Serving the poor in NYC

This week the New York Times offered a few different takes on how people answer God's call to serve the poor in the city. On Christmas Eve there was a story about the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal who live and minister in the South Bronx. (You probably know the famous Fr. Benedict Groeschel, one of the order's founders.)An April 2007 article (part of the NYT's flurry of local-Catholics coverage surrounding the pope's visit) focused on the friars' music ministry and prolife activism, and provoked a narrowly critical series of letters scolding them for "infringing on women's reproductive freedom." (A later letter calmly answered those complaints -- say what you will about the CFRs, but no one can credibly claim they don't practice what they preach.) This week's story, however, focused on some of the order's younger members and their radical decision to live a life of voluntary poverty and Christian witness in an anything-but-contemplative neighborhood.One of the CFRs' ministries is a shelter for homeless men (you can get a look at it in the video supplement to the article). Another story in the Times, this one published on Christmas day, examined the complicated issues small, religiously-oriented shelters are confronting as the city improves its outreach to the homeless.

The basic plot: Small shelters run by churches and synagogues were responding to the crisis of urban homelessness well before the government stepped in. But now the city seems to be making real progress in its approach to the problem. And the small shelters have come to depend on the city's administration to keep their ministry safe and effective. Now, though, the Department of Homeless Services is requiring a greater range of services from the shelters to which it refers clients, and many of the smaller community-run shelters are shutting down because they can't keep up.Shelter volunteers resent what they see as unreasonable rules that prevent them from fulfilling their mission to serve. The DHS is nonplussed by criticism of its efforts to make the system more efficient, consistent and cost-effective. The voices missing from the article are the voices of the people being served -- and isn't that what really matters? What serves the poor best? If only it were that easy to rank priorities. On the one hand, streamlining the system will very likely benefit the homeless, and perhaps even help to reduce their numbers. But it's also hard not to believe the loving service of a religious community offers the homeless something that the government can't provide.The one thing that is clear from this article is that the churches and synagogues that operate these ministries will suffer from their loss. The DHS isn't responsible for making sure those called to serve the poor have a rewarding outlet for their service. But the opportunity to offer direct service to the needy is a priceless thing for a parish. How can these communities replace what they will lose if the shelters close? Where else can they direct their service efforts? Is there, perhaps, a way for them to work with the city's shelter system to infuse impersonal institutions with God's love? Or should they turn their attention to serving the homeless during the day? Has your parish struggled with similar issues? How did you respond?

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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