On July 17, Catholic Charities, Diocese of Nashville will mark the 60th anniversary of its founding.
This article is one in a series published by the Tennessee Register exploring Catholic Charities’ past, present and future.
View the entire series here.
“For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me. … Truly I say to you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.” (Matthew 25: 35-36; 40).
With these words, Christ gave the Church the Corporal Works of Mercy “and gave us a model for how we should treat all others, as if they were Christ in disguise,” according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “They respond to the basic needs of humanity as we journey together through this life.”
These teachings are at the core of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Nashville as it has helped tens of thousands of neighbors needing a helping hand, no matter who they are, over the past 60 years. The staff and volunteers of Catholic Charities do it for one simple reason: “It is God’s work,” said Judy Orr, Catholic Charities executive director.
“It is really the way of Jesus, and it is deeply rooted in the charitable work of the Church and its people over the centuries,” Orr said.
And it all aligns with Catholic Charities’ mission statement: “Following Christ’s example, we recognize the dignity of all people and serve our neighbors.”
Theology of helping our neighbor
The Corporal Works of Mercy are not just a symbol, said Father John Hammond, judicial vicar and vicar general of the Diocese of Nashville and pastor of St. Patrick Church in South Nashville.
“They are central ways that the Church understands that we’re called to serve our neighbor in need. These are things that we do because we are called to manifest the love of Christ,” Father Hammond said.
“The Church understands itself as being a society, not a club,” he said. “If it were a club, you’d understand why we would just help people who are in the club. But that’s not how we understand ourselves.
“We are a society of people as the Catholic Church,” Father Hammond explained, “and part of what we do is act accordingly, including by being of service to those in our midst who are in need, no matter who they are.
“We are called to spread the Gospel to all people,” he added. “We believe we are called to serve all people who are before us because we believe that Christ comes to us in that way. Christ comes to us in the poor, Christ comes to us in the suffering. We serve Christ when we serve them whether they’re Catholic or not.”
It’s also about taking care of the fundamental human dignity of everyone, Father Hammond said.
“A human person has fundamental dignity just by virtue of being a person,” he said. “Obviously, being baptized, receiving the sacraments, living the life of the Church is hugely important, and it is why we evangelize and why we try to convert people, which is a good thing, but that is not the primary reason we serve people in need,.
“We serve people in need because we need to serve people in need,” Father Hammond said. “And if they come to know Christ better as a result of that, hallelujah, praise God.”
And the success of this philosophy is proven in the significance Catholic Charities has throughout the state of Tennessee.
“It is quite remarkable that Catholic Charities is the largest charitable provider in the state aside from the state itself. That is remarkable given how small of a percentage of the population are Catholics here,” Father Hammond said. “The fact that we have a disproportionately important role to play, it shows how critically important and the central part of the life of our community that Catholic Charities plays and has played. We have such an important role to play here in service to people in need.”
While Catholic Charities is an organization of the Catholic Church, it is these principles that have attracted Catholics and non-Catholics to be part of its mission.
A majority of staff members come from other faith traditions, Orr said, and it is the same story for other Catholic Charities agencies around the country.
“We have Jewish, Muslim and many Protestant faith traditions” on staff, Orr said. “There are people on staff who are just do-gooders and really do not embrace any practice of religion. I interpret that as the Holy Spirit working through people of goodwill, who find their way to Catholic Charities.
“Those who work in faith-based social service find the organizations to be aligned with their own values of ‘love your neighbor,’” she added, “and they don’t have a problem working for the Catholics.”
Such was the case for Julie Bolles, who currently serves as an individual and family therapist for Catholic Charities.
Bolles, who attends Forest Hills Baptist Church in Nashville, began her journey with Catholic Charities 21 years ago, following the birth of her first child.
“My husband and I were both working in jobs with very little flexibility,” Bolles explained, as she started working in hospitals after getting her master’s degree in social work.
“When I worked at Baptist Hospital, (now Ascension Saint Thomas Hospital Midtown), I worked on an OBGYN unit, and I started working with adoptions … and I really came to love that type of work,” Bolles said. “So, when I wanted to find a job that had a little more flexibility … I started inquiring about working in adoptions,” and that’s how she found Catholic Charities, having made a connection with them through her work at the hospital.
