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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 Countys 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 Ryans 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. Vincents 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 wasnt her call to make.The event was a photo op, she said. It was the phoniest piece of baloney Ive 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.

About the Author

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 



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I think it was very wrong of Rep. Ryan to take advantage of the soup kitchen clients that way; it does indeed objectify them.But here's a big silver lining: if that photo gets some Ryan admirers who wouldn't otherwise support soup kitchens to now contribute to this important work, it's that many fewer hungry people out there.

Campaign photo-ops are generally cringe-inducing affairs, so stagey that to watch them is to wonder how they ever achieve their purpose at all. Like this one, trying to turn Paul Ryan from Ayn Rand to Dorothy Day seems so obvious. But the way this was done was particularly ham handed, and seems like the kind of thing that can hurt Ryan much more than his libertarian economic philosophy. Pictures speak volumes, and Ryan washing clean pots in an empty soup kitchen...ouch. That said, the analogy is interesting: Ryan cleaning up a mess that has already been cleaned up by someone else. The only difference is that Ryan didn't help make the mess at the soup kitchen, as he did with the economy. And he didn't promise to come back and mess it up tomorrow. Well, every analogy limps...

It is so demeaning to run for office in this country. You have to do things you never would do, like pretending to wash pots when you'd rather be watching football. You have to take advantage of people, some of whom resent being taken advantage of. Like tonight: the candidates for president have to endure the questions of "uncommitted voters," when "uncommitted" means either they haven't been paying attention for 10 months, or they have to repaint the living room every six months, or they missed the cut for American Idol and hope to make it up on Decision 2012. If you can't pretend to like performing such demeaning activities, you don't have the right stuff to guide the nation.

This kind of thing is just another way to lie.

They pretend: To be 'regular people'To have ideas that will lead to prosperity for allThat they care about common folkThey can cut taxes and balance the budgetThat they feel our painThat they will actually do what they say they will.That they will 'work with the other side.'We pretend:To understand the issuesTo pay attentionThat we are open mindedThat our guy is honest, but their guy lies.That the Republic will rise or fall on this election.

WashPost reports that "Chris Maloney, Ohio communications director for the Romney campaign, saidthat the visit by Ryan had been intended to highlight the work of the soupkitchen volunteers." . "Photographers snapped photos and TV cameras shot footage of Ryanand his family washing pots and pans that did notappear to be dirty." No wonder Ryan's wife, dutifully carrying her pan, has an odd expression on her face. Maybe she is the perceptive one in the family.

Antals complaint about the lack of permission reflects a lack of charity as well. It was internal to his organization and reflects his management shortcomings, not anything about the Ryan campaign. But the whole thread makes a huge mountain out of something smaller than a mole hill.

Bruce --- The technical term for Antal's organization management task is "herding cats". The volunteers showed up and produced on Saturday morning. That's where charity and Antal's management comes in. Exploiting their courtesy to strangers to make misleading pictures for a Republican politician's campaign wrap-up is, as Luke puts it, "in its own small way, abusive treatment". And imprudent if one assumes some of those who had to hang around on Saturday morning might have been considering their votes.

Gosh, why didn't they just photo-shop the candidate's head onto the body of some actual volunteer? It would have meant as much. And then everyone could have gone home on time.I also note that the candidate didn't come and talk to the homeless people during dinner, but only came after these unfortunate people had left. Is it because he shares Romney's contempt for those who can't provide for themselves? Or because it's impolitic to befriend the poor? If the 47% can't be influenced to take responsibility for their lives, how much less so the very poor, who need a meal at a soup kitchen? No, I'm afraid we must photo-shop actually needy people out of the picture, if it is to make useful fodder for the campaign. Even in Clinton's speech at the Democratic convention, "the poor" were not mentioned, but only "poor children." Repeatedly. I guess poor adults are not deserving of our care or concern, when it comes to politics. It must be that too many voters blame them and don't want to help them. I'd like to note that the basis on which the coordinator gave permission for the visit was that she was told that Ryan wanted to talk to "the clients." This evidently was not true. See below. He wanted to applaud the staff, not talk to the clients.Here's the quote:She said she was told Ryan would talk with the societys clientele, but he arrived so late that breakfast was over for quite some time.Volunteers started to clean up, she said, when a Ryan campaign staff member asked them to leave some pots and pans unwashed so the VP nominee and his family could do something when he arrived.We just wanted to come by and say, Thanks, Ryan said to a few volunteers who stayed behind Saturday. This is what makes society go.Despite some media reports, Sherba said Ryan and his family washed a few dirty pots and pans, but it wasnt necessary.

Ryan should know by now that the camera is not his friend.

