Helping Or Not

Just this week I encountered two significant books from the parish library. They’ve been hovering around the new book shelf for some time. They impact things I’ve done and things in ministry I plan to do. If you read either or both of them, they will likely make an impression on you, too.

Tattoos on the Heart, Father Gregory Boyle’s “storehouse of stories and parables” was, for me, a shattering read. After absorbing some of the more powerful experiences of this Los Angeles Jesuit pastor, I was very quickly taken back five years in time to the young people I met and tried to serve at a children’s psychiatric center in Kansas City. Fr Boyle’s efforts to lead the reader into a new way of “seeing the world and others” was convincing enough for me before I even finished chapter one. My memories of my young troubled friends of 2007-08 seemed to align with the even more brutal experiences in Southern California gang life and redemption.

Only a stony heart would emerge unmoved from reading this book. I’m not even going to bother to attempt to relate any of the content. The author is a passionate and born storyteller. And the message is clear, whether we’re dealing with young people crushed by poverty and despair, or the casual obstacles of modern first world life. You just have to read this book.

One of my staff colleagues has been promoting When Helping Hurts, and it has been reading material for the parish’s Just Faith series. Let the authors describe their aim:

First, North American Christians are simply not doing enough. We are the richest people ever to walk  the face of the earth. Period. Yet, most of us live as though there is nothing terribly wrong in the world. … We do not necessarily need to feel guilty about our wealth. But we do need to get up every morning with a deep sense that something is terribly wrong with the world and yearn and strive to do something  about it. There is simply not enough yearning and striving going on.

Second, … when North American Christians do attempt  to alleviate poverty, the methods used often do considerable harm to both the  materially poor and the materially non-poor. Our concern is not just that these methods are wasting human, spiritual, financial, and organizational resources but that these methods are actually exacerbating the very problems they are  trying to solve.

I don’t work as a third-world missioner. But evangelization is a core part of my ministry in a parish and at a campus ministry. I came away from this book asking myself if I was doing enough yearning and striving–not only for the Third World poor, but for the unchurched young people who live in my community. Do the methods of liturgy actually bring harm? The problem seems to be less one of proper worship (orthodoxy, or right-praise) but of addressing the root problems of young people in American culture: a disinterest in religion, a distrust of authority, a lack of connectedness to their communities and traditions, and probably more I can’t think of at this moment.

It’s a small thing that I’m confronted with a reconsideration of my aims and goals of traveling to Honduras some day. I’m glad my friend John has steered me to consider a visit more for the exchange of music and the building of relationships. Not so much for teaching music and liturgy. But after reading this book, I find myself challenged to re-engineer the whole way I conduct parish ministry.

Blowing everything up and starting over is going to have to wait another day. I have a talk to prepare for the new peer ministers and student coordinators, “Parish Mission and Structure” for the retreat next week. I have a feeling there’s going to be nothing about “doing for” others and a lot more “doing with” in that presentation.

Good books, both of these. Either one would have churned my insides and caused me to reexamine much of what I do. Coming on the heels of a very difficult and emotional week on the home front, these reads have left me exhausted. Literally. If you tackle either book, expect something of the same.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to Helping Or Not

  1. Agent X says:

    I read When Helping Hurts too. But it did not make a believer out of me.

    I challenge you to consider the words of Scripture, and especially Jesus, as found in Deut. 15:7-8, Luke 6:30, and Mark 10:21. These passages seem a bit reckless after reading WHH. But I will stick with scripture over that book.

    I hope you reconsider.

    Blessings from Texas…

  2. Tattoos on the Heart is brilliant. I had the privilege of wandering into Homeboy Industries building in October of 2010 and buying the book there. My friend and I walked into the Homegirl Cafe and who was there by Greg Boyle. We had the opportunity to go sit with him for a few minutes and talk. He is a remarkable man. I got to meet him again last fall, at an event at Fordham University, and once again his humility and grace were apparent.

    The book is wonderful and how one could read it and remain unmoved would be a mystery to me.

    I have not read When Helping Hurts, but I will check it out. Thank you.

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