Virtue Over Victimhood

Excellence-focused community organizations are a brainchild of Robert L. Woodson, Sr. The founder and president of Woodson Center recently launched a new campaign called “1776 Unites,” in which neighborhood organizations exorcise the demon of victimhood possessing the 1619 Project and our entire “woke” culture with the holy water of virtue formation.

Instead of telling young blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asians that no matter what they do or achieve, they’ll never make it in America because the game is rigged and the American project is systemically racist, Woodson and his “1776 Unites” initiatives invite troubled inner-city youth to discover a life-saving alternative. Cultivation of a virtuous character—transformation from within—is the miraculous “key.” First, it releases them from their interior prison of alienation, poverty, ignorance, and moral bankruptcy. Second, it introduces them to the freedom of the family, Church, and civic community, entrepreneurship, education, and moral excellence.

A Modern-Day Paul

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To read Bob Woodson’s book, The Triumphs of Joseph, or to talk to him on the phone about his projects on behalf of inner-city residents, is a jolt of intellectual electricity. You’re immediately “on board” with his enormously ambitious goal to mitigate the crime, violence, and truancy spawned from an inner-city poverty that’s more spiritual than material. When you put the book or phone down, you say to yourself, “If Bob flew banners over his neighborhood organizations, they would read like something right out of the letters of Saint Paul: “Put off the old self and put on the new. Be transformed into Christ’s likeness.”

As a modern-day Paul, Woodson appreciates the doctrine of original sin that teaches that there is something fundamentally off about us humans. Not total depravity, surely. But a crack in the alabaster jar of our nature whereby sin has worked its way into our minds, wills, emotions, and bodily desires. And Woodson believes that the practice of virtue—long-term, substantive personal renewal—is able to correct this disorder.

In short, Woodson understands that the biggest threat to inner-city communities and the people who live there doesn’t come from the outside. It devolves out of the spiritual and moral decay of the minds, wills, desires, and emotions of inner-city residents. That’s precisely why the Christ-like transformations coming out of Woodson’s neighborhood centers could only be described as an “inside” job. It is, as Woodson himself likes to say, the vaccination of the spiritual immune systems of center residents against immoral viruses of every sort. This redemptive effort helps young people from morally bankrupt families and neighborhoods to be good, so they can consistently act for the good.

Modern-Day Josephs

The Woodson Center has provided training to more than 2,600 modern-day Josephs who head up low-income minority community organizations in 39 states. These directors, mentors, and healers are people who suffered and overcame the same afflictions as the people they direct.

Woodson’s first move was to identify today’s Josephs who were already directing well-established centers and had previously rescued and rejuvenated thousands of inner-city youths caught in a moral free fall. These men and women possess the prudent, just, courageous, and temperate profile of the Old Testament Joseph.

Next, the Woodson Center team recruited new Josephs to help them solidify their ongoing progress in virtue. Once these novice recruits became virtue specialists, they could head up inner-city organizations of their own where they could foster moral excellence in low-income youths in cities across America.

How, exactly, does the biblical Joseph inspire the Woodson Center’s moral profile for today’s Josephs? The book of Genesis describes the Old Testament Joseph, the beloved son of Jacob, as someone who prudently chose the right course of action and followed through on his choices. He courageously faced death, slavery, and rejection. He temperately resisted temptations from disordered desires in order to pursue human goods. He justly rendered to others—God, Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and his Israelite brothers—what was their respective due.

What’s more, if modern-day Josephs are baptized Christians, they also possess the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity, virtues that empower them to exercise the natural virtues even more perfectly. The theological virtue of faith, for example, enlivens a leader’s natural virtue of prudence through the guidance of the moral law. The theological virtue of hope shapes the leaders’ exercise of the natural virtues of temperance and fortitude by directing their moderated and courageous lives to the worship of God, culminating in the ultimate good of the beatific vision. And the leaders’ supernatural virtue of charity elevates their exercise of justice through the love that is the Holy Spirit.

