When you’re taught by the Roman Catholic nuns and brothers, you hear a lot of parables over the years. But decades later, I still remember one by heart.
It’s the story of the Good Samaritan.
According to the Gospel of Luke, it all started one day when a lawyer-type questioned Jesus on the commandment that we "love our neighbor as ourself." The lawyer’s question: "And who is my neighbor?"
Jesus answered with the tale of a man who was traveling the road from Jericho to Jerusalem when a pack of bandits beat him senseless, stripped him of his clothes and left him for dead.
Along came a priest, who saw the poor guy lying there, crossed the road and kept going.
Next came a Levite (a member of the Hebrew tribe of Levi), who did the same thing.
Enter the Samaritan, who at the time would have been considered no friend to the Jews. Without hesitation, he dressed the victim’s wounds, loaded him onto the Samaritan’s donkey and took him to an inn.
There, the Samaritan gave the innkeeper two silver coins and told him, "Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee."
Which of the three passers-by, Jesus asked his interrogator, was the victim’s neighbor?
"He that showed mercy on him," the lawyer replied.
"Go and do thou likewise," Jesus said.
Now, I readily admit I’m no theological scholar. But I was always taught that the message behind this timeless tale is simple and straightforward: When you see someone in need, you help him. You don’t check first to see if he shares your race, your politics or, for that matter, your road map to salvation.
You just help him.
All of which brings us, regrettably, to Bishop Richard Malone and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.
News this week that Catholic Charities Maine, which Malone oversees, and the national Catholic Campaign for Human Development have yanked their funding for Preble Street’s Homeless Voices for Justice program is proof positive that in this day and age, Roman Catholic charity begins – and in this case ends – with a litmus test.
It all started back in January of 2009, when Homeless Voices for Justice, a statewide group that advocates on behalf of Maine’s neediest people, applied for and received grants of $2,400 from the diocese and $30,000 from the Washington-based Catholic Campaign for Human Development to help fund its operations.
Based on the "eligibility criteria" for the grants provided by the diocese, the application seemed like a perfect fit.
"Poor and vulnerable people have a special place in Catholic social teaching," the guidelines state. "A basic moral test of a society is how its most vulnerable members are faring. Our tradition calls us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first."
Provided, that is, that the applicant passes the quiz on the back of the form. The seven questions range from abortion and contraception to people with disabilities and the death penalty. And, lo and behold, all things not heterosexual.
Question 3, under the heading "Marriage/Family Life," asks: "Is your organization supporting, promoting or advocating for other forms of relationships such as bisexual or homosexual/lesbian lifestyles or same-sex marriages?"
When he filled out the form early last year on behalf of Homeless Voices for Justice, Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann replied "no." It was and still is, he insists, a truthful answer.
Swann concedes that the board of directors for Preble Street, the social service agency that provides staff support for Homeless Voices for Justice, did vote later in 2009 to join a coalition opposing the repeal of Maine’s same-sex marriage law. But Homeless Voices for Justice, which makes its own decisions on such matters, explicitly decided to stay out of the same-sex marriage fray.
dee Clarke of Portland, one of six volunteer "advocates" who coordinate the statewide program, said Thursday that the group labors long and hard to get homeless people to the polls on Election Day.
"But we never, ever say how to vote on something," Clarke said, noting that doing so would run counter to the mission of helping homeless people take charge of their own destinies.
Within weeks of November’s church-led repeal of the statute, Preble Street was notified by both Catholic Charities Maine and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development that its support of the same-sex marriage law had violated the Homeless Voices for Justice grant agreement.
The Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which by then had sent $15,000 to the program, asked for the return of any unspent cash (there was none) and canceled its second $15,000 award. Catholic Charities Maine, meanwhile, simply demanded the return of its $2,400.
Swann said in an interview Thursday that Preble Street’s board took a stand on the same-sex marriage law because so many of the young people who show up at the agency’s teen shelter – up to 40 percent, according to research he has compiled – are there because of "issues around their sexuality."
"It’s something we deal with every day," Swann said. "And these poor kids do, too."
That said, Swann added that the Roman Catholic Church has been told repeatedly over 12 years of trouble-free funding that Preble Street and Homeless Voices for Justice are "separate and independent when it comes to decision-making about public policy and advocacy efforts."
"I’m not even in the room when (Homeless Voices for Justice) makes decisions on what kind of advocacy they’re going to do," Swann said.
Some look at this and see payback by Malone – who put his prestige on the line in leading the fight against same-sex marriage – against a secular agency that dared to see the world differently. Others say that whatever the motivation, taking money from a program that’s dedicated to helping the poor is just plain wrong.
But it’s done. Swann said he has yet to receive a reply to his Feb. 4 letter to Malone asking that he reconsider or at least stop by for a first-ever tour of Preble Street.
Contacted Thursday, diocesan spokeswoman Sue Bernard said the church stands firm in its belief that Preble Street and Homeless Voices for Justice are joined inextricably at the hip. Hence the $2,400 has been redirected to My Sisters Keeper Interfaith, a Cape Elizabeth-based outreach program for women who are incarcerated.
As for the Good Samaritan helping his fellow man without any preconditions, apparently I’m reading my Bible through the wrong lens: Bernard said the parable is about individual people giving unconditionally to help other individual people – not organizations giving to other organizations that in turn help individual people.
"Before we give you a bowl of soup, we don’t ask what political persuasion you are or anything like that," Bernard said. "We just give the bowl of soup."
But, she later added, "Is there any organization that gives money away without conditions? I’ve never heard of one."
Nor, I’ll bet, had the Good Samaritan ever heard of a "grant application."
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org