Media CenterCarolyn Woo's CNS Column - Get Personal

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My friend Sister Maura, CSC worries about my travels to risky places for Catholic Relief Services. On the other hand, I marvel at how this soft-spoken and diminutive nun of 90 provides medical care in the toughest local neighborhood to which I have never travelled alone. 

While CRS abides by strict security protocols, there is no greater "protection" than that offered by our local communities. Beneficiaries and staff know each other as people with names and families, quirks and humor, unspeakable losses and stubborn hope. Sr. Maura, too, knows the residents of her neighborhood: the man whose high school football and work injuries left him in constant pain leading to a succession of drug overdoses, then the loss of purpose. She has known a biker wrapped in heavy metal chains since he was in grade school who is now trying to help his mother whose abuse he witnessed back then. They pose no threats to her, they are just friends whose lives are difficult.

Getting personal as in engaging and knowing each other underlies Pope Francis' urging for a culture of encounter. He speaks against the tendencies to intellectualize, judge, dismiss, and demonize THE poor, THE unemployed, THE undocumented migrants, THE ...... These are categories of social construction with statistics, theories, precedents, antecedents and solutions that delineate costs and benefits. Too often they are devoid of faces, stories, pains, dreams. That need not be the case. An ad on TV features an insurance company distinguishing itself as not only assigning a number to the policy holder, but also knowing the story of the individual and holding her dream in trust! An unlikely source to illustrate a papal teaching, but the message is clear enough: encounter is personal. 

An excellent essay by Benjamen Durheim lists the four elements which theologian Karl Barth sees as essential for human encounter. The first is face to face interaction by which we are both seen and see, eye to eye as equals, without class or power distinctions. Noted in The Face of the Other by Emmanuel Levinas (preeminent philosopher also referenced by Pope Francis), "The expression the face introduces into the world does not defy the feebleness of my powers, but my ability for power." As we behold the face, we see infinite qualities not reducible to simple categories and labeling. 

The second element requires us to talk and listen or to dialogue, another favorite suggestion of Pope Francis. Shared expressions involve self-disclosure and receptivity of the other. In encounter, we seek to know and be known. Words spoken and heard establish the I to Thou and the Thou to I.

The third element calls for assistance: we act for the wellbeing of another person. We do not just see, listen and speak; we act. Barth sees that we can only become human in relationship to the other. Through assistance, we are not simply with the other, but for the other. 

For the final element, Barth cites the spirit of gladness as the orientation that enables all the other elements. Our encounter with each other is marked by God's gladness in His encounter with us. Anything less, to Barth, does not qualify as encounter, but a mere accident of life.

So when you next serve at the homeless shelter or deliver canned goods for the local food pantry, take time to stay and join the residents for lunch, or bring a pot of coffee to let the aroma seduce a conversation with a dad collecting food supplies for his family. All encounters with the other, acknowledged or not, are encounters with God. These are, therefore, holy, sacramental. They all start with the personal. 

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Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo is the president & CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. This article is part of her ongoing monthly column, Our Global Family, written for Catholic News Service. You can follow Dr. Woo on Twitter at @WooCRS.

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