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Hungering for Justice: Homelessness and hunger in Vermont

The Gospel clearly states where Jesus was born – in Bethlehem in a hastily improvised shelter. A place where animals were kept: a stable, in fact. Yet that night, that humble space became the birthplace of the King of Kings. After the visits from the shepherds and the Magi, Joseph was forewarned, in a dream, of Herod's plan to kill the child. He was instructed to flee Bethlehem with the child and his mother to Egypt, where they remained for about two years.

As a carpenter Joseph expected to be able to find work in Nazareth. But, relocating a family then was probably no more comfortable or secure than it is for families today. No doubt Mary and Joseph experienced a period of uncertainty with homelessness and hunger.

Homelessness and hunger continue to plague society. Here, in Vermont, the needs of the poor and working poor have become commonplace. Some communities have worked tirelessly to cope and address these issues while others are working to catch up. Some resist efforts to address the fact that people are without basic human needs: shelter, food and warmth.

First the good news: Vermont Catholic Charities, Inc. is actively engaged in assisting the homeless and those who seek emergency aid, along with providing counseling for individuals and families. In many cases such counseling is an essential component of enabling someone to overcome the severe adversity they are confronting.

Burlington area residents have organized and operated the Committee on Temporary Shelter for years. That has required a great deal of collaboration on the part of numerous people. It has required the support of the city government. And it has required financial support that residents have willingly given. Part of the success of the COTS program is a function of the size of the Burlington area population and the social conscience that the Queen City community exhibits.

Other Vermont towns have implemented services on a smaller scale while relying on social service agencies to arrange lodging for the homeless at local motels.

Sadly, some communities have resisted efforts to address the problem out of complacency or fear that the homeless may cause an adverse impact on businesses in town, property values, public safety, etc.

The reality is that Vermont, naturally beautiful as it is, can be dangerously cold. With average winter temperatures in the low 20s and snowfall totaling 120 inches, we can be certain that people unable to stay warm and dry would succumb to these life-threatening conditions.

The issue of hunger is being addressed by many religious and secular organizations. Numerous churches operate their own food shelves and collaborate with other churches or agencies to maintain a food shelf in the community. This is supplemented by efforts of such agencies as the Vermont Food Bank and regional community action and anti-poverty agencies funded by state or federal support.

In some towns, there are soup kitchens and hot meal programs operated by one church or another. In St Johnsbury, a "community meal" is provided three days per week on a rotating basis at three different churches. St. John the Evangelist supplements that with a once a month community soup, bread and fruit meal, of course topped off with desserts. (Soup and desserts are courtesy of generous and talented cooks in the parish.) And the Sunday morning coffee hour after Masses is open to the broader community.

The St. Johnsbury community has launched a temporary homeless shelter during the winter months. The shelter operates at a facility supported by the hospital; it is also supported with professional and volunteer staff from Northeast Kingdom Community Action. Included in the program is a counselor who will offer assistance to clients to help them find permanent housing and develop plans to emerge from homelessness.

In this Year of Mercy, the Catholic community needs to prayerfully examine its response to the problems of homelessness and hunger. Parishes and individual Catholics would do well to expand their response. Stepping up efforts to support the local food shelf is an excellent starting point. Efforts to support a soup kitchen, community meal or a homeless shelter are other important steps. It would be important for all of us, individually and as the Church, to stretch to see how much we really can help. But merely wishing the hungry and homeless well is not acceptable. (See Jas 3:15-16.)

Deacon Pete Gummere, M.S., M.A. lives in St. Johnsbury and serves at Corpus Christi Parish. He is a bioethicist and an adjunct faculty member at Pontifical College Josephinum, where he teaches courses in medical morality and moral theology in the Josephinum Diaconate Institute.

 

Hungering for Justice...of Human Dignity


What is Marriage? Marriage is a sacrament: an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. Marriage is the commitment pledged, freely given before God and community, of a man and a woman to live faithfully – one to the other – for life.

Catholic teaching on marriage is one of the most inspiring parts of all of our theology because it is a part of our very existence. It is through marriage that lives are created in love and families are formed. In a sacramental marriage the couple commits to welcoming children, raising them in the faith, as they strive to be examples of Catholic life.

The Church rejoices when couples seek a sacramental union and recognizes that marriage as a vocation often reaches highs and lows that present great joys and difficult challenges. Marriages are oftentimes tested daily with family strife, job advancements or losses, problems with the children, illnesses, financial strain and deaths of extended family members. A marriage may be imperfect and yet, couples seek to endure and remain faithfully committed to each other and to their divinely decreed purpose.

In contrast, abusive relationships are not built upon respect for the inherent dignity of the other person, but upon domination and fear. These relationships are anything but supportive of the human person. They involve emotional abuse or physical violence. Hardly a day goes by when we do not read, hear or view reports of domestic abuse. The relationship involves an abusive partner member, typically the man. Victims so used to being abused may even be unable to recognize the need for protection from the danger in which they live. The abuser may apologize manipulatively after an episode of abuse, promising "never" to repeat it. And yet, they do.

The Church neither ignores the reality of domestic violence nor minimizes the human tragedy in those relationships. We all have an obligation to care for the vulnerable. Clergy and others trained in family ministry, in particular counselors at Vermont Catholic Charities, Inc., assist marital/domestic abuse victims by offering help to rebuild damaged self-esteem, as well as to secure other forms of additional assistance.

Beyond the physical and emotional pain, social and economic hardships are inflicted as well. The isolation to which the abuser subjects the victim prevent her from maintaining healthy friendships with others. Such actions serve to increase the victim's vulnerability and increase their reliance upon the abuser.

A victim leaving the abusive situation is often without a place to turn, even a place to live and to focus on moving ahead. In fact, about 25 percent of all homeless individuals are victims of domestic abuse attempting to start over again.

Throughout Vermont social service agencies work with abuse victims. Most of these agencies are able to provide a "safe house" on short notice. This is an excellent resource for people trying to escape abuse.

A key step towards helping victims is to recognize signs of domestic violence and emotional abuse. These go far beyond an unexplained bruise. They usually include chronic isolation. There may be verbal hints of being belittled or needing permission from their abuser to do anything.

Long term resources are often needed to help a victim to get settled and to make a fresh start. As a Church, we need to consider carefully what more we can do to assist victims. Are there resources such as vacant housing that could be deployed to help on an interim basis? Are there other resources that can be deployed to minister to victims?

There is a world of difference between a happy, holy and fulfilling marriage and an abusive marriage or domestic relationship. The difference is respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.

Can we more effectively proclaim the message of human dignity both to adults and to young people? Prevention through effective education is a powerful deterrent. Long before they are ready to date, children need to know that emotional and physical abuse of another is gravely wrong and cannot be tolerated.

We should ponder this during the upcoming celebration of National Marriage Week, Feb. 7-14 and World Marriage Day on Feb. 7. The result of this reflection should be a positive and engaged response as the only merciful response.

Deacon Pete Gummere, M.S., M.A. serves at Corpus Christi Parish. He is a bioethicist and an adjunct faculty member at Pontifical College Josephinum, where he teaches courses in medical morality and moral theology in the Josephinum Diaconate Institute.

 
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