WASHINGTON (OSV News) – Efforts to help women and children thrive, across all stages of human life, need to be interpersonal and in collaboration with different ministries, panelists said at a Jan. 29 plenary session for the 2023 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington.
Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that in order to help mothers and children thrive as a way to build peace, "we really have to think about the root causes of the violence and the poverty that we see all around us."
Addressing and responding to these causes takes an all-hands-on-deck approach, he said.
"You have to coordinate, work together across church lines and across ministerial lines," said Archbishop Lori. "This means that parishes have to be more than houses of worship, but be beacons of hope. And Catholic schools have to be more than places of education, but really a lifeline for kids in need."
At the gathering's "Salt & Light" plenary, panelists discussed the importance of encountering, listening and accompanying women and children in their ministries.
Sr. Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Brownsville, Texas, talked about the church's support for women and children through the accompaniment of migrants and refugees at the southern border.
"What we were seeing was children, mothers, innocent people that were so vulnerable and completely destroyed, and they were in our community," said Sr. Pimentel, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus.
The response from the church, alongside people from all faiths in border cities, to the humanitarian crisis at the border came from the need to care for the person in front of them, she said. Working alongside the community, they are able to provide basic resources such as food and clothing and, in some cases, medical assistance.
"We are restoring human dignity," she said of the ministry, which has helped tens of thousands of individuals since that first day.
For Ogechi Akalegbere, a community organizer and the director of youth and young adult ministry at St. Rose of Lima Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in the Archdiocese of Washington, addressing women's and children's needs requires an understanding of the systems that keep people in poverty and of intersectionality.
"What affects women affects Black women or Hispanic women detrimentally more. What affects children affects Black and brown children detrimentally more," she said. "And the margins will continue to exist unless we eliminate them."
Akalegbere shared insights about her work on racial equity, how faith calls people to do justice, and how community organizing empowers families to access resources so their children can thrive.
One of the many examples she gave came from her work with Action in Montgomery, an organization funded by a grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the U.S. bishops’ domestic anti-poverty initiative. They secured after-school enrichment programs at schools serving low-income students to support families and children at a crucial age for their learning and development.
At the plenary, Akalegbere encouraged people to be "peacemakers for justice" who put their faith in practice and to move beyond just inspiration to concrete action.
"A church that is pro-life has to address all of the issues that speak to human flourishing at every stage," Archbishop Lori said.
"When we think about pro-life, we sometimes think of it as being in a box. But it's really part of a continuum of accompaniment," said the archbishop and former chairman of the USCCB's Committee on Pro-Life Activities. "There is a solidarity and a network of relationships that has to follow mother and child."
Archbishop Lori hailed the USCCB's Walking with Moms in Need as one of the "most effective and most important pro-life initiatives" around, because it enables parish communities to get to know the moms and connect them with services based on their needs.
Panelists also discussed challenges to their work, such as the fear of the "other," the church's divisions, the danger of working in silos, the lack of good explanations about Catholic social teaching, the need to engage more people in ministry and service, and fighting indifference.
They also answered audience questions about how to encourage bishops to communicate on other issues within pro-life ministries, the importance of a father's role, addressing "uncomfortable" issues within a parish such as racism, and the need to do more to make single or divorced mothers feel welcomed and more accepted.
Akalegbere encouraged others to continue striving for justice and cautioned against getting too comfortable. "Christ is not asking us for comfort, and we're called to discomfort, and dismantling systems of racism -- dismantling systems that keep families apart, that harm women, that harm children, especially the youth that I see dealing with so many issues like mental health and stability in their households," she said.
"Catholic social teaching is not something that is on the fringes of our faith, but part and parcel to how we live through Christ," she added.
Archbishop Lori added that a ministry of listening and understanding would enable ministers to accompany mothers, children and society better.
"As we attempt and strive to minister across all the stages of human life, there is a sense that we are walking together, accompanying one another, and that the ministry is not something that we do to people or for people, but something that we do with people," he said.
Panelists agreed that having divisions among ministries is a luxury people cannot afford. Likewise, church divisions and an "us-them" mentality hinder the work.
"When we start to see ourselves divided, we divide ourselves more," said Sr. Pimentel. "We don't all have to agree on how we move forward, but we all have to agree that we're one."
Focusing on people's shared humanity is what would make a difference in the lives of women and children, Archbishop Lori said.
"Focus on the fact that we're called to love one another," Sr. Pimentel said. "We're called to welcome our brothers and sisters, especially being present to them. And that's the message our Holy Father continuously encourages us all to be a welcoming community."
Sr. Pimentel encouraged ministers to nourish their faith daily to commit fully to serving others. She compares it to giving God a "blank check.
"We must always be ready to give ourselves when God needs us," she said. "We must all commit ourselves to radically turn this place around."