be known by outsiders as “the parish that cares for the poor.”
It is a blessing. We are not a wealthy parish; we are a blue-collar parish sprinkled with some generous givers. We do well for our area; we have what we need. I believe if we care for the poor, God will take care of our needs.
Since we have this love for the needy we now offer a daily lunch, weekend dinners and laundromat ministry. We have two sister parishes, one in Honduras and another in Cuba. We even support an orphanage in Haiti. I noticed that the more we offer, the more people will step up. I believe that different ministries appeal to different people. Parishioners take a pride in what we are doing. They feel that this is what a church should be doing. Putting money in the basket for diocesan special collections does not engender the same feeling as when it is hands on. If all politics are local then so is the church.
Of course there is resistance. I have parishioners who complain and worry about our own needs. They fear we are doing too much for others and not for ourselves, the inner circle. This is a pervasive attitude in many churches. But if we are honest we do too little for the poor and the needy. Most of our resources go to taking care of our own needs. Churches have become social clubs and the offerings are their dues. They expect a good service for their money. We exist to grow our people spiritually not to make them comfortable. The poor need us but we need them so that we can mature and become true disciples.
If a parish does not have the resources to affect the poor, that does not excuse them from caring for them. I believe that more than food or clothing, the poor need and deserve our respect. We view them with mistrust and fear. Greet them, talk to them, and get to know their names. Our new goal this year is to invite the homeless to our parish events—men’s prayer breakfast, parish picnic, dinners, etc. We want them to know that they are part of our family and are welcome. This has its challenges but it is where we need to go.
I am grateful to God for putting me here in Deland where we have the opportunity to help the poor. It has changed our parish and transformed our people. We have the opportunity to do what Jesus has commanded. When I was young, I read The Lives of the Saints with a bit of envy in seeing how adventurous their life was in helping the poor. I realize that I can do the same in my own way. I remind my people and myself that we are living out the Gospel and there is no better life than living for Jesus. That is what Church is all about.
By: Father Tom Connery, Pastor, St. Peter, Deland, Florida