COMPLETE THE CIRCLE
By George Evans
Nine years ago, with the approval and support of our pastor, Father Michael O’Brien, I went with five other parishioners of Jackson St. Richard Parish to Phoenix to learn how to start a new St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP)conference. Phoenix had been recommended to us as the best place in the country to learn about SVDP and how to start a new conference. Our first contact occurred around a conference table where our hosts asked each of us why we wanted to start a SVDP conference in Jackson. We each responded, in so many words, that we wanted to help the poor in some form or fashion. We were told that is not what SVDP is about.
Rather, the purpose is to grow in holiness by serving the poor. We are not a social service agency. We are a spiritual development group growing spiritually in serving the poor. After recovering from this first attention getter, we gradually were formed, in the Vincentian Way, the rest of our visit.
We spent two days learning the history of SVDP and being exposed to all that Phoenix was doing. It was mind blowing. They have various feeding programs, feeding more than a thousand people a day, AA and dental and medical services, with a constant stream of patients. Reading and other educational programs relating particularly to seeking jobs, computer training, stores for clothing and furniture and numerous other services too many to enumerate. The scale of their metro operation is huge. They do have approximately a hundred conferences as their base. We were as impressed with the concern and compassion of the Vincentians, and how they related to the poor, as we were with the size of their operation.
We came home raring to go; ready to grow in holiness by serving the poor.
It took three to four years of organization and growth to stabilize our Conference with officers, community contacts to meet the needs of those who sought our aid, such as utilities and landlords. It also took time to build and earn the trust of our parishioners, who, as time has progressed, have become an incredibly generous source of support both financially and as new members of our Conference. By 2013/14 we were able to invite other parishes to start new SVDP Conferences if they were interested and ready. We were willing to help as needed for them to get started.
The first parish to act was Jackson Christ the King. They chose the name, St. Martin de Porres, for their Conference. We helped with an initial financial contribution and by bringing experienced trainers from Huntsville, Alabama, to assist with the start up along with our own members. During the last two years we also worked with St. Therese Parish in forming a conference with an initial financial contribution and other assistance in getting officers, organization details and training in the SVDP way of growing personal holiness by service to the poor.
Once we had three Conferences in metro Jackson, we were encouraged by regional and national SVDP to form a Council in the Diocese of Jackson. For many years, SVDP already existed in Columbus and Greenville. Our new council includes all five conferences in the new Jackson Diocesan Council of SVDP. Any parish interested in starting a conference is most welcome to contact me and I will get you in contact with the people who will help you take the next step.
As part of ongoing training, our new council has been blessed and honored by visits from Ralph Middlecamp, who is the recently elected national president of SVDP. Ralph discussed his vision for SVDP during his three year term and again stressed the spiritual development of members by (1) taking Jesus to the poor, (2) seeing Jesus in the poor, and (3) serving the needs of the poor, all as discovered in home visits. Through these home visits we grow in our own personal holiness and relationship with Jesus.
Additionally, earlier this summer members of all five Conferences met in Jackson with our recently elected Regional Vice President, Morgan Jellot, and long time member and trainer, Patty Schuessler for what is known as Ozanam Training. Frederick Ozanam was the leading founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Paris in 1833 and the training session is named after him. The half day session was well received on a Saturday with all receiving additional information for future home visits.
It was great having our trainers, both from Huntsville, Alabama, and our national president from Madison, Wisconsin, with us and assisting us to deepen our understanding of what SVDP means and what it can bring to our lives. Growing in personal holiness by serving the poor is a wonderful and fulfilling reality, and a goal never completely satisfied until our journey is completed. Jesus would certainly approve.
(George Evans is a pastoral minister at Jackson St. Richard Parish.)