We went to mass tonite and our Hispanic deacon gave the homily. He said that not long ago he was visiting a place of business during the course of his busy day. He heard some commotion, some of it in Spanish. By way of background, since Hurricane Katrina about a year ago there has been a large influx of Hispanic workers into the area. Some have regular jobs but a lot do day labor, hanging out in the parking lots of Home Depot or Lowes or at certain gas stations that have come to be known as the place to hire someone for the day. As he speaks both Spanish and English, the deacon thought perhaps he could be of assistance--even though he had a busy schedule that day. The deacon was told that the business was indeed hiring, but all applicants had to go through the agency a couple of miles away. When he told this to the Hispanic man, his wife, who was with him, burst into tears. When the deacon asked what the problem was the couple told him that they didn't have a car and had walked several miles to that business that morning. I guess hearing that they had to walk another few miles to the agency and then, hopefully, back to the business, was just too much for her. The deacon admitted he hesitated, as he had a lot on his schedule that day, but then offered to take them to the agency. The woman thanked him and said "You must be a Christian". He told her than he was and that he was a Catholic deacon. She said "You can't be, Catholics don't do things like that". He said that stung, but admitted that he had considered just going on with his business.
That story got me thinking about the faith-based responses to Katrina. First the Catholic good. The archdiocese did its best to get schools up and running ASAP and welcomed all kids, without regard to ability to pay. Considering that no public schools opened in New Orleans until after Christmas, those schools offered some kids the only way to go to school in their own community. Lots of parishes in other places sent crews down here to gut houses and do other grunt work. Collections were taken up in many places--I know the parish we attended in Atlanta collected over $20,000 one week, and planned to take up another collection the next week. I know that my parents' parish, whose church and school were destroyed by Katrina, have received a lot of out-of-state help. I know that the Catholic social service agencies have provided a lot of help for a lot of people.
Shortly after the storm I read an article about faith-based responses to crises. The article said that typically what happens is that the Baptists and Mormans come in first in small crews with chain saws, brooms shovels etc--things that small local-oriented organizations can handle. Then the mainline Protestant churches come in and set up food kitchens and supply yards--things that take more people and money to coordinate. Last of all, the Catholics come in and set up and run long-term more professional services like agencies dedicated to counseling, home ownership, and the like. We have organization and staying power, but the response, perhaps like our Church, seems more institutional than personal. That couple my deacon met needed a ride then and there, not a subsidized bus system that will last into the future-even though such a bus system would in the long run probably help more people.
Obviously, individual Catholics do much that doesn't involve the Church--the Church didn't know that those people needed a ride; our deacon did, and despite hesitation, responded. Still, I'd say that while our strength is our ability to act collectively, our weakness is our tendency to allow the collective to take over our responsibility to act individually.