“Not the pastoral year experience I imagined but after three months of being here in Mississippi, I wouldn’t have it any other way”. A social experience in the United States at the time of the pandemic.
Since 1942, Sacred Heart Southern Missions (SHSM) has been an apostolate of the Priests of the Sacred Heart (SCJ) U.S. Province in Mississippi. They serve in four counties (DeSoto, Marshall, Tate, and Tunica) and have six social service offices to aid clients and their families with emergency assistance (food, clothing, and utilities), skill development, advocacy, and much more for people living in poverty. In Hernando (a city within DeSoto county), they work closely with an organization called Interfaith Council on Poverty (Interfaith) which supports the area with food and special projects for children and seniors.
The social service offices participate in food ministries where clients are able to come and pick up food for their families. This ministry helps supplement families with food for their tables. In addition to the food pantries at our offices, SHSM has responded to the need of the community by hosting mobile food pantries throughout the area. Each of these pantries has helped hundreds of families during this time of COVID-19, isolation, and quarantine. Sacred Heart Southern Missions works closely with Mid-South Food Bank in order to make this happen.
This summer, between SHSM and Interfaith, they were able to help over 200 families, with over 500 children with backpacks and school supplies. With much unknown and anxiety, they aim to help children be prepared with supplies for this new semester of either in person, hybrid, or online learning. Other projects that will follow will include Thanksgiving Baskets and Angel Tree this upcoming winter.
Both SHSM and Interfaith believe in giving a hand and not a handout.
A Witness of Love
Although the 2020 U.S. Province Assembly “Called to Mission: Availability and Adaptability” was canceled earlier this year, I felt that I was able to experience this call to mission in availability and adaptability through my pastoral year. Earlier this year as the pandemic was waving out and uncertainties began, I had to look at alternatives to my Chilean plans, I had to be flexible and available. I was scheduled to go to Chile to learn Spanish, live and work with my confreres of the Chilean Province community, and to minister to the people of Chile for my pastoral year.
Mississippi came to mind as I remembered my first visit back in 2016. It turns out that I have been preparing for this role as a social service minister for SHSM way before I even knew what the role entailed. As a social service minister, I needed to step out of my comfort zone as I meet with clients and their families in order to assess their situation and see what we can offer to help support their families. This also reminded me of my experience as a Chaplain Intern last summer with CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio, TX as I made spiritual assessments as I saw patients and their families. There I worked on the gift of presence and availability with each person I saw.
For the last academic year before the pandemic hit, I worked with a local food pantry and soup kitchen in Milwaukee, where I was able to accompany people during their challenging times. I learned to see people as who they are and how they came. “With Open Heart and Open Mind” was the mission I had set out for myself as I carried the Dehonian spirituality in all that I ministered with. All of the experiences above helped shape the minister I am today.
Recently, I was given the opportunity to give presentations via online meetings to staff on the charism, history, and spirituality of the SCJs. There are many correlations and similarities between the SCJs and what Sacred Heart Southern Missions is about, this helped SHSM staff connect to the SCJs’ spirituality of mission and of being available to all those who we serve. Just as Fr. Leo John Dehon (founder) was struck by the injustice of poverty, SHSM aims to help those in need. I had a gentle reminder for our staff that there are a lot of people out there who need our help and that’s exactly what we’re here for.
Not the pastoral year experience I imagined but after three months of being here in Mississippi, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The daily interactions that I have with those who are struggling are sometimes challenging as I ask uncomfortable questions to truly assess their situation. I believe in ministering with care and love, but also at the same time, truly help them advance and get to a better place by asking these questions. Fr. Dehon wrote in his diary, “I would like to see no one come to us who does not leave a better person” and I strive to do just that in my ministry.
Even though I still hold the hope of going abroad for my Spanish immersion experience, I may need to face the reality soon that if not now, then later I would be able to have that experience. During this time, more than ever, I need to be looking at the signs of the time and respond with love and remain attentive to everything that is around me.