Helping others: The ride of your life

Near the beginning of a 464-mile bike tour, my right knee gave out. I pulled over to a Ride the Rockies aid station in a tiny town in Colorado and lay down in the grass, in pain, my knee swollen. I felt alone and helpless. When I received help, my sense of relief and security was overwhelming. When you can’t help yourself, it’s a cold and lonely feeling. It really takes your breath away.

Now, imagine the helplessness of someone experiencing homelessness: foraging for food in trash bins, hunkered down under a bridge or not sleeping for fear of harm. It’s not something you would ever want to experience. But thousands of our brothers and sisters across the country do experience homelessness. One-fifth of them are children.

There is good news. The estimated number of homeless people has trended down in the past decade. The sad news, in Colorado, is that we’re counter to the trend. Between 2015 and 2016, when overall homelessness (including people in families) dropped 2.6 percent nationally, Colorado experienced the single-largest percentage increase of homeless individuals (12.6 percent) of any state, according to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The causes are many and varied. What’s important is what we do about it. At the Samaritan House homeless shelter in downtown Denver, of those individuals and families who complete the first 30 days of the Levels Program that includes life skills, more than 60 percent leave the shelter with housing in place. More than 90 percent have income in place.

This year, we will open the Samaritan House Women’s Shelter in northeast Denver to accommodate 150 women a night. We’re also moving our administrative offices to that location to be in closer community with those we serve. With your help, Catholic Charities is providing hope in the face of helplessness.

That’s also why, for the seventh consecutive year, Team Samaritan House is part of Ride the Rockies. I was on the ride in 2015 when my knee gave out. This year, I’ll be part of the support team as 40 members of Team Samaritan House pedal a 447-mile loop from Alamosa to Salida from June 10 to June 17. Why do they ride? For the love of the homeless and to raise $150,000 to support the shelters of Catholic Charities. Those riders are spending many hours in the saddle. I encourage you to support one or more of them at samhousedenver.org/rtr.

And after you do that, make plans to come down to Samaritan House and help serve dinner to the poor. You’ll be much richer for it. On a training run, one of our riders met a group of three men from Australia, riding their bikes. Just because they wanted to be a part of it, the men ended up helping Team Samaritan House serve a special pig roast dinner to residents of the shelter.

I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith,” proclaims St. Paul in 2 Timothy 4:7.

Join us. Let’s race together to serve others.

Larry Smith is the president and CEO of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Denver. Visit online at ccdenver.org or call 303-742-0828 to learn more, volunteer or make a donation.

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”