The essence of gospel giving is this: All people—absolutely everyone, no matter what, no matter who—are to be treated as though they were our brothers and sisters. Because they are!
Along with parents, catechists have the responsibility to call young people along the road to personal faith in Jesus. Faith in Jesus involves a commitment to help those who are poor and vulnerable, those who are very young and very old, those who are hungry and thirsty, those who are sick and dying, those who are in prison. All these are “the face of Jesus in the guise of the poor,” as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta said. Jesus’ concern for those who have little or nothing must be our concern as well.
How do we present and model this faith to our students? By example. We share with our learners our own experiences of helping those who are in need. Then we give our students opportunities to experience various ways of offering service.
There are countless opportunities for social outreach: global, national, and local organizations; community fund drives and volunteer opportunities; and parish outreach ministries and volunteer opportunities.
Here are some basics considerations to bear in mind when planning a gospel-giving lesson, especially one that involves an outreach opportunity.
Choosing a Service Project
There are two types of social outreach projects: indirect and direct.
Indirect social outreach projects involve activities that make it possible for others to offer assistance to those in need. These projects might include fund-raising events or collecting goods (food, clothing, toiletries, toys, gift items, etc.) for others to distribute to those who need the funds or the items. Indirect ministry is a great way for your learners to begin understanding and experiencing gospel giving—but it should lead to direct contact with those in need. It is important to give money, food, clothing, and other basic necessities, but nothing can replace the treasures of our time and our very selves.
Direct social outreach projects involve personal investment in serving those in need, such as cooking and serving food, visiting with those who are shut in or ill, doing chores for those who are unable to do their own chores, or putting on special entertainment for those who reside in care-providing residences.
Those in need crave an accepting smile, direct eye contact in conversation, and the gentle touch of a supportive hand. Direct social outreach projects have the potential for greater impact on your students in the future. Many young Catholics involved in social justice endeavors can trace their enthusiasm to a class visit to a care-providing residence or an evening of cooking and serving food to those who call the streets their home.
So your first decision is to select the kind of social outreach project that will be most beneficial for your students, taking into account their age, sensibilities, and time availability. The more involved your project, the more help you will need, especially from parents.
Choosing an Organization
Your next decision is to choose an organization whose efforts you want to support. Your parish or school is your best resource for ideas. Most have a variety of programs, including the St. Vincent de Paul Society, that collect food and clothing, gather gifts at Christmas, or serve at soup kitchens and care-providing facilities. Your DRE, other catechists, and parish staff will be able to guide you. Don’t forget your parish youth group. Teens have boundless energy and love to help others.
Also check your diocesan and local newspapers to find outreach opportunities in your community. Catholic Charities USA, Habitat for Humanity, Heifer International, Food for the World, and the United States Catholic Bishops’ Campaign for Human Development offer excellent ideas and opportunities for service.
As you gather information to make this decision, get parents involved. You will need their input, and you may need their help to chaperone a field trip or to help with a collection drive. Including parents in your decision gives you an opportunity to catechize parents as well as their children.
Class size, maturity level, commitment from parents, and the socio-economic situation of your class and your community will influence which organization or outreach project to support.
Get your students excited about gospel giving and a specific social outreach project by preparing them well. For several weeks before you do or begin your project, build into your regular lessons the key components of the project. Educate your students about the need that your service will address. Explain the details of the service you will provide (how and when). And explain the connection between the service your group will provide and how that service is a response of faith to the teachings of Jesus.
Write a detailed letter to parents. Be sure that everyone involved knows all the necessary details: what your class will be doing; who will be helping and how; and what will be expected of each person. If you will be visiting a facility, such as a care-providing residence or soup kitchen, discuss what students might see when they are there, what their expectations might be, and how they feel about it.
Preparation for an indirect service project will depend on which organization you choose to support. Let the organization’s staff guide you. For a direct ministry project involving a field trip, visit the site yourself. Have a personal experience of the facility, those you will serve, and the service you will provide. Call ahead and talk with the staff about how to arrange this experience. If possible, invite parents to join you. This experience will be invaluable when you are preparing your class for their own experience.
Concepts to Explain
As part of your gospel-giving lesson and outreach project, it is important to explain the following concepts to your students. Make these points well in advance of doing or beginning your project.
Jesus gives us an example of caring for the poor. Jesus cares for those who are poor, hungry, thirsty, and imprisoned. He tells us that whatever we do for one of these, we do for him. In his sermon about the Last Judgment, Jesus says that someday people will ask him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?” Jesus will answer, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (see Matthew 25:31-46 for the entire “Judgment of the Nations” account). Those who are in need are Jesus’ family; they are our family as well.
The Church has always taken special care of those who are poor and in need. Taking care of those who are poor, sick, in prison, or in any kind of need is the Church’s mission, based on the teachings of Jesus. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it as the apostles’ feet and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34:35).
