Alabama Tornados Teach Why Faith Matters

People who do heavy physical training and exercise typically do so in anticipation of a big game or race.  In a similar way, people of faith do “spiritual exercises” that ultimately prepare them to transform the world.  Well-exercised Catholics are prepared to do “heavy lifting” in the world.  At least that’s what I learned on a recent trip to northwest Alabama, where just three weeks ago multiple F-4 and F-5 tornadoes ripped through the area, carving paths of total destruction.

The tornado destruction is shocking. Faith communities are prepared to provide not only immediate relief but long-term support to those in need.

Located amid the tornado-ravaged areas is Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Winfield, Alabama, which is a four-county parish whose territory is the same size as the state of Rhode Island.  Catholics are only 0.5 percent of the population in this Bible-belt stronghold.  The parish, built and funded by Catholic Extension with ongoing operational support, unites the 200 Catholic families in these four counties.   Each Sunday the parish prepares them to be lights for a community where the needs are great.

The tornadoes have complicated what already was a challenging situation.  Driving around, one notices the abundance of shuttered businesses and plants, signaling the community’s economic struggles.  Seeing the areas impacted by the tornadoes is even more sobering.  Hackleburg, Alabama, looks as if it has been hit by a nuclear bomb.  There is no more civilization, no more plant life or trees, just a surreal scene of tangled and lifeless rubble and wreckage.

Jonathan is a local parishioner who “quit his trucking job and cashed in his 401(k)” to pursue his dream of serving his local community.  He left his job on April 12.  Just 15 days later the tornadoes came, killing scores of people and leaving hundreds more homeless and destitute.  He feels the timing was not coincidental and that the Holy Spirit is calling him to do something even more than he had originally envisioned for the people in his community and on behalf of his beloved Catholic parish.

Jonathan opens an empty freezer that normally stocks frozen food and meats for hungry families. His goal is to fill the freezer.

He has been rallying support and services from the Catholics in his parish during the past three weeks, as well as collaborating with volunteers of other denominations.  He tried to fight back tears as he recounted to me his standard message at Mass: “As we go out to God’s family, friends and neighbors to practice God’s mercy, putting the corporal and spiritual deeds of mercy in action, we will identify and fill the local physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs of our neighbors.”

 “We know exactly what our faith is calling us to do in this moment,” said Susan, another parishioner I met, when referring to her charitable readiness in the wake of the tornadoes.  She is a seasoned veteran of service who for years has worked with her granddaughter sorting clothing and food at one of the parish’s outreach centers.

Almost as if triggered by reflex, people of faith snap into action. Or, as in the cases of Susan and Jonathan, they step it up a notch.

Volunteers from the local parish sort items at the Church’s center for social concerns.

“God has never said ‘no’ to us, so why should we say ‘no’ to Him,” said Teresa, who is the pastoral assistant at Holy Spirit.  For years, she and others have been working tirelessly to support the needs of their community through their outreach center.  In response to the tornadoes, they are working on an 18-month plan, because they expect the demands of the community to spike after all the national hype  subsides and the out-of-state volunteers leave.  Parishioners of Holy Spirit are motivated by genuine love and concern, regardless of the day’s headlines.  Therefore, when the others leave, Holy Spirit parishioners will still be there, doing what they’ve done for years.  And Catholic Extension will continue journeying with this parish, ensuring that they can still practice their faith and bring hope to a community where the needs are great.

If you have ever asked yourself or been asked the question “Why be a Catholic? Why be a Christian?,” I think I just found the answer in Alabama.  We are Catholic Christians so that we may be filled with gifts that we can then pass on to the world.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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Big Hearts in the Heartland

“Go Big or Go Home” is an expression that immediately comes to mind after my recent visit to the Heartland.  Catholics in this region “go big” in many ways; they also “think big” and “pray big.”  I left there with plenty of reasons to be amazed.

During the renovation, this little “prairie gothic” was lifted off the ground to enable the creation of a basement.

I visited Unionville, a town of 2,000 tucked away in the gentle hills of northern Missouri, about 15 miles south of the Iowa border.  The local Catholic mission, St. Mary, has been around for a century and a half and is preparing for the next 100 years.  Just last year Catholic Extension donors helped this mission parish renovate its church.  With a $48,000 grant from Catholic Extension, parishioners were able to completely rehab their aging “prairie gothic” church, which had been built in the mid 1800s, a testament to the longevity of this faith community.  They jacked up the little white church on stilts to replace all of the corroded floor joists and then tunneled through sheet rock and dirt to create a finished basement for a religious education center, kitchen and parish hall.  They tightened the bowed walls of the church as much as five inches, and tore out and replaced all the old plaster and the drop ceiling.  It sounds like a big, complicated and expensive project.  Would you have guessed, though, that they pulled all this off for a mere $100,000?

Local parishioners, who have expertise in construction, lent their time to the project to cut costs.  Some spent as many as five hours a day, seven days a week for a solid six months.  These dedicated souls got local youth and children involved, and even recruited a few non-Catholics who were willing to help.

Parishioners show us the results of their work and Catholic Extension’s grant. The church was rededicated by Bishop Gaydos in October of 2010.

