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Feature Articles

God Qualifies the Call: S. Sally Duffy’s Journey and Ministry with SC Ministry Foundation

By Loretta Dees

S. Sally Duffy came to minister at SC Ministry Foundation 12 years ago in 2001 and became president Nov. 1, 2004. Under S. Sally’s leadership, SC Ministry Foundation has become a leader in comprehensive immigration reform, Hurricane Katrina recovery, especially for women religious, focused Catholic holistic education, and in ending systemic injustices such as predatory lending and misleading lease-to-buy options in neighborhoods like Price Hill.

Under S. Sally’s leadership, SC Ministry Foundation has been viewed as being far more than a grant-maker. S. Sally is on the ground interfacing with policy makers in social justice causes such as affordable health care reform, at the table strategizing next steps, at City Council meetings, on the phone calling the White House or representatives, and organizing behind the scenes (when it came to Nuns of the Bus, for example). The Foundation partners with many social justice organizations, such as Legal Aid, NETWORK, Price Hill Will, Santa Maria Community Services, Working in Neighborhoods, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), and Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA).

S. Sally uses her gifts and talents in education, political science, pastoral and crisis counseling, health care administration, and divinity and integrates them in how she relates to individuals and leads the Foundation every day at the national, state and local level. Her breadth of experience comes from across sectors and from the depth of human experience, direct service, administration and systemic change. I asked S. Sally to reflect on her journey and ministry with SC Ministry Foundation, a calling through which God has continued to reveal and nurture her multitude of gifts.

What were some of the things that attracted you and called you to ministering at SC Ministry Foundation?

S. Maryanna Coyle contacted me in February or March of 2000 asking me if I would come to the Foundation. I didn’t know what the Foundation really involved and I was concerned if there would be enough to put my energy toward. I am high energy (I’d be the first to admit it!) and really get involved. Clearly, it was different than health care because everything I went to was crisis management. Even as a counselor, it was crisis management. With the Foundation, I knew there wasn’t a crisis, but where we would strategically focus was still being discerned. As vice president in charge of operations, I was looking at how we could promote the mission and ministry of the Sisters of Charity in different areas, trying to tap into Sisters in a variety of geographic areas, and looking at our strategic focus.

SC Ministry Foundation’s mission is to promote the mission and ministry of the Sisters of Charity. How do you describe the role of the Foundation in your own words?

There are so many issues related to social justice, it is a question of where can SC Ministry Foundation catalyze or provide resources to catalyze a system and structure change. That is a niche we have; we have a reputation as being resourceful on changing systems and structures and we use Catholic Social Teaching and the priorities of the Sisters of Charity, such as ending the death penalty, comprehensive immigration reform, affordable quality housing, systems that help people move toward self sufficiency, and assuring a Catholic education for children in Price Hill, as our compass. We do that because of the mission of the Sisters of Charity. Our old mission statement … “Urged by the love of Christ, and give Compelling Witness” provided a great deal of focus in asking “How could we be compelling”?

It is truly a joy to witness the ministry of our Sisters in a variety of ministries and a variety of settings and geographic locations. They are truly living our mission. And that gives me so much hope and energy. Some communities are so grounded and rooted in the Sisters of Charity – whether it’s Bay City, Mich., Price Hill (Cincinnati), Colorado Springs, Colo., or Pueblo, Colo. I do believe with great humility that the Foundation has furthered the mission and ministry of the Sisters of Charity. And we are deeply grateful for the prayers and support and loving trust of all Sisters of Charity.

How would you describe your role in carrying out this mission?

I think our relationships are built on loving trust. Loving trust implies that I will challenge and support, and help catalyze capacity for individuals and the organizations they lead. These assets belong to the Sisters of Charity and these are God’s resources. We are called to steward these resources to bring about the reign of God and the common good for all. I think we are called to be instruments and interfaces of the love of Jesus. And that motivates me daily. It’s God work; it’s not our work.

What makes the Foundation different from other foundations?

We are multi-dimensional when it comes to an issue. An example is immigration – we are working on the Good Samaritan Free Health Center of Price Hill which addresses health care needs in a holistic way, housing issues, advocacy, and integration through a project with Center for Migration Studies. We are building the capacity of immigration reform when it happens, sponsoring the “Cincinnati: A City of Immigrants” booklet and play for our current generation and future generations, and working to make our community friendly, welcoming, and integrative (not assimilative) with other cultures. We challenge organizations not to just address direct services. For example, in Price Hill, we don’t want to move the issue to another neighborhood, but to correct the system that is marginalizing and oppressing people. We ask who is winning, who is losing, who is deciding who is winning and losing, and who is colluding in the decision and system of who’s winning and who’s losing. We are always respectful, but we believe that the love of Christ compels us to ask that question.

How would you define the changes, challenges, and opportunities of the Foundation’s work today?

One of the unique challenges is we don’t have as many investment assets as we had in the past, therefore we don’t have as many dollars available for grantmaking. That has called us to focus more on collaboration with other funders such as foundations and United Way, entering into collaborative funding partnerships such as Place Matters, FADICA/LCWR New Orleans Recovery Project, and looking more at collective impact – how can we have a shared agenda and outcomes in the behavior or condition we’re trying to bring about or prevent.