Taking care of the poor is what we do. As Catholics, we have a long and admirable history of helping the least of God’s children. We have founded schools, hospitals, shelters, food pantries and kitchens, care-providing residences, and housing programs. We build houses, take food and medicine to disaster areas, feed those who are poor and live in economically depressed areas, manage orphanages, and educate children who cannot afford an education. In those who are poor or in any kind of need, we see God’s children, and we have a responsibility to help them in whatever way we can.
The poor are our brothers and sisters. Those who are in need are our family; they are our brothers and sisters. Yes, even those who are dirty and perhaps frighten us; those who live on the streets and beg for money; those who are in prison. God created each of these individuals and loves them, just as God created us and loves each of us.
Suggestions for Outreach Projects
Indirect Social Outreach Projects
* Collect food for a local food bank or soup kitchen. Non-perishable canned goods, pasta, and peanut butter are always needed.
* Collect travel-size personal-care items that can be packaged into toiletry kits for those who are homeless.
* Establish a collection center if your school or parish does not have one. Place collection bins near the main doors of the buildings on your parish grounds, or designate an area in the parish office where people can drop off donations. Have your class publicize the new collection sites by handing out flyers, placing announcements in the parish bulletin, and making announcements at weekend Masses.
* Take part in a “giving tree” project at Christmastime by adopting a family. Buy the gifts they have requested and have a wrapping party.
* Collect essential clothing for those who live on the streets. Homeless shelters are always in need of socks, underwear, shoes, and basic clothing. Coats, hats, gloves, and blankets are in great demand in the fall, and bottled water is needed in the summer.
* Make colorful posters for a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, or care-providing residence. Use bright designs and include messages like “We are thinking about you.” Have students sign it with their first names and the name of your parish.
* Arrange for a person in your parish who is involved in direct social outreach projects to speak with your students about his or her experiences and the many opportunities of service in which young people can participate.
* Conduct a discussion with older students about the many ways they can live the Corporal Works of Mercy of “bury the dead.” Help them realize how a death in the family can disrupt routines and how they can reach out to grieving families in simple ways like mowing the lawn, offering child-care to younger children, or cleaning up after a gathering of the family. Emphasize the importance of praying for families who have lost loved ones.
Direct Social Outreach Projects
* Visit a care-providing residence or children’s ward of a hospital and sing songs and give out homemade greeting cards.
* Make arrangements with a nearby care-providing residence to host your dress rehearsal for a class or school program. Then stay awhile and visit with residents.
* Visit a food bank or community outreach center to assemble and distribute food boxes or toiletry kits.
* Cook and serve a meal at a community soup kitchen. Check with your DRE, other parish leadership, and the staff at the facility to be sure you arrange for all the details to make this opportunity possible for your students.
* Form a team to do yard work, simple repairs (with parents), or painting at a retirement residence.
Follow-up Is Essential
After any gospel-giving effort, especially a direct social outreach project, it is essential for students to have an opportunity to reflect on their experience and to discuss what they did, how they felt, what they learned, and how they might have been changed by the experience. A direct social outreach experience can often expose young people to things that are disturbing, that make them think more deeply about life.
Give students time to talk, ask questions, discuss, and express themselves in some way. Do not feel you have to provide answers or offer anything in response. The goal of the project is to help learners become aware of those who live with sometimes very serious needs and crippling limitations—and the fact that we can reach out to them in many ways. We do not know why there is injustice, why some people suffer greatly. What we do know is that, as disciples of Jesus, we care for those in need for they are our brothers and sisters.
In his Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae (On Catechesis in Our Time), Pope John Paul II said that our prime objective as catechists is to “put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ” (n. 5). Our efforts to teach gospel giving help students have an intimate experience of Jesus. They have an opportunity to see the face of Jesus in the face of the poor and to reach out with Jesus’ care and concern.
Susan K. Rowland, a catechist for over 20 years, is the author of Make Room for God: Clearing Out the Clutter (St. Anthony Messenger Press). She is a freelance writer and nationally known speaker. E-mail Susan at susanK3480@msn.com.
Scripture teaches that God has a special concern for the poor and vulnerable. The prophets denounced injustice toward the poor as a lack of fidelity to the God of Israel. Jesus, who identified himself with “the least of these,” came to preach “good news to the poor, liberty to captives…and to set the downtrodden free.” The Church calls on all of us to embrace this preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, to embody it in our lives, and to work to have it shape public policies and priorities. A fundamental measure of our society is how we care for and stand with the poor and vulnerable.
—“Faithful Citizenship” (“Option for the Poor and Vulnerable.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,2003)
Corporal Works of Mercy
“… Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:31-46).
1. Feed the hungry. 4. Shelter the homeless.
2. Give drink to the thirsty. 5. Visit the sick.
3. Clothe the naked. 6. Visit the imprisoned.
7. Bury the dead.
—The Catholic Source Book (Harcourt Religion Publishers, 2000)
“The poor anywhere in the world are Christ who suffers. In them, the Son of God lives and dies. Through them, God shows his face.”
—Mother Teresa, In My Own Words: Special Memorial Edition, compiled by José Luis González-Balado (Liguori Publications, 1996)