Walking the Talk
Rick Mihm does not work with the poor. He exists with them. As the executive director of the Dubuque Rescue Mission, he has been with hundreds of homeless men and women as they struggle to regain a measure of dignity and lead happier, more productive lives. He walks the talk of a follower of Christ, and lives the words in the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 25, Verses 35-36:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”
On Wednesday, March 20, Divine Word College honored Rick with its 2013 Matthew 25 Award for what he does, day in and day out, to improve the lives of those on the lowest rung of the economic ladder.
“Rick is a person in whom the Gospel, especially Matthew 25, has taken root and seeks expression,” wrote Sr. Nancy Schreck, OSF, in her nomination papers. Acknowledging his contribution to the mission, she also noted
his work establishing Hope House, the Catholic Worker House in Dubuque, and New Hope Catholic Worker Farm in rural LaMotte, Iowa, where he resides with his and three other families. “In addition to his outreach, he is a man of gentleness, care for the earth, and deep faith.”
His life has been witness to those less fortunate. From his childhood days watching his parents welcome dozens of foster children into their home, to his long-time involvement in the Catholic Worker movement, to his days as a priest of the archdiocese and his work today at the rescue mission, Rick has consistently placed himself at the side of those in need.
Born in Decorah, Iowa, in 1963, he moved with his family to Dubuque in 1965 where he attended Dubuque Catholic schools. His father was a barber, so his family was not wealthy, yet there was always room for foster children to join him and his brother and two sisters at the dinner table. During his senior year at Wahlert High School, he wrote a paper about his family and asked his mother how many foster children had come into their lives.
“She said she had stopped counting at 84 and they still went another ten years after that,” Rick said. “That’s what planted that seed. So I’ve always been drawn to those on the margins who are struggling.”
He first enrolled at the University of Iowa and later transferred to Loras College in Dubuque, where he completed the St. Pius X College Seminary program and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1985.
Then it was on to the seminary at St. John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota to pursue the priesthood. While there, he spent year in Israel studying the New and Old Testament and later took a leave of absence to run a home in the Bronx, in New York City that provided a place for youths wanting to leave the life of the street gangs.
“It was an amazing place, but an extraordinarily violent place,” Rick said. “That confirmed for me that ministry was what I truly wanted to do.”
He returned to the seminary and was ordained in May,1990 and was assigned to Nativity Parish in Dubuque as associate pastor. The next year, he became assistant pastor at St. Edwards in Waterloo, where his duties included teaching at Columbus High School. During the summers, he pursued a master’s degree in Spirituality at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.
In 1994, he was sent back to Dubuque to take on a number of duties at Loras College, including college chaplain, director of campus ministry, diocese vocation director and director of spiritual formation for seminarians. In 1996, and in need of a part-time social justice person for campus ministry, he reacquainted with one of his college friends, Mary Moody, who agreed to take on the job. Together with members of the Loras faculty and staff, they founded Hope House Catholic Worker House in Dubuque.
Rick had been interested in the Catholic Worker movement since high school. He was involved in such projects during his graduate school years in seminary, at St. Cloud, Minnesota, then after he was ordained in Waterloo and at Creighton. After his return to Loras College, and seeing a previous Catholic Worker house on East 21st Street close, he and Mary, along with their friends from Loras re-established a house at 16th and Locust Street. It was during that time that Rick and Mary’s relationship grew and Rick decided to leave the priesthood and Loras College. In the summer of 1997, he and Mary were married and for five years, they called Hope House home. It was where their first child, son Francis, was born, which Rick experienced—first hand.
“I delivered him because the midwives didn’t get there in time,” Rick said. “It was a little frightening. The midwives were there for the other two, though.”
Professionally, after leaving the priesthood, Rick landed a position at the Substance Abuse Services Center, a community-based addiction clinic in downtown Dubuque, where he worked for ten years as a counselor. Meanwhile, after five years at Hope House, Rick and Mary founded New Hope Catholic Worker Farm, in rural LaMotte, in 2001. Starting out as a farm field, over time, they and those who have supported their work, have built a property that is now home to 14 people in four families, including his own.
“We live there, we grow our own food, we have milk cows, sheep, chickens, large gardens, orchards, bees; we try to sustain ourselves,” he said. “We pray together every morning, we eat some meals together; we share our finances and play together.”
Then one day in late August 2007, while taking a break between counseling sessions, Rick ran into a friend who served on the board of directors of the Dubuque Rescue Mission. She told him that they were looking for an executive director and she thought he’d be a good fit. He applied for the job and started full time on October 1, 2007.
Because rescue missions like the one in Dubuque are part of an association of Gospel rescue missions that are non-denominational, the job has allowed him to apply his knowledge and skill as a member of the clergy, ministering to the poor.
“I do everything that I did as a priest here. We have a worship service on Sunday night; we have morning prayer every day at ten. I visit the sick. I marry people,” he said. “It’s a marvelous full circle in God’s crazy plan for us human beings. It has all come around in a very good way for me and my ministry.”
Just last year, the Dubuque Rescue Mission served 48,367 meals and provided 7300 lodgings for men, as well as provide 1061 vouchers, valued at from $50 to $100, to those in need of clothing and house wares. Along with its Thrift Store, the mission’s bicycle-repair shop provides a source of revenue and offers transportation for the men as well as area children. New Hope Catholic Worker Farm and the mission’s own garden provide produce for its kitchen. The rescue mission has also established two residences in Dubuque to provide a transitional housing for men. In the works is a green house to raise more food for the mission.
During the vesper service when Rick was presented the Matthew 25 Award, Fr. Tim Lenchak, president of Divine Word College, spoke of the concept of “practicing what you preach,” expressed in the expression, “If you are going to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk.”
“We believe that in his life, Rick not only ‘talks the talk, but also ‘walks the walk,’ Fr. Tim said. “It’s important for all of us to learn that lesson that Jesus demands of us—that we believe and that our belief is lived out in practice.”