The Ministry of SPRED and the Preferential Option for the Poor

For the past semester, I have been doing ministry at the SPRED Center in Chicago. I think the reality of the ministry has helped me to be with people with disabilities. SPRED has helped me to recognize the human dignity and rights of those who find it difficult to live as full members in society. I would like to apply in this work the principle of the “Preferential Option for the Poor,” which I have learned from the class “Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching.” The Preferential Option for the Poor promotes mutual responsibility, protects the poor and vulnerable, and respects their dignity to receive the fundamental needs of life. I consider the ministry to be a blessing of God that helps my faith grow stronger in solidarity with people with disabilities, the vulnerable, and the poor in our community. 

From the beginning of the ministry, I have learned to call people with disabilities, “friends.” In my observation during the sessions, friends work on their favorite sense activities. These activities engage their senses and creativity. Catechists stay at the table with their assigned friends, communicate with them, and help them when needed. I do not understand much; however, through a training session and with the help of my confrere Brian, things have become clearer.

The word SPRED is an acronym for Special Religious Development. Drawn from the Catholic tradition, SPRED’s ministry shares the Christian faith and obligation through baptism as it is described in Isaiah 58: 5-7: “True worship is to work for justice and care for the poor and the oppressed.” The catechists at SPRED help friends from all age groups to feel welcome and that their presence is as precious as anybody else’s. Their human rights and dignity are respected. SPRED’s ministry helps friends to develop Christian faith in Mystagogy, which is life-learning by developing their relationships with others and God. All objects are symbols of the sacraments in Mass, and they help friends to connect with their senses. In the SPRED sessions, something that is done is identifying objects and using them to point towards God and the sacraments, so the friends are learning and can identify the sacraments at Mass. Through interaction, the things symbolize God’s presence and grace in the friends’ lives. Four periods in SPRED’s program represent parts of the Mass. The preparation period gives friends time to prepare and engage their sense experiences (sight, touch, smell, etc.) for the celebration period. Friends concentrate in a calm ambiance as they work independently with their chosen objects which symbolize readiness, preparing themselves for what will happen.

During the celebration period, which takes place in a different room, I accompany friends in sacred activities. Here the principle of the Preferential Option for the Poor is expressed in Bible sharing, personal sharing, and the messages of God to all. In the room, flowers, pictures, and lighted candles represent the presence of God. Chairs are arranged so that catechists, volunteers, and friends can sit side by side.

The Agape (pronunciation at SPRED: agga-pei) period represents the table of the Eucharist, a banquet of God’s mercy, a Thanksgiving table, and an option for the poor to approach their needs. All will accompany friends to prepare the table with dining utensils. The preparation is done with respect, affection, and trust. Catechists and volunteers help friends as the Church walks with them to the table of the Eucharist. Flowers represent friends’ offerings to God. Cups, plates, and drinks are symbols of wine and water for the Eucharist. 

The closing period is also a part of the Agape and this is a sacred moment. All say grace and share food, which represents the Eucharistic prayer prayed by the community. People join the table of the Eucharist as they receive communion. When the meal is finished, all will say thanksgiving, then the sending out, and all will clean up together. The Agape meal together represents that all are satisfied at God’s banquet and the receiving of God’s grace.

This unique ministry helps me to express my preferential option for people with disabilities, the vulnerable, and the poor. In my observation of the natural reactions of friends, I think that in the parish context, friends may find it difficult to freely express themselves around other people who do not understand them and this probably makes them feel excluded from the community. I think that the ministry helps me to learn how to express my hospitality and to make friends feel that they are included and belong to the community. I have learned to be kind and accepting toward friends and their physical limitations, respecting how their disabilities impact them, what they want to do, and who they are. So far through this ministry, I have come to believe that only by truly living my option for the poor, for people with disabilities, and for the vulnerable through practical ministry can I truly reflect the image and likeness of God in myself and recognize it in others, especially people with disabilities. I acknowledge that only through participating in God’s mission can I understand and love myself, that I can reflect God’s presence and love toward others and make a difference in the world.

Frt. Thong Dinh Tran, SVD, is a Divine Word Missionary in temporary vows.  While now a U.S. citizen, he was born in Vietnam and immigrated to Forest Park, GA.  Thong began is formation with the Divine Word Missionaries in August 2014 and professed Temporary Vows in 2020.  He is now studying theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago as he prepares for Perpetual Vows and ordination in a couple years. 

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