Friday, September 24, 2021

Where Everyone is Neighbor

As some of you know, I recently left my ministry at the SSJ Neighborhood Center in Camden, New Jersey to pursue graduate studies at the Boston College School of Theology & Ministry. Before my departure, I wrote a piece about the Center in honor of the Year of St. Joseph, which has just been published in the Catholic Star Herald.

Even after 120 years of service in Camden, the Sisters of Saint Joseph were the new kids on the block when they arrived in 2017 in the Cramer Hill section of the city. Sent by their congregation, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia, a group of sisters set out to establish a new, sponsored ministry in the city: the Sisters of Saint Joseph Neighborhood Center.

“For all our ministry in the city of Camden, we as a congregation decided that to continue our commitment to those who are materially poor and marginalized, it was important we establish a physical place for ministry,” explains Sister Bonnie McMenamin, SSJ, the SSJ Neighborhood Center’s founding director. “As Sisters of Saint Joseph, we are called to love God and to love our neighbors without distinction. That means encountering Jesus in every neighbor we meet and seeking to foster a sense of community in and among the neighbors and neighborhoods we serve.”

Over the last four years, that is exactly what the SSJ Neighborhood Center has done. With programming that ranges from a food pantry and prayer groups to English as a Second Language classes and sewing and crocheting lessons, the center is focused on bringing people together to provide opportunities for connection, enrichment and empowerment. Serving primarily adults and families, the center provides a safe space for neighbors to learn and grow together.

“This is a place where all are welcome,” Sister Clarisa Vázquez, SSJ, outreach coordinator at the center, says. “Our neighbors come from various cultural backgrounds that wouldn’t normally mix. With a common goal of learning English or a sewing project, they grow together, they help one another and they develop relationships far beyond the classes they share.”

This was evident when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the center’s classes in spring 2020. “We moved the classes we could online,” Sister Bonnie recalls. “Our neighbors wanted to be together, even if that meant learning how to do so virtually!”

For many, that meant learning how to use a laptop computer. For volunteer teachers, that meant adapting lessons to a digital format. “The pandemic put all of us to the test,” says Sister Colleen Gibson, SSJ, coordinator of services. “Yet, God provided in every instance. Students and teachers adapted and learned together. Demand on our food pantry expanded, but so did the generosity of our neighbors near and far.”

The center’s monthly food distribution has grown exponentially since 2017. What began as a pantry that fed 14 families on a monthly distribution day now feeds more than 200 families every third Wednesday of the month. The pantry distributes food provided by the Food Bank of South Jersey as well as donations from parishes, religious education programs, community groups, and individuals from throughout the Camden and Philadelphia areas.

“We could never do what we do on our own,” Sister Mary Berryman, SSJ, coordinator of the food pantry, explains. The center is reliant on volunteers to help serve neighbors, teach classes and provide goods for distribution. Beyond the food pantry, donors help provide diapers and baby clothing for families in need, new and used household goods for the center’s “sharing markets,” and financial assistance for those seeking rent and utility assistance.

“Our mission is to unite ‘neighbor to neighbor and neighborhood to neighborhood,’” Sister Colleen adds. “We see that come alive when a neighborhood teenager strikes up a conversation with a student volunteering from Camden Catholic High School, or a neighborhood family gives gardening tips to the family from Philadelphia who shares a plot next to them in our community garden.”

“Here, everyone is a neighbor,” Sister Bonnie says as she reflects on the center’s roots and mission. “Our love of God draws us into union with all people.”

In this Year of Saint Joseph, Sister Bonnie takes solace in the example of Saint Joseph that is lived out at the SSJ Neighborhood Center. “Like Joseph, our service is humble and often hidden. We give ourselves in the service of God’s love. We create a space where no one is turned away, where there is always ‘room at the inn.’”

Together with their neighbors, the sisters are helping to create a space where all are welcome. They, after all, know how it feels to be new to a neighborhood and hope they can make room for each neighbor to flourish in the fullness of God’s love in community.

To See & Be Seen: Embracing Presence as a Ministry of Learning

My latest piece for Global Sisters Report is a reflection on the depth and complexity of a ministry of presence. This practice lies at the heart of good relational ministry. Doing it well means being present not only to the person in front of us but God at work in our midst. May we each be blessed to see and be seen in our encounters.