The technical term for Antals organization management task is herding catsJack,I understand and sympathize. But Antal should not be complaining that Ryan wasnt properly authorized. And as with every event where a muckety-muck shows up, they arrive with an entourage often late, shake a few hands, pretend to do some minor work, and leave. This sounds like it fits the mold perfectly. CST doesnt teach that everyone has to do everything. Ryan is running for VP; what he can do to the help the cause (and be helped too) is make time to publicize that a soup kitchen does important work. No more and no less. Seems like he did that. So why does that deserve a Commonweal thread carping about him - that seems uncharitable to me.

@Bruce (10/16, 1:48 pm) It is, to say the least, debatable whether the Romney/Ryan campaign scheduled this event "to publicize that a soup kitchen does important work". There are plenty of ways for any elected official to do that. Showing up after the meal is over and staging a photo op of the candidate "washing dishes" is, to put it as charitably as I can, one of the least effective ways imaginable to achieve that goal.Based on Ryan's behavior, I strongly suspect he has little or no experience of feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, etc. If he had some experience (even as little as, say, volunteering 1 meal a month at a soup kitchen for a year), then it's hard for me to imagine that he wouldn't have shown more consideration for the St. Vincent de Paul volunteers. You're absolutely correct that the Church doesn't teach that "everyone has to do everything". In fact, we are a big enough and old enough church that the collective understanding is that there are many parts of the vineyard in which to work. Some have the ministry of prayer, some of service, some of prophecy, some of healing, some of proclamation, some of administration, some of education, etc. What's surprising to me about this incident, as I indicated in the post, is it reveals Cong. Ryan apparent lack of any substantive lived experience of Catholic social teaching in action. That's certainly not a sin or a crime, but it is surprising.

What makes this especially silly is that even if it had been handled better -- i.e., if the campaign entourage had arrived on time, while the soup kitchen was actually in the process of serving its patrons, and even if Ryan et al. had managed to contribute in some minimally useful way to the work -- it would still be dopey political theatre. The idea, I take it, is to portray Ryan as the sort of guy who takes time out of his schedule to serve the poor, who makes it a personal priority because it's just that important. But nobody would actually believe that a candidate for vice president would stop campaigning to do non-political volunteer work with just a few weeks to go before the election. It's not at all credible as a break from campaigning, in other words -- it is very obviously just another campaign event. Their mistake was making that so obvious that it can't be ignored, by subtracting the actual service work from the equation.

Bruce: Because what Ryan did is emblematic of the thin coat of shiney paint that Mitt and he are trying to put on their campaign that they really care about the poor and disadvantaged. Again and again I say that no person of good Christian conscience who is paying attention could possibly vote for the Reb. R&R.

I can't stop watching the video:"I'm going to water them [the dishes]," Ryan explains to his kids. "I'm gonna get them wet, and then you guys have to dry them." And: "You know I spent a summer washing dishes.... You'd get callouses on your fingers because it was so hot." #science

This is a man who is running with everything he has toward being a heartbeat away from the Presidency of the United States in a few months. Caveat elector. (Grant -- Could the duty Fact Checker please look into callouses from really hot water? In my years of literally hands-on experience, that hasn't come up.)

You'd think a hardworkin' guy like that would know the difference between a callus and a blister.

It reminds me a bit of that scene in Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, where one day the prison camp inmates are given better clothes to wear, better food to eat, and turned loose to read in the well-stocked library, while representatives from the Red Cross (or perhaps it's some other NGO) are paraded through to show how well the prisoners are treated. As soon as the NGOers leave, of course, the clothes are taken back, the library is locked up again, and the food goes back to its regular stale cabbage and gruel.

Wonder how it is this gentleman's complaint got in the press. Hmmmm

It's pretty important to note that Brian Antal wanted to get his story out - again, per the news account linked above - because he is afraid that failure to object publicly could result in a loss of income from donors who are turned off by the appearance of partisan politics at an expressly nonpartisan charity.

Antal said hes received several phone calls and emails from donors who are not pleased that Ryan used the soup kitchen as a photo op.Id have the same problem if [Vice President] Joe Biden or [President] Barack Obama came down there, Antal said of the Democratic ticket.But he did specifically criticize Ryan for wanting to eliminate the small amount of federal money the society gets for the dining hall.That is a little two-faced to say the least, he said. I cannot have the appearance that we are endorsing the Republicans by letting them use our facility for photo ops and publicity stunts.The society received $12,000 in federal money this year and raised about $175,000 to $200,000 in private donations for the dining hall, Antal said.The nearby food pantry received $3,200 in federal aid this year and $75,000 in private donations, he said.If we cant get private donations, were sunk, Antal said. Its not a Democrat or Republican issue. Its a faith-based organization, and were not here to get someone elected.Antal said he doesnt blame volunteers for this.The societys bylaws prohibit the endorsement of candidates and political parties, Antal said.