She said she did worry at first about not being Catholic when she interviewed for the job.
“I wasn’t sure how Catholic Charities was going to feel about it,” Bolles explained. “I, personally, didn’t have a conflict because I’m a social worker, and I knew that they hired lots of social workers. Social workers have a code of ethics and many of the tenants of social work align even with Christian values like serving others with dignity and respect.
“When I interviewed for the job, the person who interviewed me was not Catholic, so I immediately knew it was acceptable,” she said. “I knew some about the Catholic faith, but I didn’t know a lot. I’ve learned a lot about the Catholic faith over the years, and I’ve found that most of my values do align.”
For the first 21 years of her career with Catholic Charities, Bolles did exactly what she’d hoped, working in adoption and counseling services and even served as director of the program for nearly eight years. It was only recently, after her children have grown up and left the house, that she shifted to individual and family therapy, splitting her time between Villa Maria Manor, the Catholic Pastoral Center and St. Philip Church in Franklin.
And as she continues to serve others through Catholic Charities, she said the core of her beliefs continue to align with the mission of the organization.
“I believe that we all as humans are called to treat others with respect and dignity no matter who they are, no matter their beliefs, no matter if they differ with my beliefs. We are called to treat others with dignity and respect and my Christian faith teaches me that,” Bolles said. “Even if a person chooses something that doesn’t align with my faith, that is their decision, and I need to treat them with that dignity and respect and serve them to the very best of my abilities. The goal is to bring healing to people and to meet their needs wherever they are, so I believe that my work is a way to be the hands and feet of my faith.”
For other employees of Catholic Charities, their desire to be part of the mission of helping others comes in their desire to give back to the organization that helped them.
Miguel Viera, an eligibility specialist for Catholic Charities, was a Cuban refugee who came to the United States in 2018.
“I didn’t agree with the Cuban government, the lack of freedom, the lack of opportunities,” Viera said. “I was studying mechanical engineering at the time, and I knew when I was finished that I wasn’t going to have any opportunities, any way to grow.”
Viera was resettled in Nashville through the help of Catholic Charities, which helped him fill out paperwork for appropriate documents, find a place to stay, learn English, get a job and more.
And when he did find his footing, he didn’t hesitate to find a job with Catholic Charities, and through his work as an eligibility specialist, which he began in September 2021, he is able to help those who are just like him.
“In my case, I am focusing on Cubans. (Eligibility specialists) are the first people that receive new arrivals, refugees, Cuban entrants, just a lot of different groups,” Viera explained. “We are the first ones to check to see if they are eligible or not to receive benefits with us. This is the most important part of the whole process because in order to get benefits you have to be eligible.”
If they are eligible, the specialists also submit all the various applications for things like medical insurance, food stamps and more, he said.
And during the process, he is able to draw on his own experience to help the new arrivals in the best way possible.
“When I see the new arrivals, I remember when I was the one that was sitting in the other chair. My clients, they trust me so much because I am from the same country, and they feel so comfortable being here receiving benefits from us,” Viera said. “That makes me very happy to see that, just knowing I was one of them three or four years ago.
“They feel very confident about me and about what I do because I know you have to be patient,” he said, because the process can take several days and sometimes weeks. “I try to give them some hope, and they feel pretty good about it.”
Success of the mission
It is this openness to diversity and a focus on helping anyone who needs it, regardless of background or religious belief, that Bolles and Viera agree is part of the reason Catholic Charities is still going strong 60 years later.
“My understanding of the Bible and my understanding of Jesus’ walk on earth was that Jesus served other people, and Jesus walked life and brought peace and joy and happiness and healing and comfort and direction … and met people where they were in their lives, and I feel like that is what (Catholic Charities’) mission statement asks us to do,” Bolles said.
“Regardless of what your personal faith is, the mission statement asks us to meet human beings where they are in their lives, with whatever their needs might be and, to the very best of our abilities, meet that need and treat them with love, with respect, with dignity, with honor and help them to become their very best selves,” Bolles said. “By doing that, I think we can introduce them to faith just through our actions.”
“We serve a lot of different people. We never ask them, ‘What religion are you’ or ‘What are your beliefs,’” Viera added, either in hiring new employees or serving the people. “It is not just about Catholics, it is about community, our services, and helping people in need.”