Patrick Walsh

Recently I attended a series of trainings for people from various non-profit and public service fields. Many would assume that such a gathering would be the last place you’d expect a spiritual experience to happen. And yet I was transformed and transfixed by an aside conversation with an attendee who had the hard luck of sitting near me.

The journeys that brought us there were different — I work for Catholic Social Services to bring food, fellowship and understanding to my community. She was an attorney with local government, defending those of our brothers and sisters who are unable to secure a private legal counsel.

We both came to that session carrying a similar shock in our hearts. Right before lunch, she spoke plainly to the disconnect between the heinous realities our communities face, and the urgency (or lack of it) with which the public, our collective systems, and the infrastructure of philanthropy is prepared to address them.

So when lunch finally did come, I filled my plate amply as usual with two sandwiches, mountains of hummus, pita chips and a Caesar salad. I thought of my friends who come to the food pantry, and what their lunches might be today. I rolled over in my chair to the attorney’s table and thanked her for her honesty.

“How can we communicate that urgency?” I asked. “How can we tell people our communities are ‘burning,’ in a way they’ll hear?”

I wanted to understand how she saw a way forward. I wasn’t prepared for her response.

She answered with an analogy that went something like this: “In so many instances our systems escort people to the gas chamber, and then at the end of the day, we get in the car and go home, we go have drinks … and it’s not OK.”

I asked how we can do something better, and she explained that she had come to a kind of peace: “I do my best, but without my faith, I couldn’t do it. I’ve given it to God.”

Now this amazing woman is a brilliant and experienced attorney, who works tirelessly to uphold justice inside a system built on a skeleton of oppression and convenience for the powerful. But part of her perspective on systemic change was surrendering a broken mess to God.

I was dumbstruck and humbled to hear how someone could grasp these two realities at the same time. In one hand, she held the lives of our friends, routinely exploited and oppressed, while in the other she surrendered their redemption from that hell to God. Hope in God, she said, in the face of compelling and endemic injustice.

I don’t think I can convey the feeling of renewal I felt, right in the fancy conference room of a foundation, on hearing her words. Maybe there’s a way to express it in another language. But I can say this: I was all at once compelled to get praying and get to work, as Benedictine spiritual tradition directs us: “ora et labora,” Latin for “pray and work.”

So often we can’t get “ora” and “labora” into the room together. The folks recognizing our society’s dehydration without the Spirit of God, and the folks recognizing our society’s exploitation and destruction of the families that do the building, cooking, cleaning, harvesting, and serving in our communities, are often living in different dimensions.

That’s unnecessary. We can do better. But we need each other and we need God. Our church is an ideal place to grow in this way together. In our parishes, schools and throughout the many agencies that make up Catholic Social Services, there are people opening their hearts to God and their neighbors. People are learning to understand those whom they didn’t understand before. Working alongside those pushed to the margins, we can build a stronger communion of faith.

C.S. Lewis once wrote: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

What type of community would we have if that level of respect for life were always on our minds?

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Patrick Walsh manages Martha’s Choice Marketplace, a choice model food pantry at Catholic Social Services’ Montgomery County Family Service Center. He can be reached at pwalsh@chs-adphila.org. More information about Martha’s Choice, a beneficiary of the Catholic Charities Appeal, can be found at www.marthaschoicemarketplace.com.