The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is known as a global force for good because of the services and human kindness they provide to people in need. Michael Vanderburgh is now helping to further that mission even more in his Dayton, Ohio community by becoming its executive director there.
It’s a job he took because he felt drawn to it as a Catholic. But Michael is also someone whose faith journey has not been a straight line because he is a survivor of child sexual abuse by a priest. His struggles, however, have made him the perfect person to help those in vulnerable situations.
During an interview on “Christopher Closeup,” Vanderburgh explained that the society originated in the 1800s with Blessed Frederic Ozanam who, inspired by St. Vincent de Paul’s commitment to helping France’s poor years earlier, formed this new group to live out the corporal works of mercy in the streets of Paris.
Today, the Society is active in nearly 150 countries, and includes 700,000 members that make up 44,000 conferences – mostly based in parishes – around the world.
Vanderburgh oversees Dayton’s 32 conferences in which Vincentian volunteers commit their lives to accompanying and serving the poor, keeping them in their homes if possible, and running food pantries. A more unique feature is that the Society in Dayton also runs the community’s two homeless shelters.
“On a typical day,” says Vanderburgh, “we’ll have over 400 people that we’re housing – and anywhere from 60 to 100 children among those folks. Thankfully, most of them have short stays, but some of them don’t; some of them have chronic issues that keep them in the homeless state. As many as 80% of them self-identify with mental illness, and so we’re very privileged to be there to serve them.”
Recently, a family came to the Society because the 11 members of their household were facing eviction. The Society not only helped them stay in their home, but also guided them in seeking assistance from both private and government groups that could stabilize their situation.
Working directly with those in need prevents Vanderburgh from simply seeing them as a label, such as “the homeless” or “the poor.” Instead, he knows they are individual children of God.
He says, “That was one thing that clearly attracted me to this ministry in particular. Over my lifetime…where I felt the presence of Jesus Christ the most was in my accompaniment of the poor. And having a reverence for the poor and not objectifying them is a key tenet of what the St. Vincent de Paul Society stands for. The idea that we can see Christ in the eyes of the people in front of us – who are exhibiting such dire need and perhaps are living in a manner that we find difficult to accompany – that sort of tension that we’re called to be in as Christians by personal accompaniment is such a wonderful faith experience for those of us who have the privilege of doing it.”
Vanderburgh admits that he is a cradle Catholic whose faith was always in the background, but he wasn’t always a regular fixture at Sunday Mass like he is today. He credits his mother “with being the strong, stable foundation for my faith,” something she continues to be today. But over time, says Vanderburgh, “I’ve learned to know the love of Christ and to fully embrace my faith as my brokenness allows.”
Part of that brokenness stems from the fact that during his childhood, Vanderburgh was sexually abused by a priest. Being able to move forward from that experience without losing his faith was difficult, but he learned to differentiate the Church as the mystical Body of Christ from the fallible human beings who run it.
Vanderburgh says, “Through grace, I came to the realization that what Christ has planned for His church is not necessarily represented by the humans that make it up at any given point. And it’s not, shall we say, executed well by people who are in authority within the institutional church. And so that humility, to recognize that God has challenged us to work together to spread His Gospel, that means that I have a responsibility, even as someone who was hurt by the Church; I have a responsibility to do what I can to live my life and to help lead others in a similar way that brings us closer to God. That’s not just the laity, that’s also the clergy, and our close collaboration with them is so important.”
In the end, Vanderburgh has his share of scars from the past. But he sees those scars as a link with the people he serves through the St. Vincent de Paul Society, who have also struggled and endured.
Vanderburgh concludes, “The whole subject of redemptive suffering has been a really important thing for me to ponder, and to talk about, and to try to witness. In other words, we don’t ever wish suffering on another person, but we can certainly take wonderful value from the suffering that we witness in our own lives. We have to remember that God humbled Himself to come among us in a vulnerable fashion: a baby in a manger. How much more vulnerable can you get than that? And not only that, He witnessed in a very public way in His adult ministry how to be vulnerable, and how to endure suffering, and how to make that part of understanding what God is; what is love, how do we understand the depth of love apart from suffering? How do we understand light apart from darkness? So this theme is really important to me in my Christian experience, and I hope that my work and my ministry helps others discover the same.”
(To listen to my full interview with Michael Vanderburgh, click on the podcast link beginning at 15:20):