The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a national Catholic organization that has served people in poverty for over 170 years in the United States. Steeped in the Vincentian charism and an ethos of innovation, the Society serves in 4,400 parishes across the country with 95,000 lay Vincentian volunteers and operates 450 thrift stores. It practices a person-centered approach through programs such as home visits and spiritual development for volunteers, while also utilizing systemic change approaches such as the Bridges out of Poverty and new re-entry initiatives.
When Dave Barringer became CEO of the Society’s National Council in 2013, he was attracted to the Society’s unique fusion of tradition and social enterprise, where he felt his faith intersected with his business background and skills—and where he could practice his deeply held values of a personal, local, and faith-based approach in a national setting. In our interview with Dave, we asked him how the Society achieves this balance and to share with us other elements that make the Society unique.
On faith and Vincentian charism
FADICA: What is your personal story of how you became involved with the Society? And why did you choose this as your work?
Dave Barringer: I found the position of National Council CEO really interesting—it is an intersection of my faith and my business and nonprofit background. In talking about it with my family, I realized the Society is a culture in which I wanted to be, even though the position was in St. Louis and we lived in Washington, DC. It reinforces what I had already thinking about regarding service. I also prayed a lot about it at the National Shrine, where there are smaller chapels dedicated to St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac, as a matter of fact. It’s been four years since I’ve been in the position, and I feel like I am making a difference and helping to serve thousands in poverty every day.
FADICA: What makes the Society different from other organizations serving people in poverty?
Dave: I have worked in nonprofits before, but the Catholic element of the Society makes a difference, specifically in the way we are global yet local. We are in neighborhoods in every place we serve, serving people where they live. It strikes me as well that we are genuine—we do not treat people with an assembly line approach and we are not a “come and take a number” organization. We are faith-based. I don’t have to be someone else to do this work; it’s genuine.
FADICA: What is meant by “Vincentian charism”? How is it a part of the Society’s work today?
Dave: There are about 200 groups around the world that would consider St. Vincent de Paul a patron saint. While he was alive, he founded different groups and charities such as the Daughters of Charity, Ladies of Charity, and the Congregation of the Mission (priestly order). Since that time many other groups have come under the same Vincentian charism. In 1833 Blessed Frederic Ozanam created Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Saint Vincent himself said “be creative unto infinity” and to always be looking for different ways to serve the poor, for the poor will always be with us. The concept of systemic change has created new opportunities for the Society to serve the poor. With systemic change, we look beyond direct service programs at the root causes of poverty and help people make changes in their life and lifestyle to move out of poverty and to become self-sufficient. We have found an abundance of opportunities for systemic change through our programs for restorative justice, housing programs, home visitor and mentorship, and financial literacy, for example. Each community decides what to do based on their needs and resources. If they want to start something new, we encourage that—we share not just “best” practices but “other” practices across communities.
On lay Catholic volunteers
FADICA: The Society serves a significant number of lay Catholics through its lay volunteer program. Can you tell us about the unique components of its lay volunteer program?
Dave: The Society is centered on volunteers; it is volunteer-led, volunteer-driven, and it is in our mission statement to develop our volunteers spiritually. The primary audience that I serve is the 95,000 volunteers in the United States (there are 900,000 around the world). Whenever we have a local Church meeting, there is prayer, fellowship, and service. This is our three-pronged approach. We say that we are trying to help volunteers get closer to “becoming a Saint” by doing works in their community. Our volunteers spend time in spiritual development exploring poverty and relationship to God, and we have developed a booklet series “Serving in Hope” for a one-year formation and orientation, so spiritual development is part of our culture.
At the Convocation of Catholic Leaders this July in Orlando, the Society will be there, and we hope that we can be seen as an outsource solution and resource to help other Catholic leaders develop their Catholic members. We hope our model can be seen as an answer to one of the Convocation’s requests for evangelization. For parishioners who attend Church but are not sure how to get engaged, a model does not have to be reinvented, they can call the Society.
FADICA: What draws lay Catholics to the Society?
