GARCIA: Social Ministry and the Diaconate: Where the rubber meets the road

August 15, 2023

Herald file photo

Every day, in Harris County alone, several hundred youths ages 10 to 17 reside in juvenile detention centers. Lost in despair and hopelessness, these youth turn to volunteers of Special Youth Services (SYS) who offer an encouraging word, inspiring Scripture and comforting prayer to see them through their difficulties. Coming from all walks of life, laypersons, religious, and clergy, all work in the vineyard together, serving some of the most vulnerable youth.

And whether it’s offering weekly Bible studies or pastoral visits, it is the Holy Spirit continuously at work in the hearts of the youth, and just as equally in the hearts of the volunteers, no matter how experienced or seasoned they are, myself included.

During my diaconate formation years, I, along with several other candidates for the diaconate, entered the vineyard as SYS volunteers.

Assigned as our social ministry, it was our opportunity to practice what we learned through formation, where the “rubber meets the road,” as some would say. For me, that road would eventually lead me to work as a pastoral minister for SYS.

However, whether as a volunteer or pastoral minister, I saw what they meant in the diaconate program that we are never done being formed.

I recall one day in particular that seemed like so many others spent in the facilities, filled with God’s teachings through individual prayer, pastoral listening and a lot of catechesis. As the conversation with one young man was winding down, he asked about my plans for the evening. I said I was attending the vigil for my friend’s mother, who passed away. We finished our conversation and concluded with prayer, lifting up his petitions to God. As we stood up and shook hands, he said in a solemn voice, “I’m sorry about your friend, sir.”

Here I stood before a young man who was at a loss. Without his freedom, his family, friends and home. Having lost so much in the middle of his chaos, he stood there comforting me! The rubber had met the road as my years of learning were tested, and I was found wanting.

How often had I allowed my own chaos to blind me from the pain and suffering of others, diminishing the gravity of their situation based on my own situation? Humbled by the young man’s empathy for me while still dealing with his situation, it was I who had been taught the lesson — a lesson that is still not forgotten.

Recently I returned to the diaconate formation program; however, now in the role of director of Admissions and Scrutiny for the Office of the Permanent Diaconate.

While I still found opportunities to stay connected and serve SYS, I have a greater understanding and appreciation for the value of social ministries assigned to the candidates to the diaconate.

Whether its visiting detention centers, prisons, hospitals or other facilities, social ministries like SYS continue to offer candidates to the diaconate an opportunity to practice what they’ve learned, but more importantly, they offer continuous learning opportunities for them, helping in the formation process and refining the skills of the potential deacon. 

Deacon Fernando Garcia is the director of Admissions and Scrutiny of the Office of the Permanent Diaconate.