Convicts, Junkies, and the Face of Christ. . .

Believe it or not, after 15 years of successfully transforming the lives of hundreds of men, many local Vincentians still remain oblivious, ambivalent, and even publically opposed to the powerful work and ministry of Michael’s Place.

My heart breaks when I hear the following comments from brother and sister Vincentians:

  • “Michael’s Place? Michael’s Place?  What’s that?”
  • “Why are we providing twinning funds to a bunch of junkie drug addicts and alcoholics?”
  • “Our District Council shouldn’t be giving any money to Michael’s Place to support those convicts!”

I guess sometimes we forget that Jesus himself was one of those “convicts”!  I guess sometimes we forget that Jesus mandates, that’s right, mandates that we forgive each other “seventy times seven times”!  I guess sometimes we forget our own Rule which explicitly states “No work of charity is foreign to the Society.”  I guess sometimes we forget the poignant lesson of the prodigal son and his return to the loving embrace of his father.  I guess sometimes we forget that we are a resurrection people and that life can be raised from the tomb of criminality, addiction, despair, and hopelessness.

As Vincentians we strive to see the face of Christ in everyone we encounter.  This isn’t some bleeding heart sentiment to make us feel warm and fuzzy inside; it’s not some cutesy slogan we print on a t-shirt; it’s not the theme of some soppy greeting card!  It is a core value of our vocation as Vincentians.  Seeing the face of Christ in others is a radical challenge.  It requires a fundamental reordering of how we speak; how we act; how we live; and how we pray!  Pope Francis tells us that “God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else – God is in this person’s life.”

By far, the saddest thing that I have encountered during my 30+ year career in social services and Christian ministry is the number of people who have said to me that they are unworthy or undeserving of God’s love and forgiveness!

  • Sometimes they have been away from church for a long
  • Sometimes they have been alienated or estranged from a family member for many
  • Sometimes they have neglected their spouse or children to pursue material wealth and
  • Sometimes they have become enslaved to drugs or alcohol or pornography.
  • Sometimes they have made one-too-many bad choices leading them to a life of crime.

And while their circumstances all vary, and they express it in different words, what they have in common is this. . .they feel like they are unredeemable!  Unredeemable!  Where does that feeling come from? Certainly it does not come from God, whose love and forgiveness are infinite and eternal.  Rather, that feeling comes from us.  That feeling comes from those of us who call ourselves “Christians”.  That feeling comes from those of us who are quick to condemn, quick to judge, and quick to settle for simple answers to complex problems!

Fortunately our God scatters the seeds of his love everywhere, indiscriminately…on the bad soil as well as the good because His love for us is never wasted! He is constantly inviting us to a deeper relationship with him and no matter how many times we turn down or ignore his invitations, there will always be an infinite number of others.  Think about the thief who was crucified with Christ.  By all accounts, he was a murderer and bandit. . .one of the worst kinds of criminals.  The kind of person we would look at today and say “what a waste”.  The kind of person we might say “don’t waste your time with him” and yet even after a lifetime of lawlessness God doesn’t give up on him.  At the last minute he understands and accepts God’s invitation and Jesus tells him. . .“today you will be with me in Paradise!”  Today we know that penitent thief as Saint Dismas!

Consider Saint Paul.  Do you remember what Saint Paul did before he finally accepted an invitation from Christ?  His name was Saul of Tarsus and he was in charge of hunting down and killing Christians!  His job, which he embraced whole-heartedly was to destroy this new movement known as Christianity!  And we think there is a war on religion today!  Compared to Saul, the politicians and secularists of our day are lightweights!  And yet even after a career of persecuting Christians, God did not give up on Paul; and when Paul finally accepts God’s invitation, he goes on to become one of the greatest Apostles of all time, helping to spread the Gospel of Jesus throughout the world!

God refused to give up on guys like Saint Dismas and Saint Paul and God refuses to give up on the men at Michael’s Place!  Can we, who call ourselves “Vincentians” and “Christians”, afford to be any less generous, any less forgiving?  Can we choose to give up on the men at Michael’s Place?

Our Catholic tradition supports the community’s right to establish and enforce laws that protect people and advance the common good. But our faith also teaches us that both victims and offenders have a God-given dignity that calls for justice, not vengeance; forgiveness, not condemnation. The bishops of the United States, in their 2000 pastoral statement entitled Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, remind us that “Just as God never abandons us, so too we must be in covenant with one another. We are all sinners, and our response to sin and failure should not be abandonment and despair, but rather justice, contrition, reparation, and return or re-integration of all into the community.”

And so, if you’re feeling oblivious, ambivalent, or even publically opposed to the powerful work and ministry of Michael’s Place, our home of hope and recovery, I ask you to do three things:

  1. Pray. Simply pray for the men who have come to us seeking recovery, seeking forgiveness, seeking reconciliation with their families, seeking community.  Pray that they will, as God promises, find what they are seeking.
  2. Learn. Learn more about what we do and who we serve at Michael’s Place.  Go to our website at svdppitt.org and find out for yourself how our incredible staff, volunteers, and alumni, through the grace of God, are using very limited resources to bring unlimited mercy, unlimited hope, and unlimited potential to our residents.  Read The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul’s national position paper on restorative justice which can be found on SVdP-USA’s Voice of the Poor website at SVdP.Position.Papers. Go to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s website at USCCB.Criminal.Justice, and survey the many documents related to criminal justice and our response as disciples of Christ.
  3. Visit. Visit Michael’s Place and talk with the “convicts” and the “junkies”.  Look them in the eye and listen to their stories.  Let them minister to you. Let their stories remind you of and reconnect you with God’s mercy. Let them help you to grow in holiness.  Let them show you the face of Christ!

There is a great novel entitled Ransom Seaborn by local Pittsburgh author and musician, Bill Deasy.  Toward the end of the story, an old man and a young man are having a conversation about God.  The old man shares this piece of wisdom with the young man:

“What I am asking is how do you picture God?  Can you define him. . .or her?   Let me tell you what I think.  I remember how I felt about my son the very first moment I laid eyes on him.  I mean I thought I knew what love was before then, but it was nothing like what I felt for him.  And in that moment, when he was just a newborn baby I already forgave him for anything wrong he would ever do in his life.  Anything!  I loved him unconditionally.  Imagine how God loves us.  I mean I am just a weak, struggling human being and I could honestly have forgiven my son anything you could imagine, any sin at all.  Multiply that by about a thousand.  That’s God.”

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Keith G. Kondrich
Executive Director
The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul – Council of Pittsburgh
October 17, 2016