One of the first lessons of ministry is the importance of presence. If we are to be engaged with others, to win hearts and souls, and to find God in it all, we need to be actively present to the people in front of us. Our job is to hear their stories, offer respite to the weary, make space to breathe, and provide companionship, if only but for a moment, to those to whom we minister. In so doing, we walk together, share life and ultimately reveal love.

Such a prospect seems simple, right? Yet when we probe more deeply into the practice of ministry of presence, we discover that what seems to be simple is, in reality, rather complex.

This is a lesson, however, we only learn in living.

As a college freshman, I thought I knew what ministry of presence was. That is, I thought I knew until I encountered a call to presence far more complex that I ever could have imagined.

A group of classmates and I had been sent to serve the Tuesday morning meal at a local soup kitchen. We were instructed to be fully present to the people we met there. "Listen to their stories," our guide told us, "Give the gift of your presence."

Upon arrival, my friends all garnered jobs on the front line, distributing a warm meal to those who came in off the streets. Meanwhile, I found myself relegated to a side room. My only companions were an industrial dishwasher and a small window that diners could pass their dirty dishes through for me to clean. Listening to the sounds of the dining room, I waited for people to finish their breakfast and come into sight.

Soon hands began to poke through the window, but no one stayed long enough for me to really be present to them. As dishes piled up, I forgot about the instruction to be present and instead got down to the work at hand. As I worked my way through the stacks of dishes before me, I noticed someone standing at the window. The man dressed in a dark blue flannel handed his coffee cup to me.

"Thank you," he uttered.

"Oh, you're welcome," I replied, turning to put the cup into the dishwasher rack I'd been filling. Spraying the dishes down, I turned back to see him still standing there.

"Thank you," he said, looking intently at me. His eyes, a rich chestnut color, seemed to peer deep into my soul. "Thank you," he repeated with a gentle nod of his head.

I nodded my head in return. "Thank you."

For a few still moments, we silently looked at one another, before he nodded again and walked back to the busy dining room. Staring at the now empty window, I wondered what exactly had just happened.

On the car ride home, my companions shared the stories they had gathered while serving. Each one of them buzzing with the energy of encounter. I, meanwhile, sat silently in the back seat. When asked what stories I had gathered, I sheepishly stammered that I hadn't gathered any. I had seen and been seen.

The conversation quickly turned to other things, but I remained in that space, both comfortable and uncomfortable. The look. The nod. The knowing. All Presence.

From time to time, that moment returns to me in my memory. It is a reminder that whatever I think presence might look like, there is always more to learn.

This realization is itself a lesson. A ministry of presence makes space for the other, giving them the space to be heard, to be seen, and to be loved. In that space we discover what unites us and, if we are lucky, we encounter God in the person in front of us and the act of being present. Our hope is that it does the same for the other people involved, too.

The temptation of a ministry of presence is to make it about us. If we aren't careful, it can easily devolve into a self-serving ministry; we can selfishly serve to enrich ourselves, treating presence as an avenue to self-congratulations and achievement rather than humility and openness.

Yet to truly be present is to find Divine Presence in the presence we offer and receive. As such, we recognize that a ministry of presence is, in fact, a ministry of learning. We learn that we can make space but can't force grace. We discover that curiosity is best used in the service of seeking the One who seeks us. And we realize that gratitude is the greatest response to all that Presence offers us.

If we approach our encounters with others with these grounding values — humility, openness, curiosity and gratitude — we create a space where no matter what happens we have the potential to receive it, to be taught by it, to expand our vision, and to grow in the process.

This, of course, requires us to let go of set outcomes, expectations and desires. When we meet disappointment or frustration in our encounters, it would do us well to honestly ask if we were holding too tightly to one of these factors, limiting our freedom and constricting our ability to truly be present.

Practicing such presence is a lifelong process. While we might become better at offering a ministry of presence, it is a ministry constantly developing, showing us new facets of the Divine and ourselves in relationship. Called to be students of life, we have the opportunity to learn and to grow in moments of presence expected and unexpected. In those moments, no lesson is too big, no encounter too small. For this, we should be grateful.

Years later, I still recall that moment standing face-to-face with the man with the chestnut eyes at the soup kitchen. That encounter surely wasn't what I expected my ministry of presence to look like that day. So often that is the case...Click here to finish reading this piece