| How one person put in action
the corporal works of mercy
Mercy in the City
How to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the imprisoned and keep your day job
By Kerry Weber
Loyola Press, 2014, 154 pages, $13.95
Kerry Weber set out one Lent, when she was 29, to put the corporal works of mercy to work in her life. The managing editor of America magazine chronicles her journey, from feeding the hungry to visiting the prisoner, in engaging fashion in "Mercy in the City: How to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the imprisoned and keep your day job."
Weber's story, which wends its way through bread lines in New York City, to prison cells at San Quentin across the continent, offers her reader encouragement in considering the possibility of doing something similar.
The ambitious subtitle, Weber said with a smile, was crafted with assistance from Father James Martin, SJ, one of the talented writers she works with at America magazine. Among the perks of her job: "I get to work with really smart, good people in a collaborative environment." And "we get to write about the whole range of human experience as filtered through the Church."
The Catholic Voice interviewed Weber during the Catholic Press Association's annual conference this summer.
The subtitle of your book, "Mercy in the City: How to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the imprisoned and keep your day job," is quite the commission.
In the subtitle we tried to capture this internal struggle so many people feel. As I was writing the book, I thought it was unique to my experience. I thought I was the only one who had no idea how to balance these things. But after speaking with a lot of people, after talking to people who have read the book, what a universal experience this is to try to do good, and to try to do this in a balanced way. So if you don't have the capability to do works of mercy full time, how do you incorporate them into lives that are so busy, so hectic and with so many things pulling us in different directions? How do we make sure we focus on things that are good, and are of service to others?
How did you get involved with the Sisters of Mercy?
I did the Mercy Volunteer Corps directly after college. I volunteered full time as a special education teacher on a Navajo reservation in St. Michael's, Arizona. That introduced me to mercy as a charism, mercy as a way of being. That also introduced me, quite literally, to the Sisters of Mercy. Growing up in Catholic schools, I knew every religious order, but Sisters of Mercy I was not familiar with. It was nice to meet people who were trying to live out this charism.
That stuck with me over the years and eventually when I moved to New York, I was thinking about becoming more involved in this charism. How do I stay connected to these people, and this group, and this spirit that helped to inform a very formative program during this formative year? I began to discern whether I should become a Mercy Associate, which is a group of laywomen and laymen who try to live out this charism in their own ways, in collaboration with the Sisters of Mercy. The discernment process started earlier; it was on my mind when I was researching an article on Catholicism and incarceration. You Google it and up pops the corporal works of mercy.
Here's this list I was familiar with from having memorized it from grade school, and knowing the Matthew Gospel: Whoever does this for the least of my brothers does this for me. I was not doing any of these things in any literal way. They seemed so simple. Feed the hungry: Yeah, I did that. It's easy to think, I'm doing these things. I was not doing them or I was not recognizing that I was doing them.
I set out to try to jumpstart my spirituality in a way, to try to live out these seven corporal works of mercy within this timeframe of Lent, and in a way that would incorporate them into Lent, but do so in a lasting way so that it not just be an experiment contained in 40 days but an experiment to start me thinking of something I really needed to be thinking about for the rest of my life. It's not something I'm going to perfect in 40 days, it's not something I'm going to perfect within my lifetime. But it's something I need to be striving for; it's something that should be on my mind. And it should be in the way
I live; it should be in my actions.
What did you learn from this process?
One, to find a balance, to know that you don't have to do all the corporal works of mercy every day, every second of the day or check them off. It's not a list; it's a process. It's a way of entering into the world with a merciful spirit. When we do these things, we built a relationship. That's the core of what these things are about; it's about building relationship and it's about recognizing Christ in others. It's also about recognizing those small actions we do as being part of the corporal works of mercy. A mother of a newborn might not have time to go to a soup kitchen if she's caring for the corporal needs of a hungry and thirsty child. That's not insignificant. Are you caring for an aging parent? Are you providing a meal for a person in your parish who's sick? There are so many ways to do these things for people that we know and love.
So some of these works can be done at home?
A lot of time we think of the corporal works of mercy as things that have to be done for a stranger, or for someone outside of our life, someone who is unconnected to us. But when we look at the possibility of doing these things to people we love and lift up those small things we do as sacramental works of mercy, we open ourselves up more to that possibility of doing works of mercy for people outside of those circles; we open ourselves up to being in this mindset of mercy to being more prepared and willing to say yes when these instances of when we're asked to be part of these works of mercy, sometimes in surprising ways. When you see a person who is homeless on the street, you've already thought about: What does this person mean to me? How do I react charitably? How do I react with love? It's not always the same answer; and there's no one right answer. That's why it's hard.
Can you suggest two or three steps to get started?
One thing that was key to me was realizing you don't have to start from scratch. There are so many individuals, parishes, nonprofits and organizations that are doing these good works. You don't have to create your own version of this. You can become a part of that. You can ask a mercy mentor. Is there someone you know who's doing this? Ask them how they got involved and what opportunities there are for you to be involved. Go from there and not be afraid.
The other thing is to not be afraid to make mistakes. We all are not going to do these things perfectly, but we have to do them authentically. Wherever you go, if you are acting in love and in sincere desire to be in a relationship with someone, then you're on the right track. Even if you don't know where the pots are kept in the soup kitchen, even if you don't know what to say to that person in prison the first time you meet them, people can identify authenticity and they respond to that and it creates relationship, which is, again, at the core of what this is about.
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