“Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor.”
Story and photography by Dianne Towalski
Growing up in Hawaii, Cyrilla Bauer experienced poverty first-hand. Her experience makes her keenly aware of it and motivates her to help the poor in her community. “I have to say that I’ve lived the homeless, I’ve lived the starving, I’ve lived the abandonment from my parents, things like that,” said Bauer, now a parishioner of Holy Cross in Onamia. “So, I don’t really think about it. If I’m doing some good, I just do it.”
She also sees poverty in her work. Bauer has served the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe for more than 20 years, most recently as a community resource specialist working to help people who are experiencing homelessness or just coming out of addiction treatment or prison.
Bauer is the coordinator and one of five core members of the Mille Lacs Area Social Concerns Committee, one of the many organizations in the diocese working to address the poverty they see every day.
“What I love the most about this social ministry group is how incredibly supportive the whole community — businesses, other organizations, the Mille Lacs Band — is in the different things, especially food services, they do in the area,” said Kateri Mancini, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud.
The group is organized by the WOHVn in Faith Area Catholic Community, comprised of Sacred Heart, Wahkon; Holy Cross, Onamia; St. Rita, Hillman; and St. Therese Little Flower, Vineland. It also includes other people from the surrounding community.
To ensure everyone feels welcome, the group’s name — Mille Lacs Area Social Concerns — was carefully chosen to include those who are members of other churches or no church at all.
“We take our inspiration from Matthew 25 in which Jesus says, ‘Whatever you did for those who were hungry you did for me,’” said Crosier Father Jerry Schik, pastor of the ACC’s four parishes.
“First and foremost you must respond to the needs of the poor and vulnerable,” he said.
In his message for this year’s commemoration of World Day of the Poor observed Nov. 19, Pope Francis wrote that Christians must become poor to recognize and address the poverty of others, like Tobit from the Hebrew Bible.
Tobit, a blind and elderly man who dedicated his life to the service of others, “can show practical concern for the poor because he has personally known what it is to be poor,” the pope said.
The theme is a passage from the Book of Tobit: “Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor.” Pope Francis wrote that “when we encounter a poor person, we cannot look away, for that would prevent us from encountering the face of the Lord Jesus.”
Much of what the Mille Lacs group does revolves around food: offering community meals, larger meals around Thanksgiving, food for kids during the summer, food delivery and even mobile distribution where there is the most need.
At a time “when many of our rural social concerns groups are dwindling in members or activities, [the Mille Lacs area group] continues to meet the needs of their community in a lot of ways,” Mancini said.
“To me it shows the importance of organizing and relationship-building alongside the service you offer to the community.”
The group began as a mission circle in 2010, but over the years it has narrowed its focus to address the problem of food insecurity, especially for seniors.
“We know from census data that 11 percent of the people in this area live in poverty, much higher than the average in Minnesota,” Father Schik said. “We have chosen to respond to this fact by doing what we can to help families stretch their household food budget.”
There are no grocery stores in the area. According to the Minnesota Department of Health website, large portions of the Mille Lacs Reservation and the surrounding area are considered a “food desert.”
“There were many different areas that we put our feet into, and we did a lot of work with the community at large to find out what the needs were,” said Marilyn Rhode, a longtime member of the group.
“What we ended up falling into was working with senior citizens, because we have a lot of seniors, mostly female, that are living off of their Social Security checks,” she said. “That Social Security check is less than a $1,000 a month for the majority of them, so that’s where an urgent need is.”
The group devotes much of its time to the Harvest of the Earth Community Dinner, a no-cost meal offered on the second Wednesday of each month. It coordinates volunteers from the wider community to donate food and serve the meal. The October meal, for example, was hosted by the Onamia Fire Department.
“We contact area businesses to see if they want to participate in providing a meal for the community,” Bauer said. “They will come in, prepare a meal, and the community knows to come in and partake.”
They are careful to include everyone in their invitation and don’t ask for donations at the dinner. There might be people that couldn’t afford to give anything, and they don’t want to draw attention to that, Bauer said.
“The poor are not visible, so therefore it’s easy to turn your face away,” Father Schik said, referencing this year’s theme for World Day of the Poor. “The poor person generally is ashamed of their status in society, so they don’t show their face.”
This story contains information from OSV News.