Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
St. Vincent de Paul Society: ‘we seek to do everything in prayer’
by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register
(From the March 15, 2012 edition of the Inland Register)
Mike Cain, the Council President for the Spokane District of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, describes his involvement pretty simply: “Once you get into the Society and start serving the poor, and experiencing the Christian community that is the Society, you don’t ever want to leave.”
Cain, 50, has been involved with the Society since around 1999. It started with a pitch at his parish, St. Anthony in Spokane, by the late Bruno Kensok, “the old man of the Society in Spokane,” as Cain described it.
Kensok had come to St. Anthony to ask the parish to consider forming a conference, as the parish-level groups are called, “and one of my fellow parishioners asked me to join,” said Cain.
He was reluctant at first, but has found over the years that his experience isn’t all that unique.
“Somehow we experience this almost forcible vocation” to serve the poor through the Society. “As though we were grabbed, press-ganged, dragged into the Society, and unable to leave.”
Cain’s own experience was probably helpful: a native of Spokane, a graduate of Shadle High School and Gonzaga University, 20 years in the Navy, and nine years as program coordinator at the House of Charity, Catholic Charities’ ministry to the homeless in Spokane.
He admits that many people probably identify SVdP with the trucks seen around town years ago, collecting donations, and with the second-hand stores, perhaps most notably the large operation located years ago on Trent in Spokane.
But although one core charism of St. Vincent’s work is direct, hands-on – the home visit, meeting people who need assistance, direct face-to-face contact with the poor – even more central is the spiritual community each parish conference forms.
The St. Anthony conference meetings twice monthly. Each conference has a spiritual director who begins each meeting with prayer and perhaps faith-sharing by the members. During quarterly meetings they read and discuss that Sunday’s Gospel.
Members share areas of concern, perhaps around cases they’re working on, asking for input. “It all reflects what our first priority is: to grow toward Christ in community with each other.” And from that, “the outgrowth of that, that Christ demands of us, is service to the poor,” said Cain.
That service is “central to our mission, but it’s secondary to our growing toward Christ with and through each other.”
Requests are channeled through the parish to the conference – sometimes from St. Anthony’s offices, sometimes from parishes that have no conference of their own.
SVdP’s ministry is not just a matter of throwing money at a problem.
“Our central charism is the home visit,” to people requesting assistance, said Cain, a practice that “dates back to our very founding” by Blessed Frederic Ozanam in France in 1833.
“What we do is, we seek to go and meet and get to know the poor,” said Cain. “It’s very hard to just consider the poor as statistics when you’ve been in their homes, met them, seen and felt their hopelessness in many cases. It humanizes the face of the poor. It turns those numbers into actual people. Then they become real.”
Conference members try to address each case individually in its own detail, with its own merit. “We specifically avoid judging,” he said. “The motto of my conference is, if we don’t get taken for a ride every now and then, we probably aren’t being generous enough.”
Prayer, he said, is first, last and everything in between for the Society. “We seek to do everything in prayer, and be guided by the Spirit.”
Funding comes from incredibly generous parishioners, at St. Anthony and elsewhere. “The people in our parish embarrass me with their generosity,” he said. One recent day found the conference down to $1.34. The next day, he picked up donations from the parish office totaling $600. “Their generosity inevitably consistently staggers me.”
Clients might need help in any number of areas. Rent. Mortgage. Utilities. Food. Most landlords, he said, are happy to work with the Society to help clients succeed. No matter what the situation, “We always offer a home visit, always bring food, personal hygiene items, household cleaning supplies.” Financial restraints mean that not every problem can be solved, but “We always help somehow, maybe just not in the way they wanted.”
Another informal motto, said Cain, is that “no work of charity is foreign to the society.” They are open to “anything that alleviates suffering, or promotes human dignity.”
“A lot of people seem to think that serving the poor is something visceral, an experience of delight,” said Cain. The work can be “demanding, difficult. Any time we do a home visit, we never leave without being thanked profusely. But that’s not why I do it.”
The totality of the ministry “speaks to the real fun of the Society: we’re a community,” said Cain. “I love my fellow Vincen-tians, enjoy their company, and though they wouldn’t want me to say this, their holiness.”
(St. Vincent de Paul conferences are associated with five parishes in the Spokane area: Mary Queen, St. Anthony, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Mary, and St. Thomas More, as well as St. Joseph in Dayton, St. Patrick in Pasco, and St. Patrick in Walla Walla. Cain is available to talk to pastors and parishes about starting or revitalizing conferences; call 323-9014. To request assistance from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, contact the conference at your nearest parish.)