“The purpose of this project was not just to fix the church,” said Gene Brummer, who led the team.  ”The purpose was to get everyone involved and help them see that this is their church.”  Being a small mission, with no full-time staff and a priest who drives two and half hours to celebrate Mass, the parishioners realize they must be hands-on.

Spirituality in these parts is simple but profound:  “What matters here is what’s in your heart,” said Gene.  For the parishioners of St. Mary’s, action demonstrates what’s in the heart.

About an hour away from Unionville is Kirskville, home to Truman State University.  Approximately 5,000 students attend Truman State,  1,500 of whom are Catholics.  In 2007, the campus ministry center burned to the ground after being struck by lightning.  With a little bit of help from Catholic Extension and a whole lot of determination on their part, the campus ministry has rebuilt a state-of -the-art facility.  They have new staff in place and the campus is teeming and popping with energy.

The local campus ministry would make any Catholic smile with pride and hope for the future.   As many as 800 students participate in some way in campus ministry, an impressive statistic for a state school.  The caliber of the students says it all:

“It’s really an awesome privilege to have access to a chapel twenty-four hours a day,” said Ashley, a prayerful and well-spoken sophomore who is a leader of many campus ministry activities.  She wants to work in graphic design and advertising after graduation so that she can be an ethical voice in an industry, which in her opinion, “too often appeals to people’s weaknesses and not their strengths.”

“I plan to apply for the seminary to pursue priesthood after graduation,” said Joe, a junior from southern Missouri.  He explains that the Newman Center has played a pivotal role in affirming that decision.  “There’s such a strong faith community here,” he said.

Students sing and pray in the chapel at the Newman Center, beneath the tabernacle as well as the wooden crucifix that survived the 2007 fire.

As I travel the country, I see that great things come from ordinary, small-town folk who “go big.”  Their work reminds me of how our faith tradition is scripted, a faith in which fisherman, shepherds, and a carpenter shed light on who God is and all that He is capable of doing.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Encouraging Trends in Catholicism

This week I was in McKee, KY, a small town in the foothills of Appalachia.  I visited St. Paul Mission, a thriving Catholic community supported by Catholic Extension located in an area of the country where less than one half of a percent of the population is Catholic.

If you’ve ever thought that Catholicism is dying, let me show you where it is rising.  If you’ve ever thought that no one cares anymore about the faith, let me introduce you to the people who care.  If you’ve ever thought that all young people disdain religion, let me introduce you to the ones who fully embrace it.  If you’ve ever been depressed about the direction our Church is headed in, allow me to restore some hope in you.

But, to restore your confidence, you’ll have to go to places off of the beaten path, places like St. Paul in McKee, KY.  The parishioners are all people who live in the “trenches,” witnessing every day the realities of rural poverty, rampant drug use, teen pregnancy and youth growing up in broken homes.  Yet, all the people I met, John, Melvin, Eddie, Rebecca, Monica, Judy, and Fr. Frank, their pastor, see hope everywhere.  Catholics here simply live the Gospel and love their neighbors.

These parishioners don’t have means, but they sure have meaning.  One parishioner, Melvin, said “I can count on one hand how many of our parishioners make over $30,000 a year.” Even though the 25 Catholic families of the parish are small in number and financial resources, they provide thousands upon thousands of hours of service to their local community annually. Catholics have built a reputation in Jackson county for assisting Catholics and Non-Catholics alike.

The humble dwelling of a resident in Eastern Kentucky, where the needs are great, but the Catholic response is heroic.

Rebecca, the young and energetic lay pastoral associate of St. Paul, was recently transporting a sick member of the community to a health care visit when her vehicle slipped off the narrow dirt road into a ditch.  A passer-by, and non-catholic, upon assessing her situation, instructed her to “Give those Catholics a call.  They’ll do just about anything to help you out.”   Had she made that call, she would have been calling herself, as she is the primary contact person for the local Catholic community there.

Judy, a local business owner and parishioner of St. Paul, feels that God has called her to serve the people of McKee.  Judy runs a local factory.  On the surface it looks like a regular for-profit company, but her true mission, she explained, is to provide meaningful employment for people in this economically depressed area.  She arrived in Jackson County Kentucky years ago as a Christian Appalachian Volunteers, an organization founded by the legendary diocesan priest, Monsignor Ralph Beiting.  In the early days, volunteers like Judy earned a stipend of $50 a month and received no health insurance.  Years later, that service experience has never left her, and so neither has she left McKee.  Today as a Catholic business owner, she continues the mission of helping people, to be a source of economic development for their community.

Eddie, a husband and father of five who works at a local saw mill, believes that it has been the parish community which has anchored people in their faith so solidly and enabled them to live their faith so powerfully.  “I will never leave this community, even though it’s a little hard to be Catholic here” he said, “I want my children to grow up here.”

Catholics who live out their faith are transforming the world.  And wherever I go in the U.S. to visit Catholic communities I encounter individuals who live radical lives of service, rooted in their faith.  Their stories are not isolated incidents of good will. Rather, they represent a real phenomenon, that ordinary, yet holy men and women are setting the world ablaze and bringing life to the Catholic Church.  As their pastor, Fr. Frank so aptly observed, “Hey, where there is charity and Love, there God is.”  We Catholics should feel good about that.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management