Sounds reasonable to me. But if you're more comfortable insinuating that the guy who runs the St. Vincent de Paul Society soup kitchen is the one behaving badly here, then you go right ahead.

"Wonder how it is this gentlemans complaint got in the press. Hmmmm"In the story linked above, the paper's newsroom and distribution facility is next door to the soup kitchen. But it was a press event, anyway; it would have been pretty odd not to get a quote from the head of the program where it took place.

Irene/Mollie--First, it's expected that there'd be a mention in the press about the Romney/Ryan visit to the soup kitchen. But if Antal were truly as non-partisan as he wants us to believe, wouldn't he have said something more like this to the press:"We're glad that Paul Ryan visited our soup kitchen today, as it gives us a chance to make the importance of our work in the local community better known. Of course, being non-partisan, this should not be seen by anyone as an endorsement of the Romney/Ryan ticket and, in fact, if Joe Biden would like to make an appearance we would happily welcome him."The donations from all sides would have started rolling in. Instead, he calls it a "publicity stunt."Second, the angry calls and emails, if you believe Antal, were not anger with the SVDPS, but supposedly with Ryan. How could that adversely affect donations to the SVDPS? If anything, I'd think they'd increase. Plus, why would Antal risk turning off conservative donors the way he did?Third, Antal specifically mentioned his dissatisfaction with Ryan's policies as the SVDPS attempts to serve the poor, but his criticism of Obama's policies, under whose presidency the number of poor has increased, did not make it into the paper. HmmmmFourth, Antal was so anxious to get his dissatisfaction into the press that he publicly threw his underling (a woman, by the way, who had approved the visit) under the bus. What a guy. Not unlike a president throwing his female secretary of state under the bus?But if you don't find the above thoroughly convincing, ask yourself this question: If you ran the soup kitchen and VP Biden visited, and you were as upset with the disruption as Antal was, would you have voiced your dissatisfaction to the newspapers the way Antal did? Yes, I'm pretty comfortable concluding that somebody here has let his partisanship get in the way of making the most of an opportunity to help the poor.

Oops, it appears this wouldn't be the first time Mr. Antal has misled people. turns out Paul Ryan did help out washing dirty dishes and, for crying out loud, Mr. Antal wasn't even there!Should a correction/revision/update be made to this thread, Luke?

@Mark Proska (10/17, 1:24 pm) Thanks for the link, and the question.I don't think any correction/revision/update is necessary beyond what you and others have already added. In my original post I wrote "The photo op included Ryan washing pots and panswhich Sherba and other volunteers had to set aside while waiting for Ryan to show up, rather than simply going home after their mornings work." And I linked to the source on which I based much of the post---(what appears to my eyes to be) excellent reporting by David Skolnick of the Youngstown Vindicator. (Linked here again: my experience it's common for soup kitchens to have dedicated, experienced and well-trained volunteers who run the soup kitchen for a day or a meal---regardless of whether the director is there or not. (Indeed, it's often a sign of a good director that she/he has recruited and trained such volunteers.)Again, what was surprising, even revelatory in a small way, for me about the incident was Cong. Ryan's apparent unfamiliarity with the actual operation and culture of Catholic charities like the Mahoning County St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Of course, there is this clip from Stephen Colbert, in which he too defends Paul Ryan:

Luke--Thanks for the response. You don't think your characterization of Ryan's limited assistance as "abusive treatment directed at both the volunteers and their guests" is a bit hyperbolic? Even more so considering Mr. Antal's backtracking?

@Mark Proska (10/17, 7:55 pm) You're welcome.Having thought about it overnight, I think I'll leave the judgment as to whether my comments were hyperbolic to you and others. For fuller context, here's the paragraph from which you quoted:"Feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, etc. is work. Often, its tedious, boring, physically and emotionally exhausting work. (Sometimes its 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."I hope a couple of things are clear:1 - I consider this a small incident, not a big one. Thus any abuse would be correspondingly minor.2 - The "abuse" (if any) lies primarily in the treating of the volunteers and guests as objects for the candidate's own ends, rather than as subjects in their own right with some mutually beneficial exchange taking place. (So for example, I would draw different conclusions about the actions of an officeholder who worked for and delivered a government grant to a charity, and in return got the publicity and goodwill that accompanies a photo op for the occasion.)Finally, it's unclear (at best) whether "Ryan's limited assistance" was, in fact, assistance in any substantive way. It seems from the reporting done by Mr. Skolnick and others that the primary impact of the congressman's visit was to require volunteers to hang around for an unspecified period of time after they had already finished their morning's work.

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