Activists can thrive in parish community

Bob McKeon

JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

June 28, 2010

Last week, I was part of a meeting of representatives from Edmonton area parishes and Catholic organizations concerned about the issues of homelessness and affordable housing. Everyone attending the meeting came with a strong personal commitment.

I spoke with a couple of people from parishes in one corner of the city. They said that for years they had been regular participants in an ecumenical network in their area committed to do more about poverty and homelessness in their community.

I asked how much their parishes were engaged in these local initiatives, and they responded there was little parish involvement. With a sense of frustration, they felt they were pretty much on their own.

In many of our parishes, it is easy to become a "lone ranger" in social justice efforts. We can attend Sunday Eucharist for years, regularly exchange smiles and a handshake of peace with the neighbours who sit near the pew we regularly stake out for ourselves, but never really get to build a meaningful relationship with others in the parish.

FAILED EFFORTS

We may try to recruit others to our cause through bulletin messages or brief spoken announcements at the conclusion of Sunday worship, but these efforts are seldom successful.

Parishes working within the Greater Edmonton Alliance (GEA) have learned about a different way to engage their members in community action.

All GEA meetings start with a time for "relational encounters." These are focused, one-to-one conversations where people share something of their own stories, and the social pressures and opportunities they and their families are experiencing related to the issues under discussion at the meeting.

From these relational conversations, people at the meeting learn something about each other and about their shared frustrations, hopes and dreams.

GEA member parishes often take this approach further by organizing "listening campaigns" engaging a significant portion of the parish's members. These listening campaigns involve skills and leadership development, identification of common concerns, and a strengthening of bonds of community and solidarity among members of the parish.

PARISH LISTENING TIME

From these conversations priority issues for common action can be named. One Edmonton GEA parish is hosting such a "parish listening time" on a Sunday morning later this month when parishioners gather around tables in the parish hall at coffee time after the Sunday Eucharist.

Of course, over time a GEA listening campaign goes beyond the boundaries of a single parish or faith community. Bonds of relationship and solidarity are forged with members of different churches and faith communities and include members of other GEA member institutions, including community organizations, labour unions, small business associations and cooperatives.

This type of an approach does not necessarily mean that everyone in a parish joins an expanded social action committee. Rather, what is likely to happen is that parishioners live out their shared faith-grounded social concern though the different parish ministry committees such as liturgy, RCIA, pastoral care, sacramental prep, youth and stewardship.

Even more, they live out this faith- grounded social concern in their lives in the world in the context of work, family and community.

This approach makes a distinction between a specialized "social justice" ministry and a more general socially reflective or responsible ministry approach. This second approach assumes that in a world like ours, one scarred with systemic injustices and violence, all Christian ministries, if they are truly Christ-centred and grounded in their biblical foundations, will be socially transforming ministries.

This is the approach of the U.S. bishops in their parish animation program called Communities of Salt and Light, which is designed to have the values of Catholic social teaching become alive in the day-to-day life of Catholic parishes.

Specific parish social justice committees remain important, but they work within a broader context of social concern shared across the whole parish community.

UNITE WITH OTHERS

In a truly relational parish community, where members can share their experiences, voice their concerns and live with bonds of social solidarity within and beyond their parish boundaries, individuals and small groups in a parish may reach out and join ecumenical and community organizations which address important social concerns, such as poverty and homelessness.

However, they do not do this alone or as "lone rangers." They do this as part of a dynamic Catholic community grounded in an outward reaching sense of mission and service.

(Bob McKeon: sjustice@caedm.ca)