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My friend Bill Radigan is a fellow deacon who has chosen to walk with those touch by crime as part of the Friends of Dismas ministry. Below is a homily he recently preached that focuses on a number of interactions he has had with folks on the margins of our society. It speaks to the question of how we measure success in this type of ministry.

Please take a moment to read his reflections based on his years of experience and apparent failures.

 

“…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.             Jn 12, 24

 

A while back I had a rough week. I am sure you all know the kind. When all of a sudden you start to question the very purpose of everything you do. First came the disappointing news from the halfway house.  I had developed a strong relationship with a young man in his early twenties on parole, someone who had visited here and met with our Holy Spirit group. He had a terrific attitude. He had learned his lesson and was bent and determined to turn over a new leaf, to go back to school, to find a legitimate job, and to leave behind everything, all the friends and values, that had lead him to a life of crime. He was so pleased when he got his first job that he insisted on treating me to dinner at a popular Queen street diner. Well, the halfway house gave me the news that he just been arrested for robbing two banks. I asked the case worker if there might be some mistake. He said that they had seen the bank photo and while the image was a bit grainy it did look a lot like him. I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach.

Then, that same week, the headlines of the Toronto Star for days featured the trial of another fellow  I was visiting at the Don Jail. The story was deeply disturbing. He had done some horrible things. I was sorry I had even read it. But I had. So now, how am I supposed to visit with this man again, how can I  reach out to this person with any real sense of compassion and love?

And then, about the same time I was asked if I would like to participate in a study being done by a PhD student of Criminology at Carlton University. He would interview myself  and an ex-offender I was working with, both now and then again after one year to follow up on progress. And I guess that was when it really hit home for me. I realized that there were very few  I could think of that I had developed a strong relationship with in the last year who were still around to do the follow-up interview.

There was that nice fellow, quiet but articulate, who I frequently met with over coffee or pizza. He had been a regular at our Dismas Fellowship dinners until he was finally able  to leave the halfway house and live in his own apartment. I saw him twice again, soon after that. And then he disappeared. The last reported sighting of him from one of his caseworkers was on a downtown street, disheveled, and down from 230 pounds when I knew him, to about 110 – symptoms common to crack addiction.

And then there’s the homeless man, lovable on the inside but with a hard and crusty exterior. Always down on the world, he lives on the streets and is constantly moving from town to town or shelter to shelter. He never lasts very long in one place before he either gets fed up of them or they get fed up with him. He’ll still call me occasionally though you never know where from.

And the story goes on. You get the idea. So I got to the point where it all began to feel so senseless. All kinds of questions started to arise: What was the point of all this?  What difference was I really making anyway? How many people that I reach out to really want to be helped? How am I supposed to bring hope to those whose problems are often so chronic, their wounds so deep,  their spirit so broken, that they seem beyond healing ?

So for a while I was in a sorry state, discouraged and disheartened.

But I came to realize that the real problem was the way I had framed the whole situation. Somehow, this work had suddenly become all about me. What outcomes did I want? How much change must they make in their behavior before I felt my time was well spent? How much healing would it take for me to feel satisfied with my work?

Today’s Gospel teaches us that until we can remove ourselves as the focal point of our world, until we can truly ‘die to self’, then we can never fully allow God into our life.  As long as we insist on following our own personal agendas, and measuring our effectiveness using our own yardsticks of success, then we can only be left feeling disappointed, and even empty, in the end.

A focus on self may achieve many things: great comfort, or great power, or great fame, many  of the very things that tempted even Jesus in the wilderness. Yet, how many times have we heard stories of people who have achieved all those things and yet whose lives ended in personal despair and  tragedy. Sadly, it seems something vital was missing, something deep and sacred, something that gives us our true sense of purpose, something bigger than ourselves, and perhaps the only real source of  authentic joy.

Dying to self is a particular challenge in today’s culture, where instead of cultivating a deep and lasting  joy, we chase after temporary, manufactured highs. We develop  unhealthy obsessions for  things like shopping, food, drink, gambling, sex – any activity that allows us to ‘feel good’ for just a little while.

I don’t know why I was called to do what I do. And while it often doesn’t  produce the results that I would have liked, I have to admit that it is still enormously gratifying. I connect with a lot of good people, sometimes very intimately in their brokenness and pain,  that I would never otherwise have known. I see slices of life that I would never otherwise have experienced. It has given me a broader and much richer perspective on many things and certainly a greater appreciation for the blessings I enjoy.

No, it does not always make me feel ‘good’ but that’s not really the point is it?  And when I am able to put aside my expectations and simply focus on the person I am with,  to be present to them in their immediate needs without any agenda or conditions of my own, that’s when I re-discover the joy and satisfaction that this work brings. And there really are a lot of little successes to celebrate along the way.

After I got through my little bout of discouragement I got a text message saying ‘Hi’ from my young friend who had  been arrested for the bank robbery. He was home again. Turns out another bank got robbed by the same person while my friend was still in jail, so he was no longer a suspect.

So who knows, maybe in a years time I will have someone to interview for that Carleton study after all.  But at least I know now that that’s not really the point!

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