St. Lawrence Community Services assists people experiencing difficulties
Who is the stranger? Why should we help strangers? Good questions.
There are different meanings of the word “stranger,” according to biblical scholars. However, for the purpose of this article, a “stranger” is simply someone whom we haven’t met before—an unknown person.
As to the second question of why we should help a stranger, it is helpful to look to the Bible for an answer. Perhaps the passage that contains the answer that is most apt in this context is found in the Gospel of Matthew: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you as a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Mt 25:35-40)
The answer is clear. Treat the stranger as we would treat Jesus.
As members of the Diocese of La Crosse, we can take solace in the fact that St. Lawrence Community Services of Catholic Charities is always there to help “strangers,” just as we would help Jesus out of our love for God. We help others simply because we are all created in God’s image and likeness.
St. Lawrence and Emperor Valerian
One might ask why Catholic Charities adopted St. Lawrence as their patron saint for their community service outreach. St. Lawrence, a deacon and martyr of the early Church, lived 258 years after Jesus. He lived at a time when the emperor of Rome, Valerian, issued an edict to the Roman Senate that all Christian clergy—bishops, priests and deacons—were to be arrested and executed. Subsequently, St. Lawrence, along with the bishop of Rome, Sixtus and others were arrested and beheaded. Why?
According to Christian tradition, Deacon Lawrence, knowing that the fervor of Valerian’s hatred extended to all Christians who owned property, began to give it all away. He distributed the money and treasures of the Church to the poor people of the city, believing in the words of the Savior that they were blessed and loved by Him. Consequently, Lawrence denied Valerian the means to capture for himself the earthly riches held by the Church. This, however, angered Valerian deeply, and Lawrence had to face the consequences of his actions, but he remained steadfast in his faith in Jesus.
Although people in our society are not now facing persecution like the Christians of Valerian’s time, many are still facing financial challenges. St. Lawrence Community Services helps people in the diocese regardless of their religious beliefs, ethnicity or background. They provide services such as finding homes for the unhoused, housing counseling, disaster recovery, financial education, a food pantry, a men’s clothing closet, an overnight shelter for those without homes and financial assistance to struggling families and individuals.
Catholic Charities Assisting the Community
As part of Catholic Charities’ mission, Shannon Parker, the coordinator of St. Lawrence Community Services and representative payee programs, manages and supervises various outreach activities. Shannon has been an integral part of Catholic Charities for almost 18 years, starting as an intern in the emergency services program. At the time, the program provided monetary assistance to those in need. To apply, individuals had to fill out a short application form, which was then evaluated. The top five highest-scoring families would receive $100 per week.
Shannon decided to intern at Catholic Charities while she was enrolled in the Professional Social Work Program at Viterbo University. Later, when a full-time position became available, she applied and was hired. As a mother with a two-year-old and two older children, she appreciated the flexibility and understanding of Catholic Charities in accommodating her family situation. “I really enjoyed working with my supervisor and other co-workers,” Shannon said.
More than Money
Shannon finds the back-to-school program particularly rewarding. It is their largest program, which utilizes volunteers and partnerships to ensure that children get the necessary school supplies for their education. “Last year, we held five back-to-school events. It is a huge undertaking,” Shannon said. “We helped more than 900 students.” Shannon emphasized that their partnership with Midwest Family Broadcasting, an independently owned radio broadcasting company based in Madison, was instrumental in bringing in other organizations in the community to help raise monetary donations and acquire school supplies. The YWCA, Boys and Girls Club, County Health Department and other organizations were among those that contributed. This partnership also led to discussions about other events that could be organized to assist families and children. Consequently, the County Health Department began providing services such as immunization checks, hearing and vision checks, skin cancer screenings, teeth sealants and haircuts.
Shannon emphasized the importance of understanding that focusing simply on handing out money to families would not address the root causes of the financial challenges they face. “To achieve this, we combined our financial counseling program with our emergency services program, creating the St. Lawrence Community Services Program,” Shannon said. With this combined program, they aim to equip individuals and families with adequate resources and confidence to move forward toward a sustainable future. Ultimately, the St. Lawrence Community Services Program seeks to empower individuals and families to overcome financial difficulties and achieve long-term stability.
Serving “The Stranger”
Barb Lee has been volunteering with Catholic Charities for 11 years. She works at the food pantry, a job she has had from the beginning. She said, “When I started, everything was located at Holy Cross Diocesan Center. I sat at the front desk and answered the phone. I would sign people in who came for the food pantry or the men’s clothing closet. I really enjoyed the work and meeting people. I learned much about what Catholic Charities does—so much more than I ever thought. When the food pantry and men’s clothes closet were relocated to downtown La Crosse, I followed. I greet people, take them to get their food items, assist people with limited mobility and even stock grocery shelves.”
Over the years, Barb has gotten to know people in the community who come to the food pantry who are in need. She said, “I enjoy meeting all the people. Many street people come in, and some of them are battling numerous different things in their lives. There was one gentleman, some years ago, who really struggled with trying to overcome his addictions. He was the nicest person in the world. For me, just seeing and getting to know the people who come in as people, especially him, was special. I even went to his funeral when he passed away. You get to know how people really struggle. You understand how many of them want to change their life. It’s just nice to know that we can at least be there to help—to encourage them, perhaps shelter, perhaps food—something to stretch their budgets.” For Barb, it’s not just about providing people with food, but it’s also about making a difference in their lives.
Barb shared a meaningful experience from her time as a volunteer at the food pantry. “It happened shortly after I had started volunteering. One day, while at the public library, I saw a lady who frequently visited the food pantry. She saw me and a huge smile lit up her face. She came over and hugged me, which made me realize that the little bit I do impacts others.”
The staff and volunteers of St. Lawrence Community Services embrace the stranger, and it is through the interaction of strangers in need with people like Shannon Parker and Barb Lee that perhaps they become strangers no more.
It’s just nice to know that we can at least be there to help—to encourage them, perhaps shelter, perhaps food—something to stretch their budgets.” For Barb, it’s not just about providing people with food, but it’s also about making a difference in their lives.”
(L-R) Shannon Parker and Barb Lee
Story by Robert Rogers
Photography by Danelle Bjornson
Published in the January/February 2024 issue of Catholic Life Magazine