Don Eggleston recalls the nerves he felt as he looked at the list of possible places he could serve to complete one-third of his pastoral-formation training for the permanent diaconate.
As part of their training, permanent deacon candidates are required to serve in the community during the summer. This year Eggleston was required to work at an agency, and most of the agencies on the list were urban ministries.
"I had never done any type of urban ministry or city ministry, ministering to the poor or homeless," said Eggleston, a parishioner of Our Lady of Mercy Church in Greece who is scheduled to be ordained a permanent deacon in 2011. "It generated a little bit of fear in me."
Instead of running from his fear, Eggleston decided to give urban ministry a try. He spent about half of his time volunteering at St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center, a health clinic for the uninsured and underinsured, and the other half volunteering at St. Joseph House of Hospitality, a Catholic Worker home that offers a daily lunch program as well as transitional housing and services for homeless men.
Moving outside of a personal comfort zone to volunteer can be a very positive learning experience, said Roslyn Karaban, a professor of pastoral care and counseling and director of the pastoral-formation program at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford.
Karaban, who has a Ph.D. in religion and the personality sciences, noted that some people may fear urban ministry, while others may fear ministry to the sick, dying or the incarcerated.
That is one reason why St. Bernard’s requires its students to serve a set amount of time in the field. This field-experience program is called pastoral formation and was previously known as field education, Karaban said.
Permanent deacon candidates serve 80 hours over each of three summers: one summer in an agency, such as a Catholic worker home or a service organization; one in an institution, such as a hospital, hospice or jail; and one in a parish or campus ministry. Masters of divinity students must serve at least 240 hours at a parish and 240 hours at an agency. Students pursuing masters of arts in pastoral studies are required to complete a placement at either a parish or an agency.
"We really feel it’s important to have experiential learning," Karaban said.
She said she also tries to expose people to new things so that they can get the fullest range of learning from their experiences. For example, a person from a relatively homogenous suburban parish might be placed in a diverse urban parish. If candidates express reluctance during consultations, Karaban will talk with them about feelings of resistance and will encourage them to pray to discern God’s call.
"As long as people are open and willing to being approached and challenged, it will be a good experience for them," she said.
Eggleston said during his time at St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center and St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality he learned how important it is to try to understand why people are seeking help, rather than simply doling out assistance. His supervisor at the neighborhood center encouraged him to walk in the shoes of those using the center. He took that advice literally and spent time taking public transportation and walking with his wife, Mary, through some of Rochester’s poorer areas.
Eggleston said he learned that contributing factors of poverty can include mental- or physical-health issues, the exhaustion of social safety nets, veterans with untreated issues and racial disparities.
"It changed my vision of ministry," Eggleston said. "It changed my practice of ministry."
It may take several different types of volunteer experiences before people find one that transforms them, according to Deacon Angelo Coccia of Gates’ St. Theodore Parish. During his first experience in the field as a permanent deacon candidate, Deacon Coccia was assigned to a hospital ministry. He thought he would be good at serving in a hospital but found it too full of pain for his tastes.
Yet when he began volunteering at a soup kitchen in Rochester, he found that urban ministry better suited his personal experience of growing up in a poor immigrant family in Rochester.
Building on his soup-kitchen experience, Deacon Coccia started St. Francis Ministries in 1988 to help meet the needs of the city’s poor and vulnerable. He and a staff of between 20 and 30 volunteers distribute food, clothing and furniture; host Sunday dinners at the ecumenical Cameron Community Ministries in northwest Rochester; distribute baskets at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter; offer religious education; and help other agencies.
"Don’t wait for anybody to ask you to help," he said. "If you see something, let your heart guide you."