1-5-2023 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders

1-5-2023 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders 900 900 SVDP USA

The holidays are always a mixed blessing for those of us who value our “alone time.” My wife has to drag me to parties, but then I usually have fun when I attend.  During the pandemic it was a small blessing for us introverts to see these parties go into hibernation. Alas, they have returned this year, often with a vengeance to catch up in their revelry, size, noise and meaningless chatter. It’s not really the parties I don’t enjoy, it’s only some of the people attending!

It appears that I am not, uh, alone. According to the Census Bureau American Time Use Study, which apparently is a real thing we pay the government to do, we have all been spending more time alone since way back in 2014! The pandemic just made it more socially acceptable. In 2019, Americans already spent only four hours a week with friends, a decline of 37 percent in just five years.

We should pause to note that cell phone market penetration crossed 50 percent in 2014. Add some polarization to make us fearful of political discourse, and is it any wonder that we spend less time with others?

This trend includes all age groups (though exacerbated in younger generations), racial, urban/rural, married/unmarried, and parent/non-parent groups.

The trend reversed but just slightly post-pandemic, but we are still behind the 2019 levels. We don’t know yet how much we have each changed permanently due to the pandemic, and a Pew Research Center study found that 35 percent of Americans say that large gatherings, going out and socializing have become less important since COVID. Every day we can see that more of us now have our meals and groceries delivered. We stream movies at home. And most distressing, we don’t go to church as often and maybe not at all. Even putting faith aside, this can’t be a healthy outcome.

Our Society’s Mission Statement, coincidentally revised before the pandemic, starts with the words “A network of friends…” Through attention to these words perhaps we can start to reverse this trend.

Friendship has always been one of our Society’s Essential Elements, along with Spirituality and Service. We know as well that the Society was created by a group of college friends and an adviser. At times, some Conferences gloss over the importance of friends meeting together in their rush to serve and seek holiness. In trying to satisfy our mission, we may be forgetting that making and maintaining friendships, as well as relationships with those we serve, is our mission!

As we come out of the holidays, we hopefully renewed some friendships at all those darn parties we were dragged to, I mean invited to attend. Let’s keep those relationships going and with some Vincentian zeal. Let’s also think of who we didn’t see at those holiday gatherings and seek them out. Maybe they aren’t well, or afraid to gather, or like me, they just may need an extra nudge to be sociable sometimes. You have my blessing, in fact my fervent wish, that you be that nudge!

Good friends are hard to find, so let’s not lose some due to carelessness and unintentional neglect. Just like with customers, it is easier to keep a current friend than to make a new one. We know too that many hands make light work, and that many minds create better solutions to serve people in need. We also recognize that we all benefit from praying and serving as friends more than coming together as acquaintances now and then for a service project. The continuity of friendships was modeled for us by Christ’s Apostles, and we continue this tradition of serving as a faith-based team of friends in deed and spirit.

We speak often about making new friends and inviting them into our beloved Society. Let’s take stock of our Vincentian relationships, and then start 2023 right by adding to our network of friends. You might even find an occasion to throw a party!

Yours in Christ,
Dave Barringer

07-14-2022 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders

07-14-2022 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders 1368 1387 SVDP USA

This isn’t a stores column, but let’s use a store as an example. When reviewing a Thrift Store, I always request that the manager and I close our eyes and we suddenly appear in the middle of the store. What do we see, and what is the store trying to tell us?

In a recent overseas stores tour, the request led me to see a lot of signage about sustainability. That’s a fairly new term for what stores used to call “reuse, renew, and recycle” to which all Thrift Stores can contribute. While such sustainability is a great stores benefit and certainly a very Catholic objective, it is not why we operate our stores. Rather it is one of many good business practices we undertake in the course of our work.

Thus a second and most important question, for all our works: Why don’t we tell more people about our actual mission in what we do to meet it?

Our mission is to bring people to holiness, done through the serving of the poor, assisted with the operations and revenues of, in this example, the store. Our members often complain that no one knows enough about the Society. However, we continue to tell them only what we do. What we often fail to tell them is who we are.

