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Special Report

Texas-size ministry

NCR Staff

Something unfunny happened on Kathy Doran’s way to becoming a social worker with designs on changing the world.

She got her master’s degree, and then she got cancer: “breast to liver to bone,” as she dispassionately sums up her 14-year-ordeal. Most recently, as of summer 1999, the cancer spread to her brain.

Obviously, this has not been good news for Doran, 49, or for her family. Ironically, though, her illness has been fortuitous for her life goals and for her parish -- and by extension for Houston’s struggling underclass. Though classified as Stage 4 terminal, Doran is very much alive, thanks in part to Houston’s renowned M.D. Anderson cancer hospital and to her willingness to undergo even experimental treatments.

Meanwhile, Doran’s parish, the suburban region it serves -- in fact, all of Houston -- have become heir to Doran’s spirit, her sense of vocation and her dreams. With Doran leading the way, and Msgr. Bill Robertson lending support, the 3,200-family parish has become known throughout the metropolitan area for its efforts on behalf of Houston’s poor.

The 22-year-old parish, Christ the Good Shepherd, is situated in suburban, upscale Spring, Texas, where a minority of Hispanic immigrants could easily be overlooked. Throughout Houston, the parish has come to represent Catholic social teaching in action. From Joe and Jane Parker, who pose as Uncle Sam and Aunt Samantha and urge parishioners and neighbors to be politically involved, to a group of gutsy activists who go head-to-head with public officials on selected issues, Christ the Good Shepherd Parish is determined to separate Catholic social teaching from the regrettable label it often wears: “Catholicism’s best-kept secret.”

No problem seems insurmountable, too complex, for the parish’s cadre of social ministers. No chance to educate, to train parishioners for social activism, is missed. Many parish activists acknowledge that the world, at least the world of the poor in Houston, is better since Doran harnessed her energy to her parish.

A four-day visit to the parish in early spring meant accompanying social ministers on no fewer than five trips to central Houston, some 30 miles to the south. Two trips were for meetings with public officials on hospital district issues; a third was for a regular meeting of a Welfare-to-Work Network, where representatives of public agencies struggled to explain to parish social ministers how eligibility for public assistance is determined.

A fourth trip downtown took Doran to the University of St. Thomas, where she was meeting her husband, Joe, for a theology class. The couple, having raised three sons, is now working toward master’s degrees in pastoral studies. The fifth trip was to deliver Doran for a chemotherapy treatment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, where she is renowned for her ability to defy an ominous prognosis.

Considered a miracle

“Most people who are Stage 4 drop what they’re doing and go into hospice,” said Providence Sr. Alice Potts, who has been a staff chaplain at M.D. Anderson for 24 years. “Kathy learned early on that cancer is only one-seventh of her life and knew that she was going to move ahead with the other six-sevenths. She is considered a miracle around here.”

Although it’s true that Doran kept right on going, she did shift her goals. “Cancer turned my life upside down,” she said. “In an odd way, it was my opportunity to fulfill my vocation to serve.” Unable to continue in her professional life, she focused more on home and family -- and the parish is both, she said. “Fr. Bill asked me to serve on the days I was able.” As it turned out, that was quite a lot.

Despite the parish’s distance from the city center, archdiocesan leaders and public officials know it well. “People often say, ‘Oh that one,’ when they hear where we’re from,” said Pat Macy, who recently succeeded Doran as parish director of social ministry.

“This community is very devoted,” Doran said. “We believe care of the poor is our primary responsibility, and other things flow from that.” To assist one’s “brothers and sisters in Christ,” is a great privilege -- a point Doran stresses often. When lack of housing proved to be a pressing local problem, social ministers pulled together an interfaith coalition to buy a 458-unit apartment complex, The Bridges (see related story). When it was lack of public funds for health care, social ministers threw all they had behind efforts to get a new hospital district budget approved. When fresh produce was hard to get for families in need of food, the parish started a garden. (Doran likes to point out that the garden was a failure the first time the parish tried it, “when it wasn’t time for God’s call.” A few years later, the same project was a huge success.)

“We go in any door we can,” Macy said.

Programs include a crisis pregnancy center, bereavement support, AIDS support, child care and temporary housing through the Interfaith Hospitality Network, an ecumenical network of area churches that have agreed to periodically devote some space to living quarters for homeless families. The parish is known for its vibrant liturgies, woven through with social justice themes and enriched by “choirs upon choirs,” as well as for its creative religious education program.

In recent initiatives prompting the downtown meetings, social ministers, led by Barbara Lashley who oversees advocacy, have directed their zeal at improving access to health care for Houston’s 31 percent uninsured, a funding crisis in the Harris County Hospital District and to upgrading Texas’s stingy welfare benefits.

