“Encountering Mercy” is a series exploring the corporal works of mercy during the Jubilee Year through the lens of the people whose lives exemplify them. In March, the Diocese of Camden focuses on “Feed the Hungry.” This month’s profiles highlight examples of those who experience this corporal work of mercy in their daily lives.
Marisol Gonzalez, 46, has been a familiar face at Catholic Charities’ Cumberland County Family and Community Services Center in Vineland for more than 10 years. She volunteers in the office two to three days a week for two to three hours at a time.
These days, most of her time is spent in the center’s basement thrift store, where she sorts and organizes clothing and helps clients select what they need. Over the years she has helped with everything from answering phone calls, to attending clients, to cleaning — whatever needs to be done.
She’s a regular volunteer on Wednesdays when the center’s food pantry gives out bread and sometimes vegetables to anyone who needs them. Sometimes she takes several loaves for families in need in the area, signing each of their names and then making the deliveries in her car.
“I’ll take the food over there and then I’ll get blessed, because they’ll feed me,” she says.
Her volunteer work doesn’t end with Catholic Charities. She works weekly with a local soup kitchen and homeless shelter in Vineland, visits a prison every month to lead Bible study and faith sharing, and runs a cleaning ministry for her church. She works a night-shift job that is just shy of full-time at 32 hours a week and does her volunteer work by day.
When she’s not volunteering for a particular organization, she’s driving around in her car making home visits. She gives out her number for members of the Vineland community to call if they need prayer or resources. She visits them, prays with them, and helps connect them to what they need, be it food, clothing or a referral to an agency that offers financial assistance. Over time, her knowledge of the resources available to the community has grown vast.
“If there are resources out there that we don’t know about, she knows about it and she lets me know,” said Amparo Lancara, a case manager at the Vineland center. “She’s compassionate and she’s resourceful.”
Speaking to Gonzalez, it becomes immediately apparent that her compassion stems from two principle sources: her faith, and her own experiences of hardship.
“With the experiences that I’ve been through in my life, I can help somebody else. I was in their same situation and I can help give them a way out. I can say, ‘I’ve been through this and I can help you through this because look at me now, look what God has done in my life,’” she said.
It wasn’t long ago that Gonzalez herself was homeless. After eight years at the company where she works now, she was suddenly laid off. She was rehired two years later, but not before the layoff had “caused chaos” in her life.
She lived briefly in a homeless shelter before moving in with her son and his family.
“Without [my son and his wife] I don’t think I would have been able to survive what I went through,” she said.
She says she volunteers in order to show her gratitude to God for bringing her through the hard times.
“I do it all for God, I give him all the glory and honor,” she said. “I thank God that he opened this door to me through Catholic Charities, that I can be able to help others through my experiences of life. That’s basically what Catholic Charities is. It’s helping each other out.”
In 2014, more than 100 volunteers gave nearly 9,000 hours of service to Catholic Charities across the Diocese of Camden. In the eight Family and Community Services Centers serving each of the six counties, volunteers do everything from answering phones, to managing thrift stores and food pantries, to scanning and filing.
“Volunteers help with everything that we want to do, but may not have the staff or resources to do,” said Brian Wagner, Catholic Charities Administration and Evaluation Officer, who works mainly out of the Vineland center where Gonzalez volunteers. “The volunteers also help us give a more personal touch; they’re able to spend more time with our clients. Which then also lets them, on an individual basis, fulfill their own calling.”
Gonzalez has her own philosophy of what it means to be a volunteer.
“It’s giving back to the community what God has given us: love,” she said. “Just plain love.”
Written by Joanna Gardner
The mercy of feeding the hungry
During the summer of 2013, Pope Francis was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for World Youth Day. During his trip, he famously visited a slum community called Varginha, notorious for its gang activity and poverty. In his address, he spoke about hunger, poverty, and the need of individuals and society at large to respond with solidarity:
“…When we are generous in welcoming people and sharing something with them — some food, a place in our homes, our time — not only do we no longer remain poor: we are enriched. I am well aware that when someone needing food knocks at your door, you always find a way of sharing food; as the proverb says, one can always ‘add more water to the beans’!
“…This word solidarity is too often forgotten or silenced, because it is uncomfortable. … I would like to make an appeal to those in possession of greater resources, to public authorities and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity! No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world! Everybody, according to his or her particular opportunities and responsibilities, should be able to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices.
“…Let us always remember this: only when we are able to share do we become truly rich; everything that is shared is multiplied! Think of the multiplication of the loaves by Jesus! The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty!”