David Rodriguez stopped his car. All evening he and several other volunteers had been driving up and down Southern California streets known for poverty and gang violence. Now, as they approached an abandoned parking lot, they found what they’d been looking for. Three people, a man and two women, eyed Rodriguez suspiciously as he stepped from the car.
“Do you need food?” Rodriguez called into the semidarkness.
The man shouted back menacingly, “Do you know who I am?”
Rodriguez answered, “No, but are you hungry?”
With a guttural snarl, the man repeated the question.
Again Rodriguez responded, “No, but would you like a plate of food?”
Would you like a plate of food?
Taking a few steps forward, Rodriguez saw one of the women nod yes. He indicated to the volunteers back in the car to bring out the food they’d prepared. As Rodriguez and another volunteer carried paper plates laden with home-cooked burritos toward the trio, the man shouted, “Do you know that I’m the leader of the Crips?”
Rodriguez knew the Crips were one of the most deadly gangs in the nation, but he had a hunch the man was hungry. He kept his voice calm as he asked, “Would you like a plate?”
Several long seconds went by as the man continued to glare. “OK,” he said at last. “Thank you.”
Accepting the meal, which had been cooked by Rodriguez’ wife, Anna Marie, the man murmured to Rodriguez, “God bless you.”
‘You changed my life’
It was one of many memorable Vincentian moments for Rodriguez, who said he saw something change in the man’s eyes that night, a change he’s seen in countless others he’s served along with his fellow Vincentians from St. Madeleine Parish in Pomona, California, about 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. They are members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, one of the largest lay Catholic charitable organizations in the world, with approximately 800,000 members serving in more than 150 countries worldwide.
In the United States, the organization is most often associated with thrift stores and food pantries. But like Rodriguez, many Vincentians serve in additional, unexpected ways. It’s part of the Vincentian goal of systemic change, which seeks to help people rise out of poverty and into greater self-sufficiency.
Many Vincentians serve in additional, unexpected ways.
Vincentian programs can include transitional housing support, mentoring, youth leadership, poverty education, and even help with disaster relief. In some cities, you might find Vincentians running charitable health care centers or pharmacies. Or they might be raising money for youth to attend summer camps.
But the heart of Vincentian service is a home visit, where trained volunteers spend time with the people they serve in a neighborly, friends-helping-friends kind of way. Whether “home” is a parking lot, an apartment, or a shelter, Vincentians learn about the living conditions so they can direct the right resources their way. But because the Vincentian mission is to grow in holiness by serving Christ, there is another benefit, too.
“When you hear peoples’ stories, it changes you,” said Althea Graham, who recalls a Christmas visit several years ago in her home city of Detroit.
A woman had suddenly found herself trying to keep her six granddaughters out of foster care.
When you hear peoples’ stories, it changes you.
“We walked into the house, and there was not a stick of furniture,” Graham explained. “They were the most well-behaved, loving family, and we couldn’t just bring food and be on our way.”
Graham appealed to her coworkers, and together they collected and assembled household essentials and gift cards to deliver to the family as Christmas gifts.
Two years later, Graham, who has also served in numerous leadership roles for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, was speaking at a university conference when she ran into the grandmother, who now had a job as a custodian. Two of her granddaughters were in college, thanks to the work of Vincentians. “You changed my life,” she told Graham.
But Graham, Rodriguez, and other Vincentians insist it’s the other way around, often repeating a quote attributed to St. Vincent de Paul: “The poor do more for you than you do for them.”
It all began with a challenge
Contrary to popular belief, the organization was not founded by St. Vincent de Paul, but by a young French law student in 1833. During a heated debate about the work of the Church, a friend challenged Frédéric Ozanam to prove that the Church actually helped the poor.
Ozanam, who was beatified in 1997, responded by forming a small society of people doing good works for the poor, sick, and suffering in Paris. They chose St. Vincent de Paul, who had dedicated his life to serving the poor, as their spiritual sponsor.
