Healing of the First Wound Outreach of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society

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Under the direction of long-time chair Theresa Weyandt, the committee meeting of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society (SvdP) is held every Monday at the rectory. Other members of the committee are Frank and Clara Collins, Dorothy McSwain, Barbara Dawson and Miranda McClain. Theresa Weyandt and African-American parishioner Frank Collins reflected on the knowledge that most of the contributions to SvdP come via the St. Vincent de Paul Poor Box at the back doors and side of St. Joseph’s Monastery Church. This source usually provides for $250 per month. Immediately before Thanksgiving, during Advent and after Christmas donations may increase to $350 per month. The bulk of people assisted by SvdP need money to prevent the BGE Electric Company from turning off their power. Help is also given to pay rent for people facing eviction and for those who need money for medication. In some cases, the local Baltimore charitable organization Caritas is willing to match what the SvdP gives to the applicant. In the past SvdP used to help those who need home fuel with 50-gallon allotments. But it has developed that the oil companies require fuel to be bought in 100-gallon allotments. As a result, the fuel outreach option has ceased. Experience has led SvdP to see that most who need assistance start by making a phone call to St. Joseph’s Monastery rectory. Parish receptionists Carolyn Garbo, Dorothy McSwain, and Mary Bochese often handle these requests. The caller states they need assistance. In return the receptionist asks them their zip code. If it is the parish zip code of 21229, the caller is told bring to the rectory or mail in the following information: 1) What is the precise need for the money-help for gas, electric, or eviction; 2) A copy of the turn off or eviction notice; 3) Provide their name, address, and Social Security Number; 4) Copies of two photo identifications. Once gathered, this is turned over to SvdP. The application form does ask if the person has been anywhere else for help.

Each caller is told that decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, because of the limited funds that are available to SvdP each month. More funds and contributions would allow more people to be served. Those who are outside the 21229 zip code are given contact information for other agencies if needed. Carolyn Garbo says that there can be as many as 8 to 10 calls a day for assistance. At least 7 are typically from the 21229 zip code. To date, the parish staff does not officially track the total number of phone calls.

I have observed this phone request process many times and have come to respect the compassion of the parish receptionists as they respond to the callers. Generally, people who call are polite and understanding. However, sometimes the receptionists have to face the frustrated voice of a caller in need. To me this simple interaction has come to represent the need for a cycle of healing to those who are wounded by the cycle of poverty. These phone call requests are a living witness to the passion of Jesus.

SvdP has kept records of its outreach and has learned a great deal about healing people in the process. Theresa Weyandt and Frank Collins agree that the sociological profile of those helped by SvdP can be people in their early 20s or in their 80s. About 90% are African-Americans. Some years ago, it was decided that in order to insure the safety of the members of SvdP it was best not to make site visits. Consequently, the applicant rarely meets the members of the committee to plead their case. An outcome of this process is the concentrated spirit of objectivity and compassion presence at the meetings.

Normally, those assisted can get $25.00 or $50.00. People can be helped up to three times a year. In every situation, however, the person in need never receives cash. Instead, a process has been developed where SvdP contacts the respective vendor such as Catonsville Pharmacy or BGE to provide paid credit assigned to that respective person. Frank Collins knows now that people do not ask for help unless they are in need of help. Cheating or misuse of the system is a rare exception. Most often he has come to see that, today, women have become the voice of poverty. Many make the phone request as single mothers. Others are “working poor” or senior citizens. Some are disabled or on Social Security and in need of assistance. This said, whenever possible, needs of a parishioner normally gets priority over those of a general applicant from the zip code. However, Theresa Weyandt says that almost 100% are not regular parishioners. This is pure Gospel outreach.

Frank Collins has learned that a good deal of the time St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish is the first place that the people turn to for assistance while Theresa Weyandt sees SvdP as a “valuable service parish outreach.” Collins believes it has become an “unwritten understanding that if you really need help then the church up the hill will help you.” Personally, Collins says, “just helping people and the act of assistance is rewarding. It gives you a sense of being able to help your fellow human being. Turning down people is difficult.” He says that they are not capable of helping all the people in need at this time. The financial resources and volunteer outreach infrastructure are just not available at this point. Weyandt and he agree that this remains a long-term goal.