Soup Kitchen Visit By Ryan Stirs Anger
Most of the debate in Catholic circles about Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan has taken place in the arenas of philosophy (e.g., can Ryan claim both Ayn Rand and Catholic social teaching as major influences on his thinking?) and policy (e.g., are Ryan’s plans to “end Medicare as we know it” by turning it into a voucher program, and his plans to slash Medicaid funding proper exercises of his “prudential judgment” in applying the Church’s teachings to public policy?).
Last Saturday the debate shifted to a practical incarnation of Catholic social teaching—the Front Street soup kitchen in Youngstown, Ohio where the Mahoning County St. Vincent de Paul Society serves nearly 100,000 meals a year to the poor of their community.
“The president of Mahoning County’s St. Vincent de Paul Society is “shocked” and “angry” that Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan used the soup kitchen for a “publicity stunt.”
Brian J. Antal, who runs the society, said the campaign “ramrodded themselves in there” without getting proper permission for the visit Saturday that followed Ryan’s town-hall meeting at Youngstown State University.
“They said they got permission from the right people, but that would have been me, and I never would have given them permission,” Antal said Monday.
Juanita Sherba, St. Vincent’s Saturday coordinator for the dining hall, said she gave the Ryan campaign approval that day for the visit by the candidate and his family.
Sherba say she now realizes it wasn’t her call to make.
The event “was a photo op,” she said. “It was the phoniest piece of baloney I’ve ever been associated with. In hindsight, I would have never let him in the door.””
The photo op included Ryan washing pots and pans—which Sherba and other volunteers had to set aside while waiting for Ryan to show up, rather than simply going home after their morning’s work.
Anyone who’s worked on political campaigns knows how this could happen. Everyone, including the candidate, is exhausted from weeks of campaigning. The pressure is on with less than a month until Election Day. One event (a speech that morning at Youngstown State) runs long, so the candidate is late showing up for the next event on his schedule.
And if that was the only side to the story, there would be no controversy. But there is another side to the story, as anyone who’s worked in one of what we could call the Matthew 25 ministries knows in their bones.
Feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, etc. is work. Often, it’s tedious, boring, physically and emotionally exhausting work. (Sometimes it’s inspiring, rewarding, uplifting work.) For a politician (and his advance team) to demand the St. Vincent de Paul volunteers wait around until the candidate shows up, so he can wash some pots that would already have been washed and put away is, in its own small way, abusive treatment directed at both the volunteers and their guests. It objectifies them.
There are ways for a politician to handle this type of situation well. The fact that Paul Ryan, a devout lifelong Catholic, didn’t handle it well doesn’t speak well for his knowledge of the Church’s social teaching. Not his intellectual knowledge, his experiential knowledge.