By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Joseph, the brother sold into slavery in the Book of Exodus, was a victim of human trafficking. That startling reality captured the attention of 30 deacons and wives who participated in the annual Deacon Convocation of the Diocese of Davenport Oct. 19-20 at diocesan headquarters.
Associate Professor Matthew Coomber, an Old Testament expert who teaches at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, led the gathering on an examination of marginalized people in the Old Testament and the implication for ministry today.
“We like to utilize the excellent local teaching experts available at St. Ambrose,” said Deacon Mike Snyder, director of the diaconate. “After the Vision 20/20 Convocation we were interested in an evangelization topic for deacons and their wives, so we asked Dr. Coomber to speak about marginalized people in the Old Testament, and what they teach us about serving others. There are many types of evangelization. Since the deacons’ call is to serve, we wanted to focus on going first, then doing, as a means to teach about Christ.”
Coomber’s presentation taught Deacon Snyder, among other things “the many different ways people are marginalized…. Joseph was marginalized when his brothers sold him and the Ishmaelites took him to Egypt. His brothers had prejudice against him, he was trafficked and enslaved, exiled, rejected, was a minority in Egypt, perhaps sexually assaulted by his owner, falsely accused of a crime, imprisoned, and isolated from his family.”
Before delving into marginalization in the Old Testament, Coomber asked the participants to reflect on their call to or in support of the diaconate. Deacon Tony Mouzon of Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish in Muscatine spoke in small group discussion about the lung disease he developed six or seven years ago which has led to a ministry of prayer. He said his illness has taught him to “learn to do things God’s way and not Tony’s way.”
Deacon Dennis McDonald, also of Ss. Mary & Mathias, said his idea of service has changed. “It’s become more personal.” Prior to ordination, he served in more structural, board-level capacities. “Since my ordination six years ago, it’s been more dealing one-on-one with people. I feel more of a personal bond with people of my parish.”
That personal bond became evident the first day of the convocation as Deacon McDonald assisted Deacon Mouzon. The two deacons have forged a bond and a friendship.
Gwen Thompson, whose husband Deacon Ward Thompson was ordained 13 years ago in the Diocese of San Diego Diocese, said they work as a team in his ministry. “It has enriched our marriage so much,” she said. They are members of St. Mary Parish in Iowa City.
It’s a true vocation for me, along with being a husband and father,” said Deacon Lowell Van Wyk of St. Mary parishes in Oskaloosa and Pella. It’s my life now.”
Jane Kamerick, whose husband Deacon Ed Kamerick serves parishes in Melrose, Georgetown and Lovilia, offered a deacon’s wife perspective. “Deacons’ wives are sometimes a bridge from the parishioners to the deacon just as deacons are sometimes a bridge to the priest.”
Look, listen and share
The deacons also shared some of the challenges they face in ministry, such as spending time outside their comfort zone, life/work balance, making time for personal prayer, and dealing with parish politics.
Coomber referenced a book by Father Gustavo Gutierrez, an internationally known theologian and recipient of the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in 2016. In his book, “The Invisibility of the Marginalized,” Fr. Gutierrez identifies three core requirements for ministering to the marginalized: Look, listen and share.
The Old Testament provides plenty of examples of marginalized people and shows how God turns the world on its head. “The vulnerable are a priority, not the powerful,” Coomber said. While he focused on the Old Testament, Coomber noted that Christ chose not to be born a Roman but the son of Mary, a young, poor woman of a nation oppressed by the Romans. “Christ invites us to see the Hebrews in our life and bring them forward and gives us strength and support to change the world around us.”
Coomber asked the group, “What are the implications for reading the Bible?”
“It helps us to relate more effectively to the marginalized,” Deacon Thompson said. “We need to be concerned about the marginalized, to search them out,” Deacon McDonald said. “Reading the Bible influences your world view,” Deacon Van Wyk said. “Empathy is so important in dealing with people on the margins of society,” Deacon Dan Freeman of St. Andrew Parish in Blue Grass observed. It is important to “use language and words that are relatable to the people you minister to,” Deacon Steve Barton of Holy Family Parish in Davenport, said.
Deacon Jeff Schuetzle of Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton said he works with people with developmental disabilities. “They reveal to me who God is.” He has discovered in his ministry that the important thing many times “is just to be present with them.”
“It’s important to listen and to accompany,” Deacon McDonald said. Pick up groceries, take people to appointments, spend time with them, and when they want you to leave, you go.
In wrapping up the presentation on marginalization in the Old Testament, Coomber told the deacons and wives that he has a friend who uses the story of Joseph in her work to stop human trafficking. “The Bible is amazing; thousands of years later, it’s still speaking to us,” he said.
The persistent widow
Bishop Thomas Zinkula celebrated Mass at the Deacon Convocation and his homily reflected on the Gospel reading, the parable of the persistent widow, which offered insights for the topic of the convocation: marginalization.
Bishop Zinkula sees the widow as a God-like figure, someone “whom we are called to imitate.” Then the message of the parable becomes, “When someone persistently resists injustice, faces it, names it and condemns it – until the right thing is done – then that person is acting as God does.”
Widows were among the most defenseless and powerless persons in the ancient world … “but this lowly widow was able to get an unjust, powerful judge to rend a just decision.”
The bishop said justice was “Jesus’ mission — being in right relationship with others, restoring relationships, making things right for people who have been wronged. That’s what Jesus did; that is what the widow did and that is what we are to do.”
Takeaways from the Deacon Convocation
Several deacons shared with The Catholic Messenger takeaways from the Diocese of Davenport’s Deacon Convocation held Oct. 19-20 at diocesan headquarters.
Deacon Tom Hardie: “We have to be able to get into the trenches and not try to fix everything for people. Advocate for change.” He told a story about presenting the Order of the Mass, translated in Mandarin Chinese, to a Chinese parishioner. The parishioner’s grandchild politely informed the deacon that her grandfather did not read Mandarin Chinese. “Make sure you are doing what needs to be done and not what you think needs to be done,” Deacon Hardie said.
Deacon Joe Welter had a somewhat similar experience. St. Mary Parish in Iowa City has a number of Congolese parishioners who speak French. Deacon Welter suggested speaking one of the readings or prayers during Mass in French. A Congolese parishioner stressed instead the importance of learning to speak and read in English. Deacon Welter said he came away from the convocation with “a conviction to do more, to realize we are privileged and to try to relate to people whatever their circumstances are and not through our lens.”
Deacon Lowell Van Wyk relates his takeaway to a mission trip to Kentucky, serving people living in poverty. “Listen to what they need – look, listen and share. They deserve nothing less than the best we have to offer.” He also shared a story of bringing Communion to people in a nursing home. A confirmation student accompanied him on one visit. An older man seemed agitated, but when Deacon Van Wyk said the Lord’s Prayer, the man calmed down. The experience taught the confirmation student “the value of the Eucharist and the dignity of every human being,” the deacon said.
Deacon Terry Starns of St. Andrew Parish in Blue Grass, said the convocation helped him to appreciate even more the ministry of Father Bud Grant, who serves as sacramental minister for the parish. He treats each person with dignity and is welcoming. Being around the priest helps Deacon Starns to strive to do the same.
Deacon Ward Thompson: “Look, listen and share. That applies so much to the community outside our parish. When we’re walking around, we need to be attentive to the needs of the community so that people can be drawn to the church.”