NEWARK, Ohio (CNS) — It took Bill Hammond most of his life to discover that the quest for salvation runs through serving society’s poorest members.
Hammond, 84, is at peace with that though even though the signposts for a righteous life were all along his life’s path.
For the past 25 years or so, he has taken a leading role in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, both at his parish of St. Francis de Sales and with society’s district council in the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio.
But it took the commitment of a woman who helped him learn to read in his late 20s — after he was married and was raising a family — and the example of his mother, who provided breakfast to homeless men who showed up at his family’s backdoor during the Great Depression in nearby Zanesville, before he realized the beauty of working alongside people in need.
From those examples emerged Hammond’s realization that “I needed to have a special spot in my heart for anybody in trouble.”
That realization eventually led Hammond to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It was at his church in Newark, St. Francis de Sales, that Hammond saw the need to restructure the society’s parish conference from one solely based on raising money for charitable activities to one embracing relationships with people struggling in poverty.
But first, his mother.
Hammond recalls how in the midst of the Great Depression, he would wake up mornings and hear his mother talking with people in the kitchen. He’d go downstairs to find her serving breakfast to homeless people who found their way to the Hammond family home.
“At that time, we called them hobos,” he said. “The neighbors would get the word out that she would provide breakfast.”
He called his father frugal, spending money only on basic family needs. “But he didn’t mind” feeding those who showed up, Hammond said.
“I guess I learned there was something special about serving the poor,” he mused.
The times were difficult for young Hammond as well. He had a rough childhood and was expelled from school. “I didn’t fit in too good,” he recalled.
Life went on. Hammond met his wife of 63 years, Gennoah. They married and had seven children. Finally in his late 20s, Hammond realized he needed to turn his life around and the best way to do that would be to learn to read like an adult.
Then entered Mary McDonald.
McDonald invited Hammond to a Bible discussion group at their parish in Zanesville. At his first gathering, participants read from a book. When it was Hammond’s turn, he struggled and thought to himself he’d never return. But McDonald persevered and asked him to continue to join the discussion, promising he would not have to read again.
Soon after, McDonald offered to teach Hammond how to read. So on Sunday nights for a couple years, before McDonald died from cancer, they met. It led Hammond to obtain his GED. Eventually he opened a sheet metal business, W.L. Hammond Co.
Today, Hammond is a lector at Mass.
“I’m remembering her patience and the time she spent trying to help me,” he said of McDonald’s tutoring. “I knew how it felt to be down and I knew how it felt for somebody to come forward and help.”
After that encounter, “I always had that feeling I needed to have a special spot in my heart for anybody in trouble,” he said.
As a businessman, Hammond assisted some of his workers and others in the community with housing. He became active in St. Francis de Sales Parish, joining the parish council and then the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in order to tackle his growing concern for social justice.
He told Catholic News Service that the key to a strong parish conference involved visiting people in their homes. Hammond believes a parish St. Vincent de Paul conference must do more than raise money and embrace the need to make a spiritual connection with others in need as spelled out in the society’s founding documents drafted by Frederic Ozanam in 1833.
“A spiritual base makes the Society of St. Vincent de Paul successful,” Hammond said. “It’s more than being a fundraiser. To address social justice you must personally get involved with people and go into their homes. That’s more important than the money we provide.”
After his time with the parish conference, Hammond brought his vision to the Columbus diocesan district council, gaining new followers and building a strong outreach based on connecting with people during his six years as president.
Hammond’s leadership in Newark and diocesan-wide is credited by organizers for laying the groundwork for starting the Newark Think Tank on Poverty. The think tank gives people living in poverty the opportunity to voice their concerns and deliver proposals to ease the burden of poverty to local government, business and social service leaders.
Now, Hammond is retired. He still supports the Society of St. Vincent de Paul mission although the home visits are fewer. Still, the society’s manual guides and the precepts outlined in Matthew 25 guide his life.
“Our life can be our prayer,” he says. “Our salvation depends on how we connect with these other people.”