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Building Bridges


Editor’s Note: The following is part of our daily holiday series celebrating “The Shared World.” Fr. John Ullrich, OFM, is a close friend of FMS.

As a Franciscan friar who’s been professed for more than forty years, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to reach out and serve people in serious need, be it physically, economically, socially or spiritually. Whether ministering in hospitals, in shelters or soup kitchens, church communities or in the civic sphere, I’ve had ample opportunity to meet people and offer a helping hand.

More often than not, in these situations, I’ve been able to understand that my reaching out is also an opportunity to receive and to grow. Ultimately, I’ve learned to listen to the voice of people in need. They lead me to places that I never thought I could go, even to places that were sometimes daunting and scary.

One of the more challenging ministerial experiences along these lines was in downtown Hartford, CT, in the 1990’s. At that time, we friars were new to the scene.

We took a little while to explore and see what needed to be done. In a very broad sense, we were doing “street ministry”, that is, as Franciscans, we simply look out the window and try to understand what the real needs of people are, and then respond.

Being downtown, one of the real needs that we quickly discovered was the deep spiritual longing of people who worked – downtown centers are full of people who work. And people who work often feel alienated by their work.

So, we set out to find ways to meet working people, and minister to and with them. We gathered people to discuss and pray about how they connected their faith and their work. We developed retreats and seminars to provide deeper reflective opportunities for people to examine and enhance their faith as it is challenged by workplace issues.

We had regular meetings of people interested in understanding ethics in business (jokingly, often called an oxymoron!). We provided interfaith conferences for profession-based groupings of people on workplace ethics. We developed programs for unemployed people: interview coaching, résumé preparation, networking techniques and groups for personal support.

Within all of this, of course, we had the added benefit of gathering a very wide range of individuals, from CEO’s and senior managers, to administrative people, self employed people, entrepreneurs, and people who provided simple support functions.

But, because our approach was faith-based (and inter-faith based) and not based on status, seniority or economic standing, we saw people making amazing connections with each other and working with each other on a very positively human level.

Very simply, what made this work was the simple fact that we invited people to share their gifts, personal and professional, in a non-working environment, in a way that could help other people grow and develop personally and spiritually.

In the end, one of the things that I learned through all this is that bringing together a variety of constituencies of stakeholders, and engaging them on a human level, people learn that they can stretch themselves and find ways to help people, like themselves, in need.

Recall, that even Jesus ate with Pharisees and Francis dined in the homes of cardinals. I learned, once again, that the work of justice is not simply a matter of “serving the poor and marginalized,” but it’s also a matter of enabling people to engage with each other to make the world a better place.

From a faith perspective, it may be somewhat prophetic, or even subversive. It enables and invites people to “change”, to “convert”, to be “transformed”, to become the good person what we are all called to be.

Fr. John Ullrich, OFM

Fr. John Ullrich, OFM

Fr. John Ullrich, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province and a Priest. He lives at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, MD, ministering within the Franciscan formation program there, and serving part-time in several local ministries in the Washington, D.C. area.

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Franciscan Mission Service often invites guest writers to contribute to the blog. Contributors often include board members, formation leaders, Secular Franciscans, Franciscan friars and sisters, and other friends of the organization. If you would be interested in contributing, please contact info@franciscanmissionservice.org.