Parish volunteers and staff from western Oregon convened at the Archdiocese of Portland Pastoral Center last month to learn how best to talk about Catholic social teaching.
"You have a passion. We want to help you find your voice," said Matt Cato, director of the archdiocese's Office of Life, Justice and Peace.
The 50 parish advocates who came are among hundreds in the archdiocese who work on care for immigrants, non-violence, economic justice, environmental stewardship and the pro-life cause. They traveled from Portland, Beaverton, Gresham, Lake Oswego, Tualatin, Sherwood, Silverton, Eugene, Springfield, Tillamook and Brookings. All want to draw people to their ministry.
"It seems like the same small group of people all the time," says Maggie Jamieson of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego. "We want to build up those involved with justice."
Two Portland-based housing lobbyists gave advice.
"The way advocates carry the mission forward makes a big difference," said Janet Byrd of Neighborhood Partnerships. "You can influence what people hear by the way you say it."
Byrd told the group that being provocative will get in the way. The goal, she said, is to be heard.
Byrd and co-speaker Alison McIntosh told parish representatives to start with big ideas before getting to details. For example, they said, it's good to say something like, "We have a duty to protect one another" or "We need to leave the world better for future generations" before discussing housing policy or green building regulations.
"We need to use values to move our conversations forward," Byrd said.
Parish advocates also learned to link their causes to the benevolent community motif by evoking barn raising, filling sandbags against the flood or giving blood. On the flip side, Byrd and McIntosh urged church people to challenge what they characterized as inaccurate beliefs: "everyone his responsible for himself," "with hard work come rewards" and "the goal is equal opportunity, not equal outcome." The Great Recession, Byrd said, taught us that the American dream simply is not within reach for everyone.
McIntosh suggested that talking mostly about what is wrong will cause people to disconnect. Better to talk about solutions.
Parish justice workers said they face opposition from some quarters when they suggest that social justice is part of the faith. Others in the group advised finding ancient sources like Pope Gregory the Great, who once said that when we attend to people in need, we are giving them not what its ours, but what is theirs by virtue of justice. Quoting Pope Benedict's frequent statements on justice is a good strategy, others suggested, explaining that the retired pope is likely a favorite of some Catholics who don't yet embrace justice issues.
In an exercise to practice the skills, Joey and Mallory Beaudreau of St. Francis Parish in Portland ponder how to talk about the problem of unequal wealth. One option in their plan is to promote legislation giving tax breaks to worker-owned cooperative businesses. The whole economy, they reason, will be lifted if the middle class grows. Joey starts his pitch at the very, very beginning — "We believe God created everyone in his image," he says, moving on from there to say that workers will be more creative if they have more decision-making power.
Another workshop focusing on parish social ministry is set for 2 p.m.-6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 13, at Catholic Charities headquarters. Chris West from Catholic Relief Services will explain why Catholics use their voice for the voiceless.
A follow-up session by Byrd and McIntosh is set for 6 p.m.-8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 4, at the Pastoral Center.