By MARY ANN CASTRANIO, Staff Writer | Published November 1, 2007
The first “Evening for Hope” began as so many endeavors of the St. Vincent de Paul Society do: with prayer.
The Atlanta conference commenced its first gala event at the end of September at the Cobb Galleria Centre with a prayerful, spirit-filled celebration of the Mass, followed by dinner and a program attended by some 320 Vincentians from around the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
The event, intended as a fundraiser to support the work of the Society in North Georgia, raised approximately $20,000 in sponsorships and numerous in-kind donations, according to Ruth Holmes, the SVdP communications and public relations manager. The group is an international, nonprofit organization devoted to helping people in need, and its volunteer members offer material, educational, emotional and spiritual assistance. The national chapter will celebrate its 175th anniversary in 2008.
While many such galas do not include a spiritual component, this one did. Those gathered were graced with a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Bishop-emeritus William Curlin of the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C. Also celebrating the Mass were Msgr. Joseph Corbett, one of Atlanta’s vicars general, Father Richard Tibbetts, pastor of St. Theresa Church, Douglasville, Father Theodore Book, director of the Office of Divine Liturgy, and Deacon Bill Garrett.
With joyful music provided by the renowned Our Lady of Lourdes Choir, directed by Dr. Kevin Johnson, the Mass provided a foundation for the evening’s celebration of the work of the Society.
Archbishop Gregory based his homily on the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, a fitting Gospel reading for the Mass. The parable, he said, “is a powerful lesson in the human tragedy of hearing and yet not listening, observing but not seeing, knowing while not understanding. It is a story that should frighten all of us because we live in a community where there are thousands of homeless people, vagabond folks who fill the streets and the public places of North Georgia.”
Archbishop Gregory praised the work of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, both in the archdiocese and around the world, as a “faithful response to the plight of Lazarus in our world. … We must all listen to the Word of God more attentively so that we can recognize Lazarus and learn how to care for him, how to love him.”
Among the attendees were many long-time volunteers with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which has served Atlanta since 1903. Volunteers such as Elie Jones, a charter member of the St. Paul of the Cross Church conference, have served the Society for decades. He is still active after 40 years, helping families in his area with weekly visits. Jones shyly mentioned that his chapter is still quite active in its work with those in need. “We get more out of it” than they do, he said.
Joe Wernert, another attendee at the gala, is one of the day managers at the Hapeville thrift store, one of eight stores operated by SVdP in the Atlanta area. A parishioner at St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro, he moved to Atlanta with the U.S. Army about 25 years ago and started volunteering with the Society soon after. At first he thought the work would be easy, “financial things, budgets, not hard!” All things he knew how to do. He went on home visits with his wife, Janice. After one such visit, Wernert said he found that his work with SVdP was more.
“It was about caring, about love,” he said.
A young woman he was helping came to stand beside his car unexpectedly and, with tears running down her face, said, “No one ever cared before.” Years later, Wernert remembers this moment with great emotion.
When he retired 10 years ago, he noticed a giant pile of black bags at the Hapeville store and started volunteering there to reduce that pile of donations. After a while, he found that the pile never seems to go away, which is good, he said. He’s found that work with SVdP is more than “a pile of black bags. … It’s about working on it and caring about people.”
After the dinner, the program included a brief talk from the Atlanta director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Jim Berry, who addressed the “twin themes of hope and celebration” selected for the evening.
“If faith is the strength and inner foundation of what we are, and love is the driving force that fires our soul and compels our work, then we look to hope as that which motivates us and directs our work.”
He mentioned the hopes of those who serve as Vincentians that “children will be able to go to sleep resting on a soft bed instead of a hard floor … those who are hungry will have food to put on their table … all will have the opportunity to better themselves and improve their economic situation … the homeless will have a place to call home where they can grow in love and togetherness.”
He asserted, “And we commit ourselves to what is still possible to do.”
Berry also mentioned the 104 years of service of the Vincentians in North Georgia and reminded attendees that “it is important that we note that our celebration is not for what we did or what we do. Our celebration is not about us. Instead our celebration is about acknowledging and praising God for his gift of grace and the many other gifts he bestows on us and allows us to do the things that we do.”
The keynote speaker for the gala was retired Bishop Curlin, who captivated the room with the tales of his long-time friendship with Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
He began by saying that he had always been a Vincentian and that something “compels me to do this work.”
Now 80, the quiet, unassuming bishop met Mother Teresa by happenstance early in his ministry. “She changed my life.” Teaching him through her example, she shared with him her beliefs about social action and the power of Jesus Christ.
Washing lepers without gloves, Mother Teresa told him, “I wash them with my heart.”
In viewing a “carpet of suffering people,” she said, “Look at Jesus, lying there, wanting to be loved.”
Bishop Curlin said that he learned from her that he had to take risks in working with the poor. She told him, “When I pick up a child or help someone, my hands are the hands of Jesus.”
He continued his inspiring message with a question, “Are we intoxicated by the wine of Jesus in our lives?” He said that Mother Teresa taught him “you have to realize that you are the living presence of Jesus.”
To the Vincentians he said, “What you’re doing, do it for the right reasons.” He urged them to pray and go to reconciliation and to see the purpose in life is to “bring Jesus Christ to (your) home, neighborhood and work.”
He closed with a question, “Do you do this for love? If you do, the world is yours.”
The close of the inspirational evening brought honors for four men who were presented with jubilarian awards by the Atlanta conference: Tom Coleman of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta, who has been a Vincentian for 56 years; Abelardo Guzman of Our Lady of Charity conference and a parishioner at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta, who joined the organization 40 years ago; Fred Hedges, who joined 57 years ago and is now an active parishioner at St. Matthew Church, Winder; and Alfredo Ledon, who is a Christ the King parishioner and also a long-time member of the Our Lady of Charity conference.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society of Atlanta includes 67 parish conferences serving the poor of North Georgia for over 100 years. More information about the Society may be found at www.svdpatl.org.