Editor’s Note: The following blog entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ. Fr. McCue’s entry highlights how work for justice, no matter how great or simple, transforms us as individuals, even when our attempts to articulate the experience seem inadequate. For more information on De Sales Service Works, please visit the website at www.oblates.org/dsw.
“Home visits?” “House blessings?” “Pastoral visits?” “Block collection?” “Walking around the neighborhood with Sr. Claire?”
One of the works of De Sales Service Works (DSW) is visits to people in their homes in our neighborhood of Holy Name Parish in Camden. I know everyone who has participated in these visits will agree with me that it is an unforgettable experience—beneficial for the volunteers and the people visited. The only problem is that I cannot think of a title for the service activity that conveys what a rich activity it is. Tim Gallagher in his blog entry of Wednesday, August19, describes his hesitation about this aspect of DSW service because of my plain failure to name and explain effectively what we would be doing.
I will try to do a better job here. Basically, we visit homes in the neighborhood, visit with the families, and enjoy the hospitality offered. In this simple act we hope to express the parish’s concern for its residents and to connect basically middle-class European Americans with people in our neighborhood who have a Latino background and are mostly in a more precarious economic position. There is often a language difference as well. The things we share in common, however, are more important and bind us together: our faith tradition and our common humanity. Visiting volunteers learn that there are some shockingly poor families—as well as some middle class homes—in this inner city setting.
We have been welcomed to households where a lot of people live: three or four generations, working or out of work, in school or not. On our streets a fully functioning house may be next door to an abandoned house, a vacant lot, or a drug house. Often people we visit are clearly fresh immigrants and being welcomed into their space feels like a trip to Latin America or the Caribbean. These homes bear witness to the pride the people have in their home country with flags on the wall, as well as their devotion to their Catholic faith, with images of the Blessed Mother and the Lord displayed prominently next to the flag.
Sr. Claire Sullivan, IHM, is our guide for these visits. Her role in the parish has provided me and DSW volunteers many opportunities to get to know the area and the families well. Prior to coming to Holy Name Parish seven years ago, she spent decades working among the poor in Peru and Chile. She is fluent in Spanish and is familiar with Latino cultures. As our guide, she used the Biblical image of “holy ground” to remind us to visit as guests, as fellow Christians, and neighbors—not as a tourist or a cultural anthropologist. Let me describe two specific visits to attempt to convey the richness of the experience.
On one occasion, we visited a family whose children attend Holy Name Parish School. One boy, his cousin and a neighbor have a start-up band—guitar, drums, and bass. The kids seem to live in both a Latino and American world—speaking English and Spanish, sharing interests and style that you would find anywhere in the US. But the house fascinated me. It was very simple except for an entertainment center. That cabinet also served as a home shrine with multiple images of the Virgin Mary, holy water, rosaries, a crucifix and family pictures all mixed together. Since this family has a Mexican background, the Blessed Mother pictured as Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared several times. They also had a lovely statue of Mary dressed in yellow with a radiating halo. I asked the name and tried to learn it, repeating the title several times. I did not take the name away with me but did take away an experience of the kindness of the family.
In June, Oblate Associates Tim Gallagher, Ryan Cronshaw and I visited the home of a little boy, Jacob, who was sick with cancer. His family lives in a modest row house with extended family living together. The family had been through a lot in addition to Jacob’s illness. His grandfather died three months before our visit, and a young uncle with special needs died not long after our visit. At their house, it could not have been clearer that, despite the sorrows, his family gave young Jacob a full measure of love and attention.
Later in the summer, Jacob lost his fight against the disease. His funeral was very, very sad because he was only eight and because he had fought hard and bravely against the disease. Jacob wanted to be a fireman, and a family member had connected him to the Camden fire department. Camden’s firemen took him as one of their own, making him a member of their company. Firefighters supported the family throughout the illness and joined family and friends in mourning young Jacob as a brother at the funeral.
Whatever we call these experiences, these visits are very good things that bring us toward the Salesian friendship and real solidarity that are key values in Salesian spirituality and Catholic Social Teaching. We cannot be in solidarity with people if we are not prepared to enter into their lives and attempt to experience life from their perspective. The experience of home visits offers all of us an opportunity to see life in a new way, through the eyes of people who may not have had the same opportunities in life, but still live lives full of faith. Through these experiences, we believe the grace of God is at work, transforming both us and the people we are visiting.