Social ministers helped avert the hospital-funding crisis by galvanizing their networks in support of an emergency funding action that county commissioners had to approve. Commissioners, meeting in an overflowing courtroom, approved it unanimously, thanks in part to some 260 faxes parishioners at Christ the Good Shepherd had sent out. “We made a difference,” said Lashley, who had devoted days to gathering support. Their crusade caught the attention of the new chief executive of Houston’s public hospital district, John Guest. Not long after assuming his new post last spring, Guest began meeting regularly with Lashley and other community leaders to talk about improving access to public health care.

Social ministers’ persistence in improving access led to formation of a group called Community Partners, where activists tell public hospital officials about problems their clients face. At one recent meeting, group members examined proofs of a new brochure. It was prompted by complaints that the old ones were hard to understand. “Is this clear?” social ministers asked one another. “Why don’t we try it out on some of your clients?” Doran proposed.

The social ministers are “a pain sometimes,” acknowledged Margo Hilliard, vice-president of the Harris County Hospital District. “But they also tell us things we need to know.”

As with most issues social ministers deal with, it was an individual’s needs that led them into a big arena -- in this case, public health care. “The woman who got us into health care access had cancer, but her records got lost in the public hospital district’s system,” Doran said. She added wryly: “She was not getting any better while they were trying to find her in their computers.”

Everything social ministers do “starts with the moans and groans of the people,” Doran said. “It’s not like we get up and say, ‘I wonder what system we can go out and disrupt today.’ ”

Training is the secret

If the parish has a secret to success, it’s “training, training, training,” she said. The goal is to develop theologically informed, professionally qualified “servants of the gospel” rather than to encourage impulsive do-gooders who are long on energy and ideas but short on knowledge and skill. “We are not interested in volunteerism, but in people with a sense of vocation,” she said, people who see working with the poor as “a way of life.”

“I sometimes notice an attitude that, when it comes to social services, anybody can do it,” Doran said. “But anybody can’t. You have to be very savvy to know where the dollars are,” how to get the job done.

Savvy means knowing for instance that if the church gives money directly to people, it could reduce their welfare benefits. The way around might be to pay benefits directly to vendors, such as landlords or utility suppliers.

After the nation overhauled its welfare system in 1996, Lashley organized the Welfare-to-Work Network to help inform herself and other social ministers about Texas’ complex benefits system. “If the system is too complicated for me, a 63-year-old, college educated person, to understand, then I want to know why that is,” Lashley said. “It’s a natural tendency of mine to think, ‘Why should we have to deal with this? Why can’t we fix it?’ “

Savvy also means knowing that, while the work of social justice belongs largely to the laity, sometimes recruiting “a collar” -- a local priest or even the bishop -- to show up at a public meeting sends an important signal.

The need for such street smarts doesn’t mean that the parish regards social ministry as the province of an informed elite. Rather, Doran said, it means that you have to approach it professionally. You have to keep learning. A certification program for social ministers, once available only downtown on weekdays, has been brought to the neighborhood. The program is held on weekends one day a month. “We don’t pressure, we invite,” Macy said. “And we give people plenty of time to discern what they want to do.”

For people who want to be active in the parish program, the eight-month program certification is required. “Most of our social ministers don’t stop with the formation program,” Macy said. “They go on to take other courses. We go on retreats. We send people to conferences.”

If the classes are optional, no one at Christ the Good Shepherd escapes the principles. “If you belong to this parish and don’t know the principles of Catholic social teaching, you aren’t really in the parish,” Doran said. They are projected, one at a time, on the wall behind the altar before Mass each Sunday. They infiltrate the Sunday bulletin and homilies. They are printed on T-shirts of all sizes, translated into “kid language” on small sizes. They permeate religious education. If you start with kids, Doran believes, “we won’t keep running into what I run into: adults who are unfamiliar with the best-kept secrets of the Catholic faith.

From a T-shirt distributed by Christ the Good Shepherd Catholic Church:
All people are holy, made in the image of God.
People are both holy and social; when one suffers, we all suffer.
People have a basic right to life, food, shelter, health care, education and work.
The “Jesus” test of a community (of society) is how it treats its neediest members.
Money, work and business exist to serve people, not the other way around.
We are called to work for justice for all people.
We care for God’s creation.

“Because we’re lay people, we know we have to be on rock solid ground” when we speak, Doran said. “We only steal from the best. We quote scripture, we quote encyclicals, we talk about how the principles apply today. We talk about this stuff all the time.”

Justice permeates everything

“Social justice permeates everything, mainly because we have this incessant voice,” said Nanette Coons, coordinator of religious education for the high school. “I call Kathy the burr in my saddle.

“I remember one time, at a staff meeting, I was frustrated. I said, ‘Why are we Catholic?’ Kathy looked right at me and said, ‘Why are you Catholic?’ It started a dynamic discussion and from that a visioning process that lasted a whole year. Through that process, the Catholic social teachings played a prominent role.”