Dave: People are drawn to our faith in action. Most of them are looking to do more, be more involved, and live out their faith. They respond to the interpersonal connection—someone asking them—to service in a way they couldn’t do on their own.
FADICA: Are younger people drawn to lay volunteerism?
Dave: Our typical member is retirement age, with more available time. However, millennials hunger to do more. Younger Catholics have been creating their own groups and revitalizing older groups. We are developing services and program opportunities to accommodate our younger lay volunteer. This might mean a weekend commitment rather than a longer term commitment. Often younger people are drawn by service first, and they are not really sure about how it fits with their faith, but little by little their service pulls them into their faith journey more.
FADICA: What is the innovative work that the Society is doing today?
Dave: There are two areas of innovation that are really exciting. In our housing and attacking homelessness efforts, we provide home visits and pay rent to keep people where they live now, and in some communities we offer short term housing and shelter. Depending on the community, we also provide long term housing for vulnerable populations (such as veterans, people with disabilities, and the elderly) to create stability for individuals and families.
The other area of our innovative work is restorative justice and our work to intervene in the first 48 hours after someone has been released from prison, which is so important. One example of our success in restorative justice, which is featured in a TV show we are broadcasting on EWTN, is in Orlando where a trailer park has been turned into transitional housing for returning citizens. It is run by volunteers and is individually intensive, with each person developing a plan and goals (such as finding a job, participating in Alcoholics Anonymous) and staying with us weeks or months until they meet certain goals. This program has incredible success in helping individuals reach life, financial, and faith goals.
FADICA: You mentioned a TV show in partnership with ETWN?
We’ve been working with EWTN on “Our Faith in Action: Today’s Society of St. Vincent de Paul” which is a series that highlights in half hour specials the Society’s work and lay volunteers’ spiritual growth journey through service to people in need. EWTN will be airing the series every night at the end of the Convocation in July after the nightly news. You can view the show’s pilot online.
FADICA: What would you say is a major similarity to the original work of the Society in Paris and what is a major change or evolution?
Dave: Our home visits are a unique part of the original work of the Vincentian Society, to go out and to visit people in need—to visit, pray with them if they’d like (we do not force prayer), find out about them, listen to their story, and provide emergency needs.
A uniquely American development of the Society’s mission is our 400 to 500 thrift stores. A culture of abundance must exist for thrift stores to work. Our mission is to sell as much of these items as possible, but the Society also gives away as much as possible. And the way we do this is by giving people in poverty a voucher to shop at the stores, which respects their dignity.
FADICA: What is the vision for the thrift stores?
Dave: First, to be able to provide as much service out of the store as possible and to give away household goods such as refrigerators to people in need, and second to create revenue to fund our programs. The thrift stores, if in the right location, become self-sustaining quickly, usually within a year. The lynchpin is the start-up capital, which is about $100,000. The thrift stores provide a different service opportunity for our volunteers. The American public is very generous with giving things away.
On the future
FADICA: Where do you see the organization in 5 years and over the next several generations of Americans?
Dave: Some of the short term goals include continuing to keep one foot in emergency services and one foot in systemic change through programs like Bridges out of Poverty. We are currently one of the largest licensees of the Bridges material, and although this type of work takes time, money, and people, we are excited about the results we have seen so far and the momentum and enthusiasm it has created.
We launched the Neighborhoods of Hope impact model, which is a collective impact model (working with other nonprofits, government, etc.) that seeks community solutions to poverty. Long term, the Society wants to reduce poverty in America as much as we can, one family at a time. We want to measure this by how few people need our emergency services.
FADICA: What do you find is the most meaningful thing that you do on a day to day basis (personally)?
Dave: Being the link between people and money. Many donations pass through directly to our members. I feel really good providing conferences of the Society with new resources, which is my little part of a bigger set of motion.
FADICA: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Dave: I would like to invite FADICA members to engage with us in their local parishes, at the national level, or anyplace in between. You can visit our website to see where we are located.
[For Bay Area St. Vincent de Paul information visit our Santa Clara County Council’s website.]