There are more people in poverty, more families and more children living in poverty, which raises systemic questions, and challenges us to ask those social analysis questions. Justice is right relationship and ensuring people are given their God-given dignity and their shared membership – that implies rights and responsibilities. In this environment we are challenged more to ensure people have the right to food, clothing, affordable quality housing, and affordable and accessible quality health care. It also implies a responsibility on behalf of all of us in ensuring the collective good, in taking responsibility for our own health care, and in cherishing the earth and the resources God has given us. It is not “either-or” but “both-and” of rights and responsibilities.

Under your leadership, the Foundation has led many systemic changes. Examples include: the Vacant Building Maintenance License has been created and revised for the entire city of Cincinnati; Deutsche Bank and Wells Fargo are facing a lawsuit from an organization where you sit on the board (Price Hill Will); and you have been invited to the White House as a faith leader in areas of immigration and health care reform . What advice would you give other leaders on how to effectively do systemic change work?

You have to spend time with the people affected by and making the decisions, hearing from them. This includes the people who are oppressed and marginalized in some way, as well as the people who are winning and colluding. You have to have a relationship to be able to raise some of the difficult questions. There has to be integrity. As St. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel always; if necessary use words.”

I don’t find it helpful to label or classify people; when we spend time in a relationship we find out their circumstances and that’s when we can be most influential in terms of raising questions about the common good. You have to work within the system because it’s very hard to change a system when you’re not a part of it. Once again, you have to “be the change you want to see” as Gandhi said.

That’s why we convene groups and why we go and spend time with the organizations that we have the privilege of partnering with. I am most grateful for my times at Loyola University institute of pastoral studies – I had amazing mentors who helped provide a theological framework to help me integrate some of my past experiences and to formulate questions to raise issues related to the common good.

How does Elizabeth Ann Seton inspire you?

Elizabeth Ann Seton provided direct service throughout her life, but she also came up with a system that provided social justice in terms of educating both those who had resources and those that were in poverty. She believed in a holistic education and believed in diversity and inclusion in terms of race and class. She truly fell in love with God and it decided everything for her. It decided when she got up, what she read, what she did. That relationship was where she placed her reliance.

When it comes to the Foundation, we are called to totally rely on God to work toward bringing about the reign of God and the common good, knowing that it won’t be perfect this day and on this earth, but we have to give our all. There will be a day where we will experience God in ways that are unimaginable and nothing else will matter – not power, status, wealth. And those things don’t matter now; they are just the trappings we fall into. Elizabeth was able to acknowledge those trappings existed, but once she committed herself to the Catholic faith, she totally relied on God in terms of where she would be led the next day and months and years to come. She clearly lived her life as if “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” as St. Paul said. Elizabeth lived her life living for others and that’s why she was charismatic.

I feel relentless about doing this work. I can’t go to sleep at night without knowing that I’ve given my all. Knowing that I am following God’s will gives me energy and hope. It’s life-giving. I do believe in eternal life and I believe that the reign of God is here now and not yet, and that we must work to bring about the reign of God, yet always knowing that there’s another life where we will experience that in its fullest dimension. That’s one of the beautiful legacies of the witness of Elizabeth Seton.

How do you feel your past experiences have prepared you for this work?

When I look back on my life and experiences in education, health care and social services, all of it makes sense in terms of what’s required of leadership at the Foundation. I had the privilege of leading a hospital in Pueblo at a time of crisis, and that truly prepared me for some of the financial challenges that we are dealing with in this environment. I was often put in crisis situations when I was in health care and that has prepared me in terms of recognizing you always have to rely on the help and expertise of others, such as our board and staff and those in similar capacities.

I must admit when I was called to the Sisters of Charity, I never imagined myself connected with a public grantmaking organization. It’s truly God’s sense of humor. I love it. I feel like it’s what God has called me to do. You can do a lot when you feel like you are doing what God is asking you to embrace and trust that God will give you the grace that is necessary. That is where Elizabeth comes in with “meeting your grace.” There is plenty on a daily basis to help us meet our grace if we open our eyes, ears and hearts. 

What sustains you personally?

Above all, my relationship with God. My call as a Sister of Charity and all that’s implied by that call, my love of the Catholic Church, and the vision of Elizabeth Seton also sustain me. I come from a family where my parents, and now my brothers and sisters and their spouses and some of their adult children, see the value of sacrifice and being others-centered and God-centered. I believe people are good and I trust that in every encounter and engagement. I believe that people can change.

The other thing that sustains me is my belief in the Trinity. In all its mystery the Trinity calls us to new ways of living and praying. I think we’re called to look at how the Trinity relate, and how do the three persons in one God focus their activities and what can we learn about being a community of leaders.

I feel like God has gifted me with energy and one of the things that sustains me is I am able to focus that energy in ways that feel like it is in right relationship with God, other people, and creation. Joy and peace feels like a stream of water that is flowing with God’s will. Just as the snow melts, life melts the need to have status or power or recognition. More water is added to the stream and all that matters is the stream is moving toward the reign of God.
What’s next for you?

I have no idea. I leave that in God’s hands and remain open. I have truly been called and invited to the positions I have been in. God is a God of surprises. So I’ll wait for the next surprise.