MILWAUKEE – The day after Salvatorian Fr. David J. Bergner started work as the executive director of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that 29.4 percent of Milwaukeeans live in poverty.
That figure, released Sept. 20, concerns Fr. Bergner and Catholic Charities, which served more than 22,000 people in southeastern Wisconsin in 2011.
“To a large extent we have failed people in some way as a larger society and so the challenge is there. It’s one thing to look at it demographically; it’s another thing to know personally families and individuals who are struggling,” he told your Catholic Herald Sept. 20. “This is our role as an agency; I’ve always approached it this way.”
That approach begins with forming a community within Catholic Charities.
“… this is the most important thing we have to do first among ourselves as helping professionals, is to form community, to be tutors, teachers and mentors to one another. And then carry that paradigm into the larger community with those we serve,” Fr. Bergner said.
Practice, not just theory
For the 66-year-old Manitowoc native, building that model is not a theory, but something he has practiced throughout his social work career, including 15 years for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., three for the Diocese of Wilmington, Del., and 11 for the Diocese of Richmond, Va.
“I look back at the young people I’ve helped raise as a foster parent and leader within a therapeutic community, and most of them are extremely successful today and are leaders in their families, communities and professions, so I know what is possible if we can take that vision of health and extend it into the broader community,” he said.
As a seminarian pursuing his master’s degree in social work at the University of Maryland – Baltimore in the early ‘70s, Fr. Bergner did an independent study project in which he developed a therapeutic community for adolescent boys based on the model of the extended family in East Africa. He had served as a youth worker in Tanzania for two years after college.
“I pedaled that around the Eastern seaboard and Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., said, ‘We like your idea; we’ll fund it if you come and do it for us.’ So I was able to take a project from school and implement it in the inner city of Washington, D.C., and developed a home for boys in the inner city based on the extended family model I’d experienced in Tanzania,” the priest said.
Addressing two kinds of poverty
Fr. Bergner, who for the last six years served as provincial of the Society of the Divine Savior (Salvatorians) province, headquartered in Milwaukee, noted there are two kinds of poverty.
One is “situational,” where refugees come to the agency and it helps resettle them.
“Very often they come with clothes on their back. We can give them the basics and connect them in the community with important resources, including other members of the same ethnic group, who in turn become role models for the new refugees,” he said. “Within a very short time they are able to be successful in a whole new world to them. That’s inspiring for us to see and witness on an almost daily basis.”
The second, which he termed “more difficult” to address, is “generational.”
“(This is) where perhaps there were skilled workers working in some of our plants and factories on the assembly line a generation or two or even three generations ago, and in their families where you’d be hard pressed (today) to find a wage earner or someone to be a role model for the young people growing up in those parts of our community.”
One way to address generational poverty, Fr. Bergner said, is with the model he hopes to build within Catholic Charities itself.
“(Take) the model I’ve talked about in building community within our organization, and by extension within our Catholic community, and then taking that out into the broader arena of the community to be able to work with, in a respectful way, people who are suffering the effects of generational poverty,” he said.
Fr. Bergner, the fourth priest to serve as director of Catholic Charities in the archdiocese and the first since 1983, said the theme of that method is “personal empowerment,” helping people “take charge of their lives.”
“So what we’re trying to do in being a teacher, being a mentor, we’re trying to teach a certain set of cognitive and emotional skills that will enable these people to be successful in the community, that people who, when you combine these skills with a positive belief system, which we as Catholics call faith, can be successful in terms of finding education to prepare themselves for future jobs, or an actual preparation for a job they can keep and because of which they can support a family,” he said.
Faith as foundation
Fr. Bergner, who earned his doctorate in social work administration from The Catholic University of America in 2001, said Christian believers’ “overarching purpose” is to implement the mandate of Christ, beginning with the two great commandments – “loving God with our whole heart, mind and soul, and being able to love our neighbor as ourselves.”
“This is a very compelling purpose to be able to follow through with our baptismal commitment in terms of sharing our faith in a realistic and concrete kind way,” he said. “If we can build community among ourselves, there’s no reason we can’t help build community among others with faith as our basis.”
Modeling faith communities for those they serve is important, according to Fr. Bergner, as it will empower them to find their own faith.
“ … this belief system is combined with the cognitive, emotional and behavioral skills necessary to be successful in whatever venture they choose, be it a successful person living in a family, being a nurturing figure with their own children, being able to apply for a get a job that will be able to support themselves and their families,” he said, terming the belief system as “the glue to hold those things together.”
Be part of the mission
Fr. Bergner wants people to not only be aware of how Catholic Charities serves, but he wants them to “be involved with us in the mission.”
“One of my goals is to encourage volunteerism so that we can expand this caring community of people willing to do the Lord’s work in parts of our community that are looking for healing, they’re looking for opportunity, looking for education for their children, looking for family stability,” he said, “and they need people to support them as they get empowered.”