The people of St. James have always known the corporal works of mercy by heart—not just by memory. Individuals respond to perceived needs--a casserole for a family with a new baby, a ride to the grocery store for an elderly neighbor, a visit to a sick friend. And people have banded together to address needs with the strength of numbers.
According to an earlier history, the first organized social action work was done by the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a spiritual and social community of women in the parish. In time, the Sodality became part of the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, and a component of that group was the Social Action Committee. When Vatican II called for Parish Advisory Boards, Social Concerns became a Committee of the PAB at St. James.
In 1969, the Falls Church Community Service Council was formed. This grouping of churches in the area made it possible to better meet the needs of the greater Falls Church community. Ten years later, two parishioners in leadership positions with FCCSC reported in the parish newsletter that “contributions of St. James parishioners have: saved 56 families from eviction; housed 12 stranded transients; rescued 22 families by paying overdue utility bills; taken care of a hospital bill; provided a crib; paid car repair bills for people who needed their cars to get to work; purchased a needed foot brace; contributed $200 for medical expenses for a burned boy…”
In the 1970s and ‘80s, the Social Concerns Committee of the PAB was at the forefront of efforts to welcome many refugee families fleeing conflict in Southeast Asia and later from conditions in Cuba.
In December 1974, Round & About reported that 5,000 pounds of usable clothing “went from St. James to the poor of the world” through the Bishops’ Relief Fund. Parishioners gathered to sort and pack the 126 boxes of donated clothes.
In 1983, a parish-owned home on Park Avenue became Blessing House, a refuge for pregnant women and their newborn babies. Blessing House offered shelter and support throughout the ‘80s as these women strove to become independent members of their communities.
When Nancy Stock headed the Social Outreach Committee of the PAB during the 1980s, she organized door-to-door visits to the primarily Hispanic families living in the Ellison Street apartments to ask what they needed that St. James could provide. Janet Qualters, who succeeded Nancy in 1994, remembers that Nancy spoke not a word of Spanish, but “she communicated so well with her warmth and her hugs.” And what these families told her they needed was food.
St. James responded as Matthew 25 people—“When I was hungry…” Ten months a year on the first Friday, Falls Church area families come to Heller Hall—no questions asked—for groceries to supplement their inadequate purchasing power. Sadly, Janet says, the 170 families have dwindled to just over 100 since the immigration uncertainty. “I hope they’ll come back,” Janet says. “They’re hungry.”
St. James parishioners leave groceries at the church doors each week. School and PREP classes collect canned goods. Money from the poor boxes, collections and the parish budget goes to buy fresh produce and eggs, obtained from a food co-op and delivered by a volunteer, and two drivers with vans head to the Safeway each month for cereal, frozen chicken and milk. Each family goes home with two or three bags and a box of food. Parish volunteers fill the bags and boxes. Recipient volunteers work the registration table. Volunteers from the O’Connell Spanish Honor Society carry groceries for mothers with children. Off-site volunteers provide data-entry and record keeping.
Feeding the hungry goes beyond the parish campus as St. James volunteers provide and serve dinner at Christ House once a month. Others deliver Meals on Wheels, and provide Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners when Meals on Wheels does not deliver. Parishioners help at Food for Others and support the Seven Corners Day Care Center. They sponsor a St. Patrick’s Day party for senior citizens at Winter Hill and enrich the Christmas season in many ways for families in need. With other local churches, they provide meals and monitors for the Falls Church Winter Shelter. St. James drivers bring people to medical appoints and back home again. Fair Trade gets a boost from St. James. All under the umbrella of Social Outreach.
At St. James, we are trying to listen when Pope Francis says, “I want a church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us.” (The Joy of the Gospel, #198) What will future histories tell?