Geneva gathering aims to empower, inspire parish social ministers - Catholic Courier

Geneva gathering aims to empower, inspire parish social ministers

GENEVA — For a long time, Jeffry Odell Korgen’s image of the poor was shaped by the public-service announcements he saw as a child in the ’70s and ’80s while watching Saturday-morning cartoons. Those commercials depicted poor children who cried as flies walked across their bodies.

"The impression they gave me was that people living in poverty had nothing to offer the rest of the world," Korgen told the dozens of people who’d gathered at DeSales High School April 5 for "Renewing Our Spirits," the Diocese of Rochester’s first social-ministry gathering.

After he began working for Catholic Relief Services as an adult, Korgen gradually realized this perception was false. The realization prompted him to travel around the globe interviewing impoverished people for his 2007 book, Solidarity Will Transform the World: Stories of Hope from Catholic Relief Services.

Korgen shared several of those stories of hope during his opening reflection at the social-ministry gathering. Through his travels Korgen was able to witness CRS’ development and social-justice efforts not only changing the lives of those in need, but also addressing the root causes of their problems, he said.

"Charity is what is given out of love, and social charity is changing structural injustices with love," Korgen said. "And so, blessed are the poor, but blessed are those who live and work in solidarity with them."

Catholic Charities staff hoped such stories would inspire and empower people involved in social ministry at the parish level, said Brigit Hurley, parish social-ministry coordinator for Rochester’s Catholic Family Center. She and Ruth Putnam Marchetti, justice-and-peace coordinator for Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes and Catholic Charities of Livingston and Wayne counties, also hoped the event would help these social-ministry leaders share ideas and engage in dialogue, Putnam Marchetti said.

"We’re always looking for new ideas for how to integrate with the greater social-ministry community," said Marilynn Frank, social minister and faith-formation coordinator for Holy Cross Parish in Ovid and St. Francis Solanus Parish in Interlaken.

Parishioners from nearly all of the Diocese of Rochester’s 12 counties — and even a few from Broome County in the neighboring Syracuse Diocese — apparently shared Frank’s sentiments and spent the day attending workshops on such topics as immigration and migrant ministry; the spirituality of social ministry; faithful citizenship; care for creation; the spirit of community-building in rural parishes; peacebuilding; living wage; building parish social ministry; and prison and ex-offender ministries.

The majority of the 20 participants who attended the immigration workshop presented by Mercy Sister Janet Korn and Debbie Patrick, who heads a migrant-farmworker service project in King Ferry, Cayuga County, came to learn more about how to better support and advocate for the migrant-worker population in that region.

The participants said they also believe that more residents locally need to make personal connections with migrant workers — including attending Mass with workers, or collecting clothing and blankets and bringing them to area farms, or participating in welcoming and cultural programs — to deepen understanding of their plight.

During the workshop he led on community-building in rural parishes, Deacon Dan Williams emphasized the importance of listening. Before jumping in and starting new initiatives in a rural parish or a cluster of rural parishes, social-ministry leaders first should listen to parishioners and see what resources and programs the community already has, said Deacon Williams, parish social-ministry coordinator for Catholic Charities of Steuben County.

Although it may seem scary, Catholics are called to reach out to their incarcerated and recently released brothers and sisters through prison and ex-offender ministries, said workshop leaders Deacon Nick Valvo of Sacred Heart Parish in Auburn and Marvin Mich, Catholic Family Center’s director of social policy and research.

"It just means an awful lot to these folks who are isolated behind bars," said Deacon Valvo, who worked in the prison system for more than 30 years. "When people come from the community and actually show an interest, it’s a very empowering experience for those men and women."

In between the morning and afternoon workshop sessions, Korgen gave a keynote presentation based on another of his books, My Lord and My God: Engaging Catholics in Social Ministry. In a typical parish, 80 percent of parishioners probably won’t get involved with social-ministry activities unless social ministers reach out to them with a three-step method of invitation, conversion and empowerment, he said.

Social ministers must first listen to parishioners and find out what challenges and injustices they face in their lives. They should get to know parishioners and their desires and goals for the parish before inviting them — through a personal conversation rather than a bulletin or pulpit announcement — to become involved, Korgen said.

A social minister’s job doesn’t end when those parishioners get involved, however. Parishioners also need to be educated about Catholic social teachings in relation to their social-ministry experiences so they’ll understand what they’re doing and why, and the parish needs to provide empowering opportunities for them to be actively involved in change, Korgen said.

This theory runs contrary to the more common scenario where one person — named Bertha in one of Korgen’s anecdotes — runs all of a parish’s social-ministry activities and is in essence a committee of one.

"All of the baptized are called to respond to Christ present in poor and vulnerable people. You’re giving them an opportunity to meet Jesus Christ and to live out that baptismal call. When we become Berthas, not only do we do damage to ourselves, but we take away an opportunity for salvation for other people," Korgen said.

Contains reporting by Annette Jiménez.

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