In his pastoral letter Unleash the Gospel, Archbishop Vigneron reminds us that “effective witness to Jesus has these attractive qualities: joy, hospitality and generous service to the poor and the marginalized.” Further, in the section on “Evangelical Charity,” he points out that “our service to the poor and marginalized needs to be a clear witness to Jesus our Lord, not mistaken for humanist philanthropy.”
The Archbishop makes it clear that serving those on the margins is a key component of being a “joyful, missionary disciple.” This aligns with Catholic Social Teaching and the example set by Christ, who perfectly demonstrated preferential option for the poor throughout the Gospels. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes the statement “when you give to the poor…” alluding to the fact that helping those most in need is a fundamental part of what it means to be a follower of Christ.
Yet, in our increasingly modern, fast-paced culture, less time and emphasis is placed on our God-given duty to serve and support the least among us. In our busy lives, we can sometimes forget that when we serve the forgotten in our communities we serve Jesus himself.
During Lent, we are called to renew our commitment to those most in need. Almsgiving — engaging in acts of charity towards the poor and marginalized — has been a traditional Lenten practice for centuries. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” tells us that almsgiving is a “witness to fraternal charity” and “a work of justice pleasing to God.”
This Lent, what if we elevated our almsgiving game? What if Catholics throughout the Archdiocese of Detroit truly embodied Jesus’ call to serve the poor as if he were being served?
Here are some creative ways you could elevate your almsgiving and service to those most in need this upcoming Lenten season:
Create homeless care packages and hand deliver them with a friend. It is a common sight driving around the Metro Detroit area: individuals holding signs indicating their homeless state and need for money. What are you supposed to do as a follower of Christ? While handing out cash and coins from the comfortable confines of your car is certainly generous, there is a better way to serve these people living on the streets. First, put together a homeless care package of physically and spiritually essential items. Purchase the largest Ziploc bag you can find and fill it with items like band-aids, sanitary wipes, beef jerky, gloves, gift cards to gas stations and more. Consider including a rosary, a guide on how to pray with it, a pocket Bible and even a personalized note indicating your prayers for the recipient of the bag. Rather than simply passing out the bags from your car window, consider hand-delivering them with a friend. Homeless people are often ignored and looked down upon. Engaging in a conversation and even praying with them could make an unexpected impact on them. If you and your friend are really in a charitable mood, share a meal with the individual at a nearby restaurant. Get to know their life story and reaffirm their God-given dignity as a fellow human being.
Help out as a team at a soup kitchen and invite your guests to a game. The deacon at my local parish once made the point that our priorities are reflected in our calendar. If we don’t schedule time for prayer or service, how can we claim to know God or the poor? Unfortunately, for many Catholic coaches, athletes and parents in our area, their busy sports schedule often prevents them from engaging in meaningful service to those in need. If you happen to be a coach, consider doing something a bit unorthodox if your sports season and Lenten season overlap. Call your athlete’s parents and let them know you want to substitute one or more of the practices with a service night at a nearby soup kitchen. Encourage parents to help out, but most important is the athletes’ involvement. The teens should be involved in every aspect of the meal from preparing the food and leading grace before the meal to serving the guests and even sitting down with them to enjoy a meal together. To make the dinner especially meaningful, coach the athletes on how to have a conversation with marginalized people prior to the meal. Finally, consider inviting your guests at the soup kitchen to your next game. Make sure to reserve a spot behind the team bench if possible and schedule time for mingling after the game.
If you don’t have much to give, document and share on social media the incredible work being done at local charities. It is not uncommon to see a slew of individuals announce their plans to give up social media on Ash Wednesday. Consider something different for your Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat presence for these upcoming 40 days of Lent, especially if you are short on funds. Southeast Michigan is filled with numerous charities that devote themselves to serving others, including many listed here on the Archdiocese’s Evangelical Charity Finder website. These organizations usually have some sort of social media presence but their true mission is to help others with pressing needs. Therefore, their Facebook or Instagram accounts often receive less attention than the people they serve, and rightfully so. That’s where local social media mavens come in. Commit to sharing each and every one of the organization’s posts throughout Lent. To take it up a notch, call the charity of your choice and volunteer your social media services for just a few hours each week. Take photographs on site and create posts that focus on the individuals who form the backbone of the given organization, providing details about the daily work they do. You might even want to consider including a direct link to donate money. In doing so, you will be spreading awareness about the incredible services they provide to their respective communities and perhaps raise money for the charitable organization as well.
Start an almsgiving competition in your school or family. Growing up as a Catholic school kid, the only thing I really remember about almsgiving during Lent was the Rice Bowl program. Most years I would dump a handful of coins into the foldable cardboard box just before it needed to be turned in. Admittedly, there was little intentionality that went along with it. To get teens and younger kids to engage in meaningful almsgiving, teachers and parents alike can initiate a friendly competition. In a classroom setting, have the students research various charities in the Metro Detroit area. Prompt them to vote on which one is their favorite and group the students accordingly. Then encourage these groups to commit to praying, fasting and — as a fruit of the previous two actions — giving alms to their selected non-profit organizations. Monitor the group’s progress weekly throughout Lent by having them share how they are praying for their particular charity, asking them what they have been fasting from, and counting the funds raised as a class. For the winning group and their respective organization, perhaps reward the entire class with a field trip after Lent to witness that charity in action. A creative variation of this competition could also work for a family with teens and younger ones at home. Parents could encourage their children to select their favorite local charity and pray, fast and give alms to that specific non-profit. By the end of Lent, whichever child has donated the most money to their particular charity, parents can subsequently double that individual child’s contribution or commit to a family volunteer day for the charitable organization.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta once said, “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.” These words of wisdom should prompt all of us in the Archdiocese of Detroit to reflect more deeply on how we are engaging in the act of almsgiving. Are we going through the motions without much thought, intentionality or concern? Or are we supporting and serving others with creativity, authentic joy and sacrificial love? If we are truly serving Jesus when we serve the poor and most vulnerable in our midst, we should strive to elevate our almsgiving game this Lent.