It is natural to confuse activity with intentions. Our communities see our food pantries, pharmacies, and other programs, and so assume that these are the Society’s mission. Even worse, for privacy reasons we purposely don’t show the public our core Home Visit service, so they have no evidence that this is any aspect of our Society’s mission. At best they know we “help the poor,” and because that’s often enough to stimulate donations and good will from most people, we leave well enough alone.

This might all be fine if our mission was to attract volunteers and funds to help our neighbors in need. That’s dangerous thinking because many good people don’t need a faith basis to be charitable. As pro football coach, Bill Parcells once said, you are what your (win-loss) record says you are. What does our Society program, signage and advertising “record” say we are? Could we easily be confused with another social services organization, another used goods store, or a parish ministry?

Marketing people look for the “unique offering” that distinguishes you from the competition, and hopefully provides an advantage in attaining organizational goals.  A unique offering of the Society in a few words is that we offer our members the chance to see the face of Christ. That’s one heck of an offering, right?

We are not embarrassed by our Catholic faith, nor by our members being driven by it to serve the poor. We can be much more intentional about this in our materials messaging, signage, and especially in our language. When asked what the Society does, the proper response might be different for a parishioner than someone else, and that’s fine. Whether the response is, “We help our members grow in holiness through serving the poor,” or “We are Catholics and others who put our faith into action by serving the poor,” at least both point to the same north star of our mission. Yes, we accomplish lots of other good outcomes! We provide sustainable solutions for clothing and household goods. We make efficient use of medications and food supplies to help the most needy. We pay rent and utility bills. We teach neighbors how to be more self-sufficient. We advocate. We do all this and so much more, which, again, is fantastic.

Let’s not confuse what we do, though, with who we are. Others, perhaps many others in our community, can do what we do. No one else is who we are, the members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. We are not simply good people doing good works, we are disciples.  And we pray that others will join us and share in our vocation.

I invite you to close your eyes during your Vincentian service, and then re-open them. With this fresh view, what do you see?  Do others see it too?

Yours in Christ (see, isn’t that easy?),
Dave Barringer

06-24-2021 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders

06-24-2021 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders 275 287 SVDP USA

Tell me a story…

These words are implored by every child to parents worldwide. Stories entertain and often educate. Christ Himself used stories, notably parables, to make His point in a relatable fashion to the many varied groups who asked Him difficult questions.

As noted elsewhere in this and future editions of the e-gazette, the National Council has produced a “pandemic special edition” of our TV series “Our Faith In Action: Today’s Society of St. Vincent de Paul” (OFIA).  The show will premiere on EWTN on Friday, August 6.  Our 30 televised minutes will tell stories from three Councils of how they adapted to parish, pantry and store closures, quarantines, no in-person Conference meetings and other sudden disruptions to traditional Society services and relationships. No worries, we will remind you when the airdate gets closer to set your DVR, and we will make the show available later for those who can’t access EWTN in their cable packages.

These three Council stories are actually recaps of several stories within each Council. We could have spent our full allotted time on any one of them! Further, we know that you have such stories too in your Conference and Council. Vincentians across the country adapted mightily to keep going, keep serving, and keep caring for their neighbors.

But what good is a story if it isn’t told?

Vincentians are a humble lot, which sometimes costs us opportunities. We serve quietly, often fulfilling the catchphrase of “Tell me you are ____ without telling me you are ___.” This phrase is used by college alumni groups, branches of the armed forces, those with community pride, and many other affinity groups. Society members have been “telling me they are Vincentians without telling me they are Vincentians” almost to a fault! We are known by our actions, or so we want to believe. More likely these days, our caring, faith-filled examples are either barely noticed or quickly forgotten. Unfortunately, a good example is not as memorable as a bad one.

That’s where a good story helps to make a more lasting impression.

