A New Approach to the Social Concerns Ministry

As I make my weekly trek to Tampa International Airport, I merge onto I-275N in St. Petersburg and pass one of the largest homeless shelters in the area. Actually, “shelter” is overstated; it’s really an underpass supported by Catholic Charities, several community and church organizations, and individual volunteers. Because it gets a lot of traffic — I pass by the intersection several times a week, myself — there are always panhandlers. It’s a good location for that. Or, at least, it was.

St. Petersburg has struggled with how to take care of the homeless for some time, and as panhandling has increased, so has the city’s efforts to stop it. Businesses, residents, and potential community investors are certainly within reason to demand that the city “clean up” the streets. No one will want to do business there unless there’s a perception of peace and stability, and vagrants don’t help.

In an effort to address those concerns, St. Petersburg passed laws and ordinances making it illegal to panhandle . . . but did so under the auspices of outlawing street vendors. As a result, the law not only hit panhandlers but also legitimate sidewalk merchants.

There’s got to be more productive ways to help those in need — and our faith demands it:

The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. . . . The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God. (Catechism 2447)

So what can be done? The principle of subsidiarity — one of the pillars of Catholic Social Teaching — encourages us to look first at the local level, to see if the problem can be addressed most effectively by those closest to it. In this case, that means the parish.

Most parishes have some kind of social concerns ministry — they’re often the ones who organize the canned food drives. That’s fantastic work, but I wonder if there might be a bigger opportunity here.

A typical Catholic parish is an amazingly broad and rich aggregation of talent, resources, and enthusiasm. Because our faith is universal, Catholics come from every culture and walk of life. Every parish member has a connection with something — someone in need, a person with a resource, a good idea, a helpful organization, etc. Unfortunately, we lack the ability to connect the needs with the resources. In other words, we’re missing out on the networking power of our associations.

How might we address that? One way could be to provide just-in-time services for those who need them. We all have talents, resources, connections, and affiliations, and these can be put to use for the corporal works of mercy. Have you ever been on Craigslist? I propose something similar that harnesses and advertises the resources in each parish . . . and then leverages them with others.

By networking our resources on an inter-parish basis, we have access to a much larger pool of treasure and talent. Maybe a resume writer in Maine could offer advice to an unemployed man in Kansas. Or maybe a parishioner in Topeka has a car that a single mother in South Carolina could really use. If they have no contact beyond their parish boundaries, they’re out of luck.

Think of the possible help categories for such a network: job assistance, clothing, child care, furniture, transportation, housing, micro-loans. Such a list would provide resources, services, and goods to those in need when they need it.

And this doesn’t mean that the individuals themselves must provide the resources. They have their own connections and affiliations and organizational memberships, and might be able to use those to benefit the person in need. As a result, our social concerns ministry can function more as a network hub connecting resources with those who need them, rather than stock clerks for a food pantry.

Of course, these resources may not exist in each parish. But that’s precisely the point: A network like this would lead people in need to those resources, in whatever parish they happen to be.

With the best of intentions, social concerns ministries can be insular organizations, run by those resistant to new ways. That’s a shame, since it leaves a lot of promising ideas untried. If we’re serious about helping those in need and performing this “work of justice pleasing to God,” then we’ll find the most effective way of doing it. And that might mean leaving the old methods behind.


Laurance Alvarado is a senior director with a prominent New York-based international turnaround and restructuring firm and the board chairman of the Morley Publishing Group. Over the last 25 years, he's run consulting practices in Washington, D.C., Latin America, and the Middle East and has done business in more than 20 countries. He is active in social concerns, attends Traditional Latin Mass, and is a member of the Pinellas Schola Cantualis. He's a cycling enthusiast, commutes around Washington on a Brompton, races Porsches, and competes in anything with wheels. He's a native Texan from San Antonio and a Texas Aggie who served his country in the Air Force. He loves history, strategy, free enterprise, sailing, dogs, and -- most of all -- his bride of 18 years.

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