From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

New director of Parish Social Ministries Office: justice is ‘integral to what Jesus had to say’

by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the Feb. 8, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

Many people already know Scott Cooper of Spokane from his years of working at St. Vincent de Paul or the Spokane Food Bank (now Second Harvest). As of Jan. 2 he occupies an office in the Catholic Pastoral Center as director of Parish Social Ministries.

To the new work Cooper brings a college degree in French from Gonzaga University, two years in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Nome, Alaska, a master’s degree in linguistics from the University of Washington, and experience and enthusiasm for serving the poor.

His two years in the JVC provided him a life-changing experience, he said, an important step in his desire to be of service. “When I went back to school at UW and saw what my professors were doing, I could see it was all head work, not heart work. And I knew it would be a poverty for me if I did what they do.”

About a year after graduate school, Cooper got a call from Gonzaga University, asking him if he would be interested in teaching French classes part-time. “It was better than the mundane office job I was doing, so I took it,” he said. Then he got a call from the St. Vincent dePaul organization, where he had applied for a job. “I worked it out so that two slightly more than part-time jobs became 1-1/2 fulltime jobs.” He started at St. Vincent in 1995.

“It was the best of both worlds,” he went on. “I got to have fun with the students, and also to work with the very poorest of the poor who absolutely needed everything.” He soon discovered what they needed most was presence. “They wanted someone who was reasonably non-judgmental to listen to their stories.”

Cooper has had practice listening to people’s stories. During his two-year stint in the JVC, he worked at KNOM, a radio station in Nome owned by the Diocese of Fairbanks. The station was one of two there, and they were an “important voice in this vast expanse of territory.” Nome is on the central northwestern coast of Alaska. It has a population of 3,500 people, about 60 percent of whom are Native American.

The station was typical in that disc jockeys played a mix of music, news and public service announcements. Perhaps atypically, there were no commercials. Many of the DJs were Jesuit volunteers, all of whom were on the air at least part of the time, he said.

But volunteers got experience of another kind, doing local news and stories. “We tried to have as much local interest as we could,” Cooper said. He and the other JVs would interview community residents and cover local topics such as the annual Iditarod sled dog race that ends in Nome. During Cooper’s time in Nome the communist government in Russia came apart. Since Nome is not far from Russia, the radio station also covered how that collapse effected Nome itself.

KNOM provided another important service. When many residents would travel to summer camps, the radio station became a “message board” for listeners. It would add a hot-line so that people could call in and leave messages for each other, which were broadcast. “Many of them did not have phones, and it became a way they could communicate,” Cooper said.

“I loved it,” Cooper said of his JV years. Most Jesuit volunteers serve one year, but he said nearly everyone who came to Nome volunteered for a second year. What that did was bring a history to the JVs’ service in Nome, making a collective memory of the experiences of the JVs who had served previously. In Cooper’s view that history enriched and broadened his JV service.

But the experience also led him to a deeper questioning of his values. “It made me pose some questions about what I wanted to do, about my values. I remember sitting down with my parents and telling them ‘I need to some kind of social service work.’”

Working at St. Vincent and then at the food bank fulfilled that need. It also helped Cooper learn the shortcomings of the social service system. “The people in the trenches who deliver the services are absolutely underappreciated,” he said. “There seems to be some level of disconnect between them and the rest of the community, even in the faith community.”

Cooper sees that as part of his job — making stronger connections between the community and the social service providers who help the poor and marginalized. “Those who do social service work don’t have time to do the PR stuff,” he said. Bringing that information to their attention will be of benefit another way, by making the best use of limited resources.

“Forging relationships between parishes and possibilities” is another area that Cooper wants to strengthen. “Whether it’s a service opportunity, a chance for advocacy or making voices heard on an issue, I want to show people who want to get involved how to do it in a coordinated manner.... Getting folks to see the connections will help them in their willingness to be of service.”

As director of the Parish Social Ministries office, Cooper will oversee “education, advocacy and community organizing” in such programs and projects as Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Respect Life, HIV-AIDS ministry, and others. What he brings is “energy, an ability to network and a real passion for the Gospel call to justice and to the care of the anawim (the very poor).” He admitted that to a certain extent, he will “be removed from the anawim, and it will take an effort on my part to keep connected.”

He is firm in his belief that the call to justice is “integral to what Jesus had to say. I need to examine my life as a Catholic in light of that call and make choices based on that.”

‘Operation Rice Bowl’ among Social Ministries’ responsibilities

Any parish, Catholic school or parish group wishing to participate in Operation Rice Bowl is encouraged to contact Scott Cooper, Parish Social Ministry Director, at 358-4273 for information or materials.

Operation Rice Bowl is a program of Catholic Relief Services and is the primary fundraiser for CRS emergency assistance programs around the world.

Families participating in the program fast in some fashion once a week, or eat more simple meals, during the course of Lent. Money saved by the family is then donated to CRS.

The program includes Lenten prayers and information for participating parishes and families.

CRS has recently committed $900,000 in assistance to El Salvador and India in the wake of devastating earthquakes in those two countries. CRS is the U.S. bishops’ overseas development and emergency relief agency.

The Parish Social Ministries Office has community and parish guidebooks with exercises for students of all ages, videos and paper rice bowls for Operation Rice bowl, an annual Lenten program.

Twenty-five percent of Operation Rice Bowl funds remain in the Spokane Diocese to assist local hunger relief organizations like food banks and free meal sites.

Operation Rice Bowl is ideal for family participation around the dinner table or for global issues, geography or economic units in schools or youth groups.

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