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Scott Cooper empowers people to explore ways to work for justice

By Sue Orlowski, SP

At noon most days, Scott Cooper jogs down the street from Catholic Charities of Spokane (CCS) at 12 E. Fifth where he is the director of social ministries. It’s more than a way to exercise.  It’s a way to center so he can focus his energies outward.

Scott Cooper works with a variety of Catholic Charities programs.

Scott’s ministry takes him to many places in the Spokane Catholic Diocese in Eastern Washington, from the Canadian to the Oregon borders.

No two days look alike for him. One day he may visit the Brewster food bank to review its outreach and recovery from last year’s wildfire.  Then he may help screen people for a tattoo removal program. Finally, he may return to Spokane to coordinate a liturgy at the cathedral for respect for life.  He has also traveled with Catholic Relief Services to developing countries to see people who benefit from its programs.

At Gonzaga University, Scott, who grew up in a small town in South Dakota, participated in a study abroad immersion in Paris.  There the world took on new meaning for him.  He took ownership of his time.  That trip was a formative experience.

So were two years in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) after graduating from Gonzaga with a bachelor’s in French.

JVC’s “unofficial” motto, he said smiling, is, “We will ruin you for life.” Its real motto is “Be transformed by the call to peace and justice.”

He was transformed.

“JVC opened my eyes to social justice issues,” Scott said.

For two years, he lived in Nome, Alaska, in the Fairbanks Diocese, where he worked for KNOM, the oldest Catholic radio station in the country. He lived in an intentional community with other JVC volunteers. They prayed together, and shared experiences of faith and hope.

For them, it was counter-cultural to live simply.  Out of faith, they were committed to work for social and ecological justice, as well as for structural change. They examined causes of oppression and looked for ways to bring justice into the world.

“Through commitment to Gospel values, we became ‘contemplatives in action,’ integrating our faith with working for justice,” he said.

Jesuit Volunteers Northwest connects people with one or more years of volunteer service that focus on community, spirituality, simple living and social and ecological justice. It provides opportunities for volunteers to reach out to persons living on the margins of society and in vulnerable places as they partner with agencies in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

JVC volunteers empower people by supporting programs to help people help themselves. Scott was exposed to realities of life for Native people in Alaska as they maintain their traditional subsistence lifestyle.

In remote villages where substance abuse and HIV were realities, he heard stories of success. The community reveled when there was a successful whale hunt that helped them maintain their lifestyle, Scott said. 

At KNOM, he did inspirational, educational and public health feature reports. He talked with people about their struggles, challenges and successes.  He learned from immersion in social service.

“This ministry helped engage my heart, while academia had engaged my head,” he said.

After JVC, Scott earned a master’s degree in linguistics at the University of Washington and taught French.  In the mid 1990s, he returned to Spokane, teaching two French classes at Gonzaga, while serving as director of social services for St. Vincent de Paul. 

“While there, I saw what it meant to work with the poor, and I stumbled upon this ministry. I found I was gifted to work with the poor and I liked being able to help them,” he said.

“It was a steep learning curve. I had to learn about government systems that help meet needs and then try to respond to each person’s needs,” Scott said.  “I saw how those systems did not always do the job.”

During this time, the United States enacted welfare reform.  He saw what it meant in the lives of low-income people.  Two-thirds of the clients were working, but still had to come to the food bank to feed their children.

“The number of clients increased as the government cut funding. Services shifted to the private sector. More people who worked needed services. The market was flooded with unskilled, minimum-wage workers. We still see the effects 20 years later,” Scott said.

After four years at St. Vincent de Paul, Scott was a program associate at Second Harvest Food Bank.

In late 2000, Donna Hanson, then director of CCS, recruited him to begin as director of parish social ministries in 2001.

In that role, he consults with and supports diocesan parishes and schools.  He is responsible for outreach, advocacy and Catholic social teaching, and coordinates the CCS emergency financial assistance network.

He is diocesan director for national programs, such as Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.  He also advocates for the poor on Capitol Hill so Congress does not balance the budget on the backs of the poor.

As part of his outreach, Scott publishes a quarterly newsletter, Salt and Light, as a resource for parishes.

Scott helps develop programs and events with different Eastern Washington groups, because “working together we can do more than when we work alone.”  One is the Eastern Washington Legislative Conference.

Catholic Charities’ mission is to affirm the dignity of every person, partnering with parishes and the community to serve and advocate for vulnerable people, bringing stability and hope to people. Its values of respect, compassion, collaboration and justice guide its decisions.  CCS is committed to people, relationships, crisis response, advocacy and innovation.

“I advocate for the poor and help people advocate for themselves,” said Scott, who is also cantor at and has attended St. Augustine Parish for 20 years with his wife and family.

Scripture, liturgy and Eucharist strengthen him.

“I do what I can do as well as I can, but I have to pray and trust that God will do for people what I cannot do for them,” he said.

The CCS social justice office is rooted in Catholic social teaching, which is rooted in the Jewish prophets, who proclaimed God’s special love for the poor and called God’s people to a covenant of love and justice, he said.

The teachings are founded on the life and words of Jesus who came to bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind (Luke 4:18-19), and identified with the “least of these,” the hungry and stranger (Matt. 25:45).

For Scott, Catholic social teaching balances concerns for the whole society—especially the weakest and poorest—with respect for human liberty. Its foundations were laid in the late 19th century and have been added to over the years by popes and encyclical letters.  The most recent is “Laudato Si,” by Pope Francis.

“The church’s teachings tell us we are all one, and principles and issues are interrelated and speak to an integral human development. We say this in our words and actions,” he said.

Catholic social teachings have expanded in response to challenges of modern society to include life and dignity of persons; a call to family, community and participation; responsibilities and rights; the church’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable; the dignity of work and rights of workers; solidarity, and care for God’s creation.

Scott has two icons: One is St. Teresa of Calcutta, who said, “Working with the poor is working with Jesus in his most distressing disguise.” The other is Dorothy Day who said, “We need the poor more than they need us.”

“The poor can transform us if we let them,” said Scott. “I do things with them not for them. Some days, all I can do is offer my presence, attention and a non-judgmental ear.”

Scott, who sees his job as a ministry, finds that clients minister to him and keep him grounded.

“As Jesus said, ‘Much has been given so much is required.’ That helps me to focus on needs to be met,” he said. 

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