The Rev. Joseph Muth, a parish priest, often feels drained combating drugs, crime and poverty in his inner-city Baltimore parish. Like a lot of people who minister to poor communities, he has only so much money, so much energy, so much time.
This week, the priest got a spiritual boost at a five-day, first-ever forum for Catholic priests, clerics and lay ministers whose jobs are on the front lines of poverty.
There were no outside experts. The experts were the 125 participants themselves. By sharing their experiences, they learned how to combat problems of isolation, burnout, severe stress and financial crisis at the forum, entitled "Empowering Those Who Empower the Powerless," at Catholic University.
The trenches for the clergy are homeless shelters, soup kitchens, health clinics, literacy centers and other places that provide the basics for the poor in rural and urban America. The forum participants came from diverse economic and racial backgrounds east of the Mississippi River in what planners hope will be the first of several such events around the country.
"It's important for us to come together and encourage each other in the work that we do," said Muth, of St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Church in east Baltimore. "There's an unending parade of problems that come to your door on a daily basis . . . . You're not the only one out there, but sometimes we kind of feel we're isolated."
Many of the participants left with an arsenal of practical skills in empowerment. But they also said they gained a collective sense of what the nation's powerbrokers should be doing to help the powerless -- and what the church should do.
"Many of them feel there should be more financial and moral support from the church," said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Sullivan, of Brooklyn, where 25 percent of the people live below the poverty line. "They are people of hope and see God in the concrete experiences of their daily lives. They are in solidarity with the people they work with. They are looked upon as being a saint and being impossible to follow, or a nut that should be dismissed."
The forum was sponsored by the Campaign for Human Development, an anti-poverty program of the United States Catholic Conference. Every year, the program funds about 200 organized groups of poor and low-income people. The groups range from the homeless to residents rehabilitating vacant housing and parents trying to improve their children's schools.
The hope is that the forum participants will return to their communities and help organize the poor into groups that might be eligible for the campaign's financial support, according to James R. Jennings, associate director of the campaign.
During the forum, the clerics listened to one another's stories and hopes, to what keeps them going and what brings them down. They talked about how to energize poor people who are apathetic or frightened and how to network among themselves. Most had an uplifting story.
Sister Mary Lorraine Agotte left her home in West Hartford, Conn., and moved to a mountain community in southern Kentucky, where she started a low-income health clinic for people who don't have medical coverage.
"It's one of the poorest counties in Kentucky, but I find I get more than I give," she said.
Ignacios Contreras Sr., a deacon at St. John the Baptist Church in the Diocese of Toledo, said he encourages his middle-income congregation to provide clothing and food to impoverished vegetable farmers.
"We've got to unite the people from the city and the farm," Contreras said. "We need each other to work as a team to better the lives of everybody."
Betty Bullen, a pastoral administrator who works with jobless women in rural northeastern North Carolina, was heartened to find a new support system at the forum. "I live in a small place but now I'm connected to people all over the country. I'm not working alone."
Cyprian Rowe, of the Marist Brothers religious order in Baltimore, said the plight of the poor seems low on the nation's agenda, but reminded the group of hope's power. "Hope is the capacity to make the Lord's vision our vision," Rowe said.