Okay, so many good, humble Vincentians probably won’t talk about their own great works. Let’s agree, then, to tell the good stories of our fellow Vincentians! We can also tell the stories, without names of course, of our friends in need and how they struggle, and then succeed, to improve their lives. We can tell the stories of how a community donor’s resources fed the hungry or provided a virtual class in financial literacy.

This year we all need to hear uplifting stories of pandemic survival, adaption and overcoming the odds. Many such stories exist across the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. After all, we were one of the few groups who continued to serve at the neighborhood level and made a huge difference doing so. However, who really knows about the work we did, and the barriers we overcame?

Many supporters stepped up this past year to help us. Some were existing valued sources of funds, volunteers and material goods. Others, previously unknown to us, contacted us because we were the best or maybe the only resource providers in town during the pandemic. These supporters large and small now deserve the stories of how their efforts made a difference – and how they can continue to make a lasting difference as we press onward. Poverty did not go away with vaccinations.

Our members deserve stories, too, as they may have served in isolation from each other and those we help. They may feel incomplete because they weren’t able to go on an in-person Home Visit. Some miss the prayers and spiritual togetherness of a Conference meeting that, try as we did, just couldn’t be satisfied with a Zoom call.  Let’s take the time now to share our SVdP pandemic stories with each other. As with Christ’s stories, we can learn from them and build community.

Finally, what stories can we relate in our parishes? Masses were shut down for weeks, even months, isolating parishioners from each other. They may not have kept abreast of the Society’s continuing work, or how it adapted to stay healthy for all involved.  As fellow parishioners learn how we persevered, perhaps they will be motivated to join us! Every story should end in an invitation to serve along with us.

We have a unique, and perhaps short-lived, opportunity for the Society to relate our resilience, challenges, and successes, from this pandemic period. Before we all put this crazy time behind us, let’s collect and share the stories that made this year in some ways our Society’s finest hour.

Yours in Christ,
Dave Barringer

06-17-2021 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders

06-17-2021 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders 410 382 SVDP USA

Even fairly good students can end up after school in detention. If my middle school had a three-strikes program, I may not have survived eighth grade. To wit:

  • I was sitting in the lunchroom with my buddies. One of them, I noticed, was walking behind us and flicking our ears. When I thought he reached me, without turning I swept my arm behind me to smack him. Then I saw the faces of all my friends turning red. I had unknowingly just slapped the school’s most attractive young teacher squarely on her bottom.
  • Before English class began, my best friend suggested that a pro wrestling headlock he saw the night prior was a great move. I disagreed. We agreed to a test; he would get me in a headlock and I would try to escape it. He grabbed me, and I proceeded to lift his entire body up to my shoulders. At that point the teacher walked in, and assumed idiot-on-idiot violence. Apparently she was not a wrasslin’ fan.
  • We were about to begin a new unit on drug abuse in our Social Studies class. While I was visiting someone in the hospital, I asked a nurse if I could take home a clean, capped hypodermic needle to use as a teaching prop. She thought it was a great idea. Upon seeing the unauthorized needle in class, however, my teacher disagreed. So did my principal.

Looking back about 50years later — hopefully after the statute of limitations — I maintain my innocence. I also take from these experiences a recognition of how young people make careless mistakes, bad choices, act from ignorance, or just don’t quite have enough of the common sense we older folks take for granted.  My rather trivial transgressions resulted in correspondingly minor punishments. Others who made bad choices on a larger scale, or who were simply the unlucky ones who got caught, may have spent time not in detention but in jail. They may have missed college, job or other life opportunities.  But for one or two bad days, or bad decisions, their lives could have been completely different.

This is why the listening part of how we serve is so important. Especially in our Home Visits, but also while chatting at a food pantry or when otherwise helping someone with their issues, Vincentians seek to understand first, and then to act. Our services are not cookie-cutter because the people who need them don’t come from the same mold, either. Each person and family got to where they are by a different, sometimes unbelievable path. This path may have been a winding road, full of potholes. Perhaps they had to walk it step by painful step, much less drive it. Often too, they carried someone else and their burdens along the way.

