Meeting People Halfway

I recently had the privilege of visiting communities in Idaho that are supported by Catholic Extension.  The Catholic community is spread across a diocese spanning the entire state of Idaho.  Catholics represent only about 11% of the population and many of the communities are rural and working class who are struggling in the wake of this uncertain economy.  Needless to say, it’s a bit of a challenge to create a vibrant church experience in these circumstances.  Yet, everywhere I went in Idaho I encountered passionate Catholics who are deeply committed to the faith, doing their absolute best to reach marginalized populations, and generate growth in the Church.

I visited St. Jerome parish in southern Idaho, where Catholic Extension provides support for pastoral programs.  This is a bi-cultural parish that has done an excellent job of figuring out how to welcome everybody.

The dedicated Catholics at St. Jerome who serve the poor and the marginalized in rural Idaho.

The dedicated Catholics at St. Jerome who serve the poor and the marginalized in rural Idaho.

Just ten years ago, their Sunday Mass attracted no more than 300 people.  But today, Mass is attended by 1,500 people, including families that drive as far as 70 miles to get there every week.

The parish offers religious education in two languages to hundreds of children, and classrooms are packed to capacity.   “We used to have very small classes,” said Katie, the director of religious education who grew up in the parish, “This year we got to the number 300 and I thought, ‘what are we going to do with all these kids?’”  Parishioners acknowledge that this type of logistical issue is in fact a blessing.

Fr. Ron, the pastor, said that “We just try to meet people halfway.”

This mentality of ‘meeting people halfway’ is at the heart of St. Jerome’s effort to feed hundreds of people and families on a weekly basis out of the parish food pantry.

St. Jerome Parish food pantry.

St. Jerome parish food pantry, Martha & Mary's.

This spirit of welcome also drives their work with local teenagers, many of whom are facing hard decisions about drugs and gangs.   A young adult named Gio, who works with the 60+ members of the youth group, had his share of struggles as a teen growing up in Jerome, Idaho.  But one parish retreat called “Come and See” changed his life so much so, that thereafter he committed himself to bringing moral strength and faith to today’s young people who face the same challenges that he once did.

Up the road two hours, I paid a visit to St. Paul’s Newman Center at