In early 2016 Washington state’s Catholic bishops recognized that the economy was creating drastic disparities in wealth and the plight of the poor was reaching a crisis point. With the assistance of diocesan Catholic Charities’ offices, the bishops hosted listening sessions across the state to better understand the “joys, hopes, griefs and anxieties” of people mired in poverty in order to foster compassion within the statewide Church (Gaudium et spes, No. 1).
In November of the same year, the bishops promulgated a pastoral letter, Who is My Neighbor? The Face of Poverty in Washington State. The letter challenged Catholics to take action as a community of faith and as neighbors to become a church that not does give up on or abandon people struggling on the peripheries of economic progress. Catholics should inform their consciences to stand in solidarity with those who are impoverished.
The letter encouraged participation in PREPARES, a program at Catholic parishes across Washington State that serves pregnant women and families with children up to the age of five. PREPARES was established in 2014 as the state bishops’ Life to Justice Initiative and funded by a Catholic Campaign for Human Development Strategic National Grant.
Catholic Charities agencies and many Catholic partners collaborated to create PREPARES networks of trained parish volunteers ready to serve. By 2019, 158 parishes across the state had responded to 12,231 families, providing accompaniment, basic needs, support groups and referrals to professional services, including multilingual services for Spanish-speaking residents and indigenous farmworkers.
Who Is My Neighbor? also inspired CCS to create the Catholic Collaborative for Poor Families and Communities in the Archdiocese of Seattle. With the support of Archbishop Sartain and his Presbyteral Council, CCS shaped the Collaborative to focus on a parish’s responses to those living in poverty within its boundaries. The USCCB’s publication Communities of Salt and Light, a statement on the social mission of the parish, guided the project: “Parishes are the home of the Christian community: they are the heart of the Church . . . the local parish is the most important ecclesial setting for sharing and acting on our Catholic social heritage.”
In November 2017, as part of the Collaborative, CCS identified and placed a highly-skilled Catholic Charities staff member, known as a Catholic Regional Network Builder, at the service of parishes in each of CCS’s three regions to help initiate, strengthen and expand parish outreach and advocacy. By fall 2019, CCS had also named two Network Builders for Latino and Farmworker communities.
Parishes are welcoming the expertise, organizing savvy and partnership that Network Builders bring to the development of parish dreams, large and small: forming social concerns teams, rebuilding food banks, providing elder transportation, organizing candidate forums, arranging immigration clinics, welcoming refugees and asylees, and repurposing parish buildings as shelters for unhoused families.
One pastor, Father Cal Christiansen, contacted CCS when he and his parishioners discerned a call to do more for people struggling with poverty in their parish. They wanted to do something big, but they needed help. “CCS provided the much-needed structure, expertise and knowledge in helping our vision take shape and form,” Fr. Christiansen said. The result was Mercy House: a St. Vincent de Paul outreach center, a pregnancy crisis clinic, and more.
The Collaborative enables Catholics to weave networks of partnerships across organizational and geographical boundaries. In May 2019, Network Builders, Catholic partners, 70 parishes, and 2,000 Catholics organized a 13-day pilgrimage, Walking and Witnessing for Immigrant Families. The pilgrims walked 4,346 miles from three directions across Western Washington to the Tacoma Federal Immigration Detention Center. Auxiliary Bishop Elizondo celebrated Mass outside and preached to those inside, “We, as citizens of this wonderful country, and citizens of the heavenly land, want to send a message to all our brothers and sisters inside this facility … you are not abandoned.”
The bishop’s words confirmed the bold hopes and possibilities for Catholic collaboration, “We…won’t give up on you.”