Modern-day Josephs—grassroots, potently active personifications of the biblical Joseph’s natural and supernatural virtues—are willing and able to ignite the extant embers of health and morality that still glow amongst some 30 percent of today’s inner-city residents.

Modern-Day Pharaohs

Woodson is asking today’s Pharaohs—businessmen and philanthropists—to consider partnering with today’s Josephs, just as the Egyptian Pharaoh did with the biblical Joseph. Woodson reasons that since these Joseph-directed urban community centers can “take a dependent, violent, and self-destructive individual and transform that person into a responsible, productive, contributing member of society,” the organization “should be recognized, supported, and embraced.”

Woodson challenges today’s Pharaohs to imagine how their financial and entrepreneurial partnership with modern-day Josephs could exponentially multiply the miraculous inner-city transformations they have wrought to date. They could supply “the facilities, transportation, and educational and recreational equipment” of these neighborhood islands of excellence and expand their natural immunity to the entire American society. Accountants could contribute their sound management practices, ensuring the longevity of these centers. Tech experts could help build “institutional supports around the grassroots leaders so that they can develop a staff to recruit mentors from their neighborhoods.”

Today’s Josephs have a lot to bring to the negotiating table: First, they bring their proven record of engendering “substantial and lasting transformation” of people and their urban landscapes “at a fraction of the cost of less effective but ‘credentialed’ programs” from the bureaucratic welfare state. Second,  they also bring their ability to put today’s Pharaohs in touch with graduates of their neighborhood-based initiatives, identifying the exact type of applicant every employer is looking for, i.e., youth who are honest, reliable, enthusiastic, possessing a solid work ethic, and ready to take on the responsibility of learning the requisite skills for the job.

Modern-Day Jacobs

The urban aspirants who come to Victory Home, a Woodson-sponsored center in San Antonio, Texas, are like the Old Testament Jacob who struggled with an angel in the dark night. They might be limping, but they’re not paralyzed. They sign on to its program because they want to be like the center’s leader, Freddie Garcia, and its resident councilor, Juan Rivera. They want to kick their debilitating addictive habits for good. To move the needle in that direction, immediately after their detox process, these enrollees begin the discipline of acquiring the virtue of temperance. How? By acting temperately—abstaining from drugs and alcohol—time and time again until, in time, it becomes a settled disposition, a second nature, as it is for Freddie and Juan. Both are able to readily activate the good habit of temperance every time it’s needed.

Those who come to them are “boot campers.” They want the same freedom Freddie and Juan have, the freedom to control their desire for drugs and alcohol rather than let their intemperate desire control them.

As the virtue of temperance helps them integrate their basic bodily desires for food, drink, drugs, and sex into the realm of reason, these aspiring young adults don’t just acquire the virtue of temperance. They simultaneously acquire its virtue correlates: the courage to be temperate, the prudence to choose rightly in respect to addictive substances, and the justice to render what they owe their families, their neighbors, and God. Armed with the powers of these natural virtues, these young men and women begin to enjoy the goods of life, health, truth, and community, the basic human goods that shape their overall character and enhance their freedom for moral excellence.

Free at Last

The inner-city aspirants who come to Woodson-sponsored, inner-city organizations begin the process of putting on Christ through the double helix of emulating the virtues of their center’s leadership and acting virtuously in their everyday life. Through them, the vision of Bob Woodson springs eternal. We can hope that the quiet spiritual brushfire of these inner-city youth, now crescendoed into a roaring wildfire, will eventually also engulf the inhabitants of one gilded suburban ghetto after another.

Rest assured; this conflagration is not the kind that destroys lives, vegetation, and homes. It’s the kind that purifies. Thanks to Bob Woodson—a modern-day Saint Paul—and his cohort of Josephs and Pharaohs, thousands of inner-city youths, after being unshackled from the demon of victim ideology, are at last able to experience the virtuous freedom for moral excellence.


  • Sr. Renée Mirkes, OSF

    Sister Renee Mirkes, OSF, PhD is a Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity and directs the Center for NaProEthics, the ethics division of the Saint Paul VI Institute, Omaha, Nebraska. She may be reached at [email protected].

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