Social Justice and the New Evangelization: Perfect Partners

When I was invited to speak at a parish recently, I shared a story that my predecessor in Life & Justice Ministries, the late Larry DiPaul, loved to tell.

At the end of a family gathering years ago, Larry packed up some leftover lasagna in a Tupperware container to take home. Larry was a prolific coffee drinker, and he stopped at a 711 he often frequented on the drive back from his family’s house.

Outside the store, he saw a guy he called “711 Sam,” a homeless man who was almost always hanging out there. Larry had chatted with him in passing occasionally, and paused to talk on his way back to the car.

“How’s it going, Sam?” Larry asked.

“Not bad, Larry, not bad,” Sam replied. “But I’m pretty hungry tonight.”

A light bulb went off in Larry’s head.

“Hey, I’ve got some lasagna in my car. Would you like it?”

“Oh, sure, thank you, Brother Larry.”

Larry walked over to his car, grabbed the lasagna, and brought it back to Sam.

“Hold on just a second,” Sam said. He walked into the 711 and returned a moment later with two knives and two forks.

Larry didn’t understand.  “Why do you have two, Sam?” he asked. “Do you have a friend around?”

Sam held out one set to Larry.

“A meal goes a much longer way when you have someone to share it with,” Sam said.

And so they sat together on the curb and ate the lasagna together.

The phrase “social justice” means a lot of different things, depending on the context. From a Catholic perspective, one of my favorite definitions of the term is right relationship. Social justice is all about building relationships between people that reflect God’s dream for us – relationships marked by mercy, compassion, and mutual kinship.

Sam taught Larry an incredible lesson about right relationship that night outside the 711. At first, Larry saw Sam as a recipient of Larry’s own generosity. It was a one-way relationship: the giver and the receiver. Then, Sam’s surprising gesture shook Larry up and fundamentally altered their relationship. Sam and Larry became companions – a word that literally means those who break bread together.

Of course, social justice also includes political work to change the social structures that permit evils like poverty, hunger, abortion, and so many more. But as a priest friend of mine likes to say, “You can’t work to end poverty if you don’t know any poor people.”

Right relationship is also at the core of what the Church has termed “the New Evangelization,” which is an ongoing process that calls Catholics to share the Good News with new vigor in a world where so many are searching for meaning. The New Evangelization is all about deepening our relationship with Christ as friend and savior and deepening the relationships we build with one another as Church. This shared emphasis on relationship makes social justice work and the New Evangelization natural partners.

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For those in the Camden area…

The role of social justice ministry within the New Evangelization is the topic of two presentations Dr. Jonathan Reyes will lead here in the Diocese of Camden on Tuesday, December 9. He will explore how these two ministry priorities inform and encourage each other. A gifted teacher, Dr. Reyes is the executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Join us for either free event to reflect on how we, as individuals and as faith communities, can more effectively proclaim Christ’s Gospel of justice and love.

Dr. Reyes will lead two sessions on Tuesday, December 9: 1:30 pm – 3:30 pm primarily for parish staffs and volunteers, and 7:30 pm – 9:00 pm for a general audience. Both sessions will be held at Church of the Holy Family’s Aquin Center (226 Hurffville Rd, Sewell, NJ 08080). Admission is free. To register or for more information, please contact Norma Guzman at 856.583.6170 or norma.guzman@camdendiocese.org

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.