The parish’s social ministry program began by offering a few direct services from an office where people could call or come in to seek help or even just to talk. Sometimes when people are in the middle of problems, “their story is all they’ve got left,” Doran said. “Their stories are sacred.” It’s a sentiment she voices often.

“The agencies beat up on them,” she said. “It’s so important that we welcome them when they walk in. Sometimes they’ve taken two or three buses, spent a whole day to get here. We listen to their story and try to help them work things out. We call on community resources and we know where they are. Our attitude is, ‘God has sent you to us.’ ”

In reality, referrals come from all over the area, including from social agencies. “We get referrals from all the agencies,” said Liliana Ciccarelli, social minister in charge of Shepherd’s Tent, which provides support services, including a year of housing for women with crisis pregnancies.

Social ministers also try to get other parishes involved. When Doran was director of social ministry and a client came in from a neighboring church, her tactic, she said, was to call the neighboring pastor and say, “Hello, Father” or “Reverend,” or “Pastor,” as the situation required. “We have so-and-so here who is a member of your community and who has some needs. We’ll be glad to take care of these needs, but we don’t want to deprive you of the benefit of ministering to your own people. Would you like to take care of this brother [or sister] in Christ yourself, or would you like for us to have that opportunity?”

Obviously, an active social ministry like Christ the Good Shepherd’s requires a supportive pastor. For the past 10 years, that’s been Msgr. Bill Robertson, 73, a former radio announcer who holds a master’s degree in social work.

“My job is to get out of the way of the Holy Spirit and leave well enough alone,” he said. “Other than that, I don’t have much to do. I just tell the people, ‘No surprises please.’ It’s very lay-oriented around here,” he added. “I have a job. They have a job, and we help each other.”

More than once, Doran said, Robertson has looked at her in genuine bewilderment and said, “Kathy, are you nuts?” But, she said, he backs up the programs with dollars and has never stood in the way.

“A lot of pastors consider social ministry a drain on the budget,” Roberts said. “But it’s what we’re here for.”

“One of Bill’s strengths is he’s always backed his staff,” Doran said. “He’s always treated us like professionals. Wherever we go, people know we have that backing.”

Of up to 50 people who call or drop in each month, the parish give direct financial assistance to about 35, according to Jan Papciak, who oversees direct services. “I’m usually over budget every year,” she said. “But Fr. Bill is a firm believer in helping the poor.”

“Our approach is not to put a Band-Aid on the situation but to work with people on the whole situation so they won’t be back,” Papciak said. Social ministers learn, too, who to turn away. “We’ve learned to read body language,” Papciak said. “We’ve learned to spot people who are just ‘dealing for dollars’,”

Sometimes they make mistakes. “Do people who are not ‘good people’ get money from us?” Doran asked rhetorically. “I hope so.”

Supportive bishop

Houston’s Bishop Joseph Fiorenza does his part, too. “He’s very supportive,” Doran said. Parish leaders depend, and call on, his support. Last year, parish leaders compiled a book-length manual on parish social ministry programs in hopes of giving other parishes a model. Recently, Fiorenza, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent the booklet with a cover letter to every U.S. bishop.

Parish leaders encourage members to be politically involved as a way to translate the Catholic social agenda from words to policy. “In my view, unless people learn Catholic social teaching and what it means, we can’t do what we need to do as a society,” said Don Zook, who serves on faith formation boards at the parish and for the Houston archdiocese and works at helping people link Catholic social teaching to political realities and their everyday lives. “Catholic social teaching isn’t liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican,” he said. “Unless we understand that, we get caught up in political rhetoric that doesn’t connect with what our faith is.”

That’s a widely held view, and perhaps a necessary one, in a parish where social ministers include both diehard Democrats and card-carrying Republicans. This fall, Macy said, the parish is sponsoring a lecture series focused on how to use the political process to get “what we believe in, what we what as Catholics.” Four lectures will highlight issues, a fifth will promote activities related to national elections in November. Finally, Joe and Jane Parker, always on the lookout for nonpartisan sources, bring information about issues and candidates to the parish. The Parkers -- Uncle Sam and Aunt Samantha -- joined the parish nine years ago after moving to Houston from central California. “This was the kind of parish we’d been looking for all our lives,” said Joe Parker, 82.

Garnet Coleman, a member of the Texas House of Representaties from Houston, said he admires the parish’s work, though, he said, its social ministers aren’t always the most popular folks in town. “There are some who don’t like to be reminded of things they are supposed to be doing. But I know I appreciate the fact that they’re willing to stand up for what they believe in,” he said. “I think they should be a model for other parishes.”

Robertson, the pastor, believes it could happen. “A lot of people look at us and say, ‘Those wild people out there.’ But we just do everything the church allows us to do. We don’t have anything going on here that couldn’t go on in any parish in the country.”

Pam Schaeffer’s e-mail address is Pamlives@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, August 11, 2000