The Society’s national Mission statement includes the phrase “through personal relationships with and service to people in need” and recognizes that we are a relational, not transactional, group. We see the service we provide simply by letting someone in need unload their situation and problems. In some cases, we are the only person who took the time to listen at all.

This year especially, our friends in need have stories to tell!  Are we actively listening to them?

Looking back on my middle-school situations, I realize that the repercussions of my actions could have been much worse but for listening teachers and administrators. Their desire to understand first before responding to me provided great examples to carry on in my Vincentian work. With some thought, you may have a similar role model.

Ms. Fascina, if you’re out there, thanks to you especially for listening. I really didn’t know you were walking behind me!

Yours in Christ,
Dave Barringer

05-13-2021 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders

05-13-2021 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders 275 287 SVDP USA

Why should I care?

We all ask this at some point when we learn something new, and especially when it challenges our assumptions and what we think we believe. We want to stay in our comfort zone. We believe that we act as we always have, and may not realize that our views and knowledge change even when we don’t think about it. Little by little, it all then changes how we behave.

It feels that recently, we have all been asked to think more, and differently, about matters such as identity and race, health and safety, politics and citizenship, and rights and responsibilities. Even though we have been more isolated during a pandemic, media and new voices have brought us, or even forced us, together to see and perhaps to understand.

Why as Vincentians should we care about all this?

I suggest two reasons, both rooted in our mission. First, the way we accomplish our mission is through our relationships with, and service to people in need. Every time we hear of a new call for action, or a voice longing even simply to be heard, we should ask how this may be a part of our work with our neighbors. They don’t look the same, or come from the same cultural or personal backgrounds, even if they now live in the same neighborhood. What may be the impacts of personal identity, incarceration, citizenship, mental health, and so many other factors we hear in the news? If we learn more, won’t we be better able to communicate, have more empathy, and ultimately better serve others? We deepen our Vincentian relationships, and thus our ability to make real contributions to the lives of our neighbors, if we take the opportunities before us to understand.

Second, our Vincentian charism and mission call us to increase our own holiness. Sainthood is our goal. (To be clear, though, it isn’t a campaign!) In order to improve the lives of others, we need to better ourselves — in our knowledge, education, and then ultimately attitudes and personal actions. This set of improvements is not a one-time activity; it is lifelong learning. It leads to personal, spiritual evolution in our service to God and to others.

Today we often see any subject through one of two polarized lenses, especially in media and social media. I suggest we not choose just one, but try to absorb the topical points from multiple sources. As a college Journalism major, I was trained to read 6 – 7 newspapers (remember them?) daily, and was constantly surprised how the same story appeared so differently according to which paper reported on it. The media have changed today but the lenses remain the same. Yes, we could choose one that fits our current beliefs and remain comfortable. Or, we can seek out multiple, often contrasting views, and likely find the truth somewhere in the middle.

All those views out there may clash with each other, and with our existing view of the world in which we live. However, there is something stimulating about our ability to keep growing in our mindfulness and spirituality at any age. We can choose to hunker down in our mental caves, avoiding new discomforts. As Vincentians, however, we choose to listen and then discern, because we do indeed care.

Yours in Christ,
Dave Barringer

05-06-2021 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders

05-06-2021 A Letter From Our Servant Leaders 410 382 SVDP USA

This week I visited a Council with a small film crew to record what Vincentians have been doing during the pandemic, and how it differs from pre-COVID practices to serve neighbors in need. Much more on this at a future date, but we look forward to sharing the Society’s year of  innovative love and caring with the country soon!

At the end of my time there, I met for a nice dinner with a few of the Council and Conference officers who were gracious in hosting us for the filming. Some of the leaders had not met in person for over a year. One president had not left her home since last March! I was happy to be their excuse to get together — safely — in Vincentian friendship.

Such Society of St. Vincent de Paul family reunions are taking place as they are able, all over the world. It is both a reunion and a reawakening!

