St. Martha-Infant Jesus flock fosters social justice
Last March during Lent, 30 people filed into St. Martha’s parish hall knowing only that they had made reservations for something called a “hunger banquet.”
Upon arrival, participants were randomly given a card – each one listing a different country – and directed to a corresponding table:
• The “First World” table, whose affluent nations comprise just 10 percent of the world’s population, was the banquet’s smallest seating area, with three chairs.
• The “Second World” table, symbolizing 30 percent of the world’s population, had nine spots.
• The “Third World” table” had the largest number of seats, its 18 chairs mirroring the Third World’s 60-percent share of the global head count.
“The First World (diners) basically got fed a feast – they had meatballs and spaghetti, salad, bread, tea, water, dessert, seconds if they wanted it; there were candles and flowers on the table,” explained banquet coordinator Rene Ronquillo, going on to describe the Second World table’s less extravagant spread of a small piece of meat and mixed vegetables.
“The people sitting at the Third World table got rice and water,” added Ronquillo. “They had to share, potluck-style. They used tortillas as utensils.”
Real ‘pangs’ of awareness
The interactive Lenten event, based on a model designed by Catholic Relief Services (CRS), was organized by the new Justice and Life Ministry at St. Martha-Infant Jesus of Prague Parish in Harvey.
It didn’t take long for the meal’s lessons to resonate with diners, said the ministry’s founding team of Ronquillo, St. Martha Deacon Terry Manieri and his wife Dottie.
“I think it built an awareness of how many people in the world go to bed hungry every night. You hear about the population percentages – 10, 30, 60 – but until you see it (represented) in one room, it doesn’t hit home,” said Deacon Manieri, noting that diners were encouraged to continue their fast at home to remain in solidarity with their hungry brothers and sisters.
Ronquillo recalled how one participating mother, sitting at the First World table, wanted desperately to go to the “Third World” to give her son something to supplement his paltry meal.
“That’s very symbolic of what we would do to feed our kids,” Ronquillo said. “She just wanted to bring him a piece of bread, but many mothers cannot do that.”
Although less than a year old, the ministry of 17 active members already has provided numerous prayer-based and hands-on opportunities for parishioners to dip their toes into the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching.
For example, to ensure that the needs of the marginalized are remembered at every weekend Mass, the ministry supplies St. Martha’s Liturgy Committee with a social justice-related Prayer of the Faithful.
On the Friday night preceding the Lenten hunger banquet, ministry members led a social justice-focused Way of the Cross in which each leg of Christ’s passion and death was connected to the struggles of actual residents of the developing world.
“Our parishioners said it was different, but different in a good way,” said Deacon Manieri of the special Way of the Cross, which also was provided by CRS. “We made copies of the prayers so everybody could follow along.”
The solidarity-building power of prayer was also the focus of the ministry’s inaugural event in February: a trilingual rosary, recited in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, featuring a meditation on poverty between each decade of Hail Marys.
In anticipation of Labor Day, the Justice and Life Ministry will present another multi-lingual rosary on Sept. 1 at 6:30 p.m. at St. Martha Church. This time, the meditations will focus on the dignity of work, and a fourth language will be featured – Kreyol (the Haitian version of French) – in acknowledgment of the West Bank’s Haitian community. A concluding social will provide resources from Catholic Charities for those struggling to find employment.
Promotes parish pantry
The Justice and Life Ministry also acts as the parish’s umbrella organization for endeavors related to the dignity of human life, coordinating events such as the annual trip to Baton Rouge for the Louisiana March for Life, 40 Days for Life, the Baby Bottle collection benefitting ACCESS Pregnancy Centers and initiatives aimed at alleviating hunger and homelessness.
After brainstorming what it could do to assist Infant Jesus of Prague’s 30-year-old food pantry for the hungry, the ministry initiated a monthly collection drive in which Mass-goers can leave donations of non-perishable food, diapers, clothing and other supplies inside St. Martha Church’s vestibule every second Sunday.
“People go hungry all year; it’s just not once a year at Thanksgiving or Christmas,” said Ronquillo, noting that giving parishioners a consistent monthly donation date has substantially increased the pantry’s stockpiles.
Bags of hope
Another hunger-busting effort involves the making of “Hope Bags” – lunch-size paper bags parishioners fill with items such as bottled water, granola bars, toiletries and socks, to offer, in lieu of money, to those who approach their cars. Ronquillo said the bags have been a hit with parish families, who have been known to go the extra mile by decorating the bags and inserting prayer cards and notes of encouragement.
“The idea is to get our parishioners engaged, not just limit the work of social justice to those of us who are (formal members of the ministry),” said Ronquillo, noting that although the ministry provides empty paper bags for the outreach effort, the burden is entirely on parishioners to fill the bags, keep them in their personal vehicles and hand them to those in need.
“The idea is to actually have an encounter with someone in need,” Ronquillo said. “You can’t just write a check!”
A ministry is born
To get the ministry off the ground, the co-founders, with the permission of their pastor, Father Lich Van Nguyen, invited all parishioners to a six-part introduction to the principles of Catholic Social Teaching.
Using a formational template they had acquired at a Philadelphia “Year of Encounter” conference honoring Pope Francis’ trip to the United States, the ministers presented 90-minute sessions on poverty, immigration, the criminal justice system and racism.
Each session incorporated Scripture, discussion, outside readings and videos. Live testimonials from the marginalized themselves – immigrants, the formerly incarcerated, the homeless and the formerly homeless – elevated the teachings from an academic exercise to real-life encounter.
“We’re in this little bubble,” Dottie Manieri said. “We are trying to make the larger parish aware of the needy, the marginalized – those who don’t have what we have.”