Today Vincentians look to the lives and writings of St. Vincent de Paul and Bl. Frédéric for spiritual guidance. Most important, they look to the Gospel message of Jesus: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
Service as a way of life
While Graham and Rodriguez joined the Society of St. Vincent de Paul as adults, others grow up with it. Kathleen (Kat) Brissette and her three brothers began filling backpacks and stocking food pantry shelves as children when their mom Reneé became executive director of their hometown chapter in Cranston, Rhode Island. Brissette’s family likes to tell the story of how 4-year-old Kat used to stand in front of grocery stores asking shoppers for pennies to help feed the poor.
Kat Brissette hasn’t grown out of her desire to help others. Today she is the energetic chairwoman of the society’s Young Adult Committee, which engages young people in meaningful service and spiritual opportunities. Kat Brissette traveled to Salamanca, Spain, in 2018 as a delegate to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s International Youth Meeting, where she said she was amazed to meet other young Vincentians from around the world with the same heart for service.
“We are truly part of something so much bigger than ourselves,” she said.
Kat, who works in social media and is starting graduate school this year, even finds that service is a way to relax. “When I’m stressed about my job or anything else, I can go and sort donations or write notes to put in backpacks,” she said.
In fact, service is such an integral part of Vincentians’ lives that it can be hard to give up.
When Michael Champagne of New Orleans attended his first local meeting, he recalls the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s district president speaking about finding new leadership.
“He stood there in tears,” Champagne said. “He had Parkinson’s disease and his eyesight was getting bad. I looked at my wife and raised my hand. ‘Nominate me,’ I said. I’m sure everyone was thinking, ‘Who’s this guy?’ But they were probably also thinking, ‘Let’s nominate him quick before he changes his mind!’”
Before he knew it, Champagne found himself organizing one of the organization’s regional meetings, where Vincentians come together to learn, pray, and get support and inspiration.
“Strengthening the faith life of members is as important to the organization as the aid they provide to the poor,” said Ralph Middlecamp, president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s national council. Graham explained it another way: “Sometimes God just shows up blatantly, and you can’t ignore him.”
Strengthening the faith life of members is as important to the organization as the aid they provide to the poor.
God can show up for Vincentians and those they serve in life-changing ways.
“When I first became a Vincentian, people told me I would see the face of Christ in the people I served,” said David Rodriguez. “I prayed about it, and I read the writings of St. Vincent de Paul. But I didn’t see it. I didn’t get it.”
Then one day while volunteering at a shelter, Rodriguez met a young man who was homeless.
“His face was dirty, and he had long hair, just like every picture you see of Jesus,” he said. But unlike that dark night in the parking lot, no one asked, “Do you know who I am?” Even so, this time Rodriguez knew the answer: Jesus. “It’s you,” he whispered, through tears. “It’s you.”
BE PART OF THE VINCENTIAN MOVEMENT!
Vincentians are people of all ages and backgrounds who live out the Gospel every day in “faith, friendship, and service.” Here are some ways you can get involved:
Take a walk: Walk, run, or support a Vincentian walker raising money for those in need through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s National Friends of the Poor Walk/Run. This fun and worthwhile event happens on Sept. 28 in cities throughout the United States to coincide with St. Vincent de Paul’s feast day the previous day. (Some locations may have other dates.) To learn more, visit FOPWalk.org.
Donate or join: To learn what the Society of St. Vincent de Paul needs in your area, or if you’re interested in becoming a Vincentian, contact your local Catholic diocese or visit SVdPUSA.org.
Pray: Pray for the work of the organization and for guidance on how you might serve your brothers and sisters in need with a Vincentian prayer like this:
Almighty God, you blessed Frédéric Ozanam with gifts of grace as husband and father, educator and defender of the faith, and founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. In this way, he spent his life in loving service. Through his example and prayers, may we faithfully follow the path to which you have called us and one day join the saints in praising you forever. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(Find more prayers like this at SVdPUSA.org.)