In the Seminary I was blessed to get to know some great priests. One of them really gave me a heart for the poor. He was the priest that first took me to Africa and has inspired my continued service to the poor around the world especially through Catholic Relief Services. Fr. Don Dunson was the moral theology teacher and he was also in charge of some of the service work at the seminary. For many years he faithfully went to the West Side Catholic Center every Wednesday morning to serve the poor, the homeless and the unemployed. He recently shared with me two of his most memorable stories.
Once when he was there early on, he was working at the side door, which is where you “drop off” donations. He described how he was standing there with two tall dark, African American men, and they were looking out at the snow. It was a beautiful scene, as he describes, the snow was falling and covering the dirty streets, rusted out cars, and boarded houses. He turned to the black men and very candidly said: “Everything looks better in white doesn’t it?” The men looked at him and said: “Father, not everything looks better in white!”
Fr. Don is such an innocent man that he doesn’t see the color of people... he really treats people the same the rich and the poor alike, American or African, student or priest. I know this because my first year in the seminary I got to watch Fr. Don in action. As I mentioned I was blessed not only to go with him to Africa, but was blessed to serve with him every wednesday during my first year of seminary. I have to say that this was a very hard thing for me at first. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the West Side Catholic Center or to a place that serves the homeless, but you really never know what you are going to get.
I grew up in the suburb of Parma and barely ever went “Downtown” growing up. And here we were going into the City and would be serving strangers that I had never met. I learned that first year that these were not strangers, they were friends that I hadn’t met yet, they were really my brothers and sisters as Fr. Don would refer to them. I learned this by watching Fr. Dunson. I watched how naturally and easily he just served them. And he was himself... he would laugh with them, he would comfort them, he would hug them, he would listen to them, sometimes he would even stop serving them and just eat with them.
The second story he tells is what he describes as the best compliment he ever received. There was a man at the Center who was homeless, he was mentally disabled, and very honest and forthright. Now, understand that when Fr. Dunson went to serve, he often did so without wearing his clerics. He didn’t do this because he was ashamed of the priesthood, just the opposite, he loves being a priest. He went in plain clothes so as not to put on a show. He didn’t go for the glory of “look I’m a priest and I’m going to serve you so everybody can see...” He did it in a very hidden way, only the staff that had been there really knew who he was. Fr. Don said that he received his best compliment ever from this mentally disabled man... he said to Father... “Hey man, I know you are not a priest, but I have got to tell you something, you sure act like a priest.” He said, “That’s the best compliment I’ve ever received.”
You see he didn’t have to be seen by what he wore, it was who he was, the glory of his priesthood shined through. I think the same is with us: it’s not about being seen, it’s not about being glorified, it’s not about what we wear or what our title is, it’s not about being in the spotlight or coming off looking holy, it’s about stepping down. When we do step down and humble ourselves and genuinely serve, the glory shines through.
In today’s gospel James and John seek the glory without the service:
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him,
"Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."
He replied, "What do you wish me to do for you?"
They answered him, "Grant that in your glory
we may sit one at your right and the other at your left."
They were seeking glory. They wanted to sit at the most important seats and be associated with his glory. But Jesus came to reveal something different to us. He came to reveal that truly Glory shines through genuine service.
Jesus summoned them and said to them,
"You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles
lord it over them,
and their great ones make their authority over them felt.
But it shall not be so among you.
Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.
For the Son of Man did not come to be served
but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."
God came into our world not to be served, but to serve. Imagine that, Jesus who was the glory of God came not in full regalia, but as one of us, an almost hidden God whose glory shines through.
We are all called to be priestly people, but like Fr. Don, we don’t need to do it for the glory, we don’t need to do it to be seen, we simply need to be ourselves and serve one another. If we do so humbly and authentically, the glory will shine through.
This model of Jesus raises very important questions for us: “What’s your approach to sevice?” “How do you find yourself when you are in a role of service?” “Do you find yourself serving others or expecting yourself expecting to be served?”
Have you been blessed by someone who has modeled service in your life? Have you ever had an experience of service where God’s glory shone through you? What’s your approach to service?
Where are you most called to serve? At home? At Work? At School? In the City? In Africa? In El Salvador? Have you ever had this experience of serving the homeless, the poor, the needy?
How do you respond when your service to others goes unrecognized? Have you ever wanted to be noticed or praised for what you do? How do you treat the people that you are called to serve?
Could people say the same thing about you: “I know you’re not a priest, but you sure act like one.”? If you’ve never had the opportunity to do this we have great opportunities for service right here in cleveland and if you are outside of this diocese go to your diocesan web page and I’m sure you can find many organizations.
Every parish has it’s own St. Vincent de Paul (Vincentions or some other name). Maybe God is calling you to serve the poor right in your own neighborhood.
Right here in Cleveland we have the West Side Catholic Center, a program called Labre, We have the St. Joseph Homeless Shelter here in lorain, and our diocese has the largest Catholic Charities in the entire country. Right here in Cleveland we do more social outreach than anywhere in the entire world!
Maybe, God is calling you to even go farther! Have you ever throught about going on a mission trip? Many parishes offer them. Our Diocese is also blessed to have the Cleveland Latin America Mission Team that serves in El Salvador. St. Joseph in Amherst is planning on their first mission trip in March. There’s also an amazing program called Labre, which three of our schools now participate in (St. Ignatius, Walsh, and John Carroll) “After you touch the wounds of those in the city tonight, there’s no looking back. Cleveland will never look the same again.” – James Skerl ’74, theology teacher and co-founder of the Labre Ministry.”
You may feel uncomfortable at first, you may not feel very graceful, but if you are truly yourself and place yourself with the poor, simply serving, the glory will shine through.
I so admired that this priest humbled himself and served. He did this every week faithfully. And what I found most wonderful about him is that the priesthood shined through. The same is true for all of us. By genuinely serving, without expecting any recognition, God’s glory will shine through.