What I see is a bunch of isolated test kitchens for innovative practices in Home Visits, food pantries, and other services that until last year were usually conducted in person. Often a Conference developed their own practices without a lot of coordination, best practice sharing, or outside resources other than prohibitions to stay safe. Now we are better able to come together and share how it all worked (or not).

Sure, we all learned Zoom and other technologies to meet virtually, and even to take Ozanam Orientations and other formation and training. Something, though, was lacking when we couldn’t actually see what was happening. Following a laptop view through the food pantry isn’t the same as being there.

Most of all, as I continue to see in visits, is that we missed each other. Our Essential Element of Friendship, at least among each other as Vincentians, has been sorely missed once it was removed from us. Perhaps we took this for granted? Absence truly does make the Vincentian heart grow fonder!

While we celebrate being together again, let’s be sure to record what we have been doing. We pray for no more serious and long-term disruptions in our work, but let’s remember what worked in case we need it, or those who come after us need to put it all again into practice.

Better yet, what did we change that should now be considered as more permanent evolution we wish to keep? No, in case one is tempted, we aren’t keeping virtual Home Visits unless safety demands it. But what have we done differently to stay safe that we want to keep doing? What efficiencies did the pandemic demand of us that now, when conditions have improved, we want to maintain? What partnerships and collaborations did we learn of and grow during this crazy time that have introduced us to more permanent relationships to help those in need?

None of us want a return to the conditions this past year that forced us to change. Now, though, we can look at this change and determine if it was a necessary short-term adjustment to keep our works alive. Did those conditions force us out of our comfort zones instead to think and serve differently, resulting in lasting improvements or at least new options?

St. Vincent himself said, “Love is inventive to infinity.” He didn’t say what might cause this creativity to happen! Let’s view each day, and each wrinkle in our lives, good or bad, as an opportunity to do better as we do good.

Yours in Christ,
Dave Barringer

03-11-2021 Letter From Our Servant Leaders

03-11-2021 Letter From Our Servant Leaders 275 287 SVDP USA

After five years of driving through my neighborhood, I thought I knew it pretty well. But when my wife worked briefly for the U.S. Census, she would point out small shops I had never realized were nearby. She could show me the home with an insane number of people living in it, and which were rentals or owned residences. The neighborhood took on a completely different perspective because she had walked the streets instead of driving while focused on traffic lights, bikes, and pedestrians.

This, my friends, is why the Society conducts Home Visits.

During the pandemic period, many Conferences adjusted to not visiting homes with counter-top services and phone interviews. Most Vincentians will quickly tell you that they miss the stronger relationship of a true visit in someone’s home or even visiting with them in a nearby public place. You see different things, and people often share a bit more not only about their specific problem, but also about their family and their life. There is understanding and empathy, not just a transaction.

It is also difficult to understand poverty until you at least see it, if not experience it yourself. In many ”rich” neighborhoods, we drive by and see the opulent lawns and large homes, assuming easily that everyone in that neighborhood must be wealthy. If you spent real time there, however, you would see that so many neighbors bought much more house than they could afford. The homes are often empty of furniture and the owners have trouble paying their bills. They tried to buy status through their house or their fancy car. The neighborhood’s true millionaires often have the used car and a modest home, but also money in the bank and a lot less stress.

Likewise, people in poverty live in or around these homes. They may have service jobs for the wealthy, or they operate the small businesses sprinkled around the opulent neighborhoods. They are often the invisible underclass that keeps our economy going, the working but underemployed families that we encounter in our Vincentian service.

During the past year we changed our service delivery as needed to be safe and legal. It was not usually our choice, but we did this because of our love for those we serve. We did not want to deny them whatever we could bring to demonstrate our, and God’s, love in these tough times.

We have all heard about not understanding someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. As Vincentians, we know that we don’t understand someone until we at least walk through their neighborhood. As Springtime comes, and pandemic restrictions slowly lift, let’s take that walk. Let’s get to know our neighborhoods, and our neighbors, once again as we venture together out of the darkness.

Yours in Christ,
Dave Barringer

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