WASHINGTON (CNS) — The girl, no older than 12, was frantic, crying uncontrollably in the middle of the street, her younger brother standing nearby. Cars whizzed by, horns honking for the kids to get out of the way.

Maria Franco, who had just left her job as religious education coordinator at St. Eulalia Parish in the Chicago suburb of Maywood, saw the scene. “Oh, my God. What is this baby doing in the street?” she asked herself.

Franco stopped her car and ran to the girl.

“I put my arms around her and got her off the street,” Franco said.

That’s when Franco learned that the girl had just found her 15-year-old sister with a noose around her neck on the back porch of her family’s home. The teenager had committed suicide.

“I began praying and just held her,” Franco recalled.

Franco watched as the first responders feverishly administered CPR as they wheeled a gurney with the girl’s limp body to an ambulance. They couldn’t revive her.

The teenager’s suicide was the neighborhood’s third in a few months during late 2018 and early 2019. “I realized this is a big issue,” Franco told Catholic News Service Jan. 27 at the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering.

Utilizing her connections with the parish and the Chicago-based Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership, for which she co-chaired the group’s Safety and Violence Committee, Franco moved into action. She made sure teen suicide was on the agenda of the parish’s parents’ group before Mass the following Sunday.

That meeting led Franco, 44, and other parents to undertake a drive to receive mental health first aid training in partnership with the parish’s Quinn Community Center, Taller de Jose (Joseph’s Workshop), an accompaniment ministry, and CSPL, an organization of parishes, families and community groups working to develop local leaders rooted in Catholic theology and the church’s social teaching.

CSPL is funded in part by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the U.S. bishops’ domestic anti-poverty campaign.

Since November, more than 50 parents in the majority Hispanic neighborhood have been trained to be aware of the warning signs of depression and anxiety in their teenage children. Two more sessions are planned in February and March.

“Just the response alone tells me we’re moving in the right direction,” said Franco, who came to the United States with her family when she was 2.

Such an effort would have never occurred had the parish and the wider community depended on public officials, police and mental health professionals to respond, Michael Okinczyc-Cruz, CSPL executive director, said during a plenary session Jan. 27, the third day of the social ministry assembly.

The annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering is organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development in collaboration with 10 other USCCB departments and 16 national Catholic organizations.

“True change is only going to come from grassroots communities. It’s going to come from the ground up,” said Okinczyk-Cruz.

“Most importantly, communities have to be organized,” he added. “They have to build collective power. They have to build relationship with one another. They have to do it in the public square … to achieve the type of society that God is calling us to build.”

Okinczyk-Cruz was one of three participants in a roundtable discussion focused on how the church and its members can influence policy domestically and internationally to overcome challenges such as poverty, racism, the effects of climate change, community violence and war.

The trio — which included Kim Mazyck, senior manager for engagement and educational outreach at Catholic Charities USA, and Gerard F. Powers, director of Catholic peace-building studies at the University of Notre Dame — concluded that overcoming affronts to human dignity is more likely through the building of relationships.

People with titles and degrees do not have all the answers, they agreed.

Mazyck said vulnerable people often feel that their ideas on finding solutions to the challenges they face are overlooked or ignored and so they do not become involved even though they are closest to the problem.

“People (who are struggling) think we’re beyond their reach,” she told the 600 social justice advocates at the assembly. “We have to continue to remind them that we are within reach. We have to constantly think, ‘Who are we not reaching?’

“We have to find ways to walk with our families, especially mothers in single-parent households. They see themselves on the news as the problem. But they have the solution. They know what the community needs and we have to find ways to reach them, walk with them and develop solutions that work,” she said.

Internationally, building relationships requires that people in dire situations contribute to achieving peace and stability, Powers added.

He called on the United States, with its powerful influence around the world, to recognize the important contributions local communities can make in reconciling warring factions.

Powers also credited Catholic Relief Services for recognizing that relationships are key to achieving peace and supporting human dignity.

Achieving social change requires taking risks, Okinczyc-Cruz said.

“If the church does not fully commit itself to the work of social justice, social change, which demands profound changes in the way in which we go about the work we are doing, it risks being completely irrelevant to another generation, a generation of young people,” he said.

While he welcomed the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching and the pastoral letters of the U.S. bishops on issues such as war, the economy and racism, such documents are “not going to change society simply on their own.”

“I think of Moses. What if Moses stood on the shore of the Red Sea and just pulled out a letter and said, ‘This is what God says, this is what we’re to do,’ and then turns around walks right back into Egypt. I think Miriam would have pushed him in and just led everybody,” he said.

An audience member suggested to the panelists that bishops and priests should be in the forefront to help foster relationships and lead the charge for social change.

Powers challenged the idea.

“One risk we have is clericalizing Catholic social action,” he said. “The Second Vatican Council said it’s the laity, not the bishops, not the priests, who have the principal responsibility for transforming the social order by the Gospel. My questions is where is the laity?”

The conversation repeatedly returned to the importance of building relationships, which can lead to understanding, respect and — in the long term — peace.

“We have to do the hard work of building relationships and to get our hands dirty,” Okinczyc-Cruz said. “That is what Pope Francis is urging us to do, to get our hands dirty in the rough and tumble world.”

The annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering is organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development in collaboration with 10 other USCCB departments and 16 national Catholic organizations.