Fourth century saint set an example for philanthropy


By Barb Arland-Fye

St. Ambrose University alumni Matt Ehlman and Troy Johnson make a presentation Dec. 1 at The Saint Ambrose of Milan Colloquium in the university’s Rogalski Center, Davenport. Their topic: “Should We Feed the Poor?”

DAVENPORT — More than 16 centuries ago, Saint Ambrose of Milan preached about and practiced philanthropy in a way that should seem familiar to admirers of Pope Francis. Ambrose, a fourth century saint, believed Christians ought to give from their first fruits to people in desperate need. Whether the recipients were Christian or not, citizen or foreigner didn’t matter. “Ambrose wants us to give everything we can to help these people, not just a little bit of what we have … we have to give as much as we can,” said St. Ambrose University senior Tom Prior. He shared this and other observations during his talk Dec. 1 at the Saint Ambrose of Milan Colloquium. The event preceded a Mass celebrating the feast day of Saint Ambrose (which is actually Dec. 7) and the first Sunday of Advent.


Prior, who also serves as editor of the student newspaper, The Buzz, provided students and others in the audience with an insightful look at Saint Ambrose’s scripturally based principles on sharing  wealth — that of the Church and of individuals. “Let the Christian give money as if he were not to receive it again,” Prior quoted the saint as saying. “Give without expecting anything in return.” Ambrose believed that everything on earth was a gift from God and that all had a share in it. He saw one of the roles of bishops as upholders of the peace, which would exist as long as people had access to life’s basic necessities.
Ambrose, a doctor of the Church because of his theological gifts, preached that “the congregation of the holy Church grows into one body, joined and bound together in unity of faith and love,” Prior said. Every aspect of Saint Ambrose’s approach to philanthropy may not be applicable today, but the challenge of poverty still exists and must be confronted, the student noted.
“We are here today because we want to see those not seen, hear those not heard and love those not loved. But before we do this, we ought to ask ourselves the same fundamental question that Ambrose asked over 16 centuries ago: should we feed the poor?”
Prior’s talk preceded the keynote address and discussion titled “Should We Feed the Poor” by St. Ambrose University alumni Matt Ehlman (’02) and Troy Johnson (’00). Both men have been engaged in philanthropic work and given of their time and talent to people in need. Each shared how his experiences in social justice activities and volunteerism at St. Ambrose inspired the work they do today.
Johnson works in international development and is currently based in Pakistan, where he recently led a successful effort to help ensure a safe election process. The U.S., he admits, is involved in international development because of self-interest. “What we get is influence abroad,” he said.
Ehlman spent a decade at the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and is a founding member of a consulting group working with nonprofit and commercial organizations. He praised his alma mater’s commitment to the Catholic liberal arts tradition and made reference to McMullen Award recipients — to be honored that night — as people who have chosen to enrich the lives of others.
Ehlman ended the presentation with his own rhetorical question: “The challenge isn’t ‘Should we feed the poor?’ but ‘How should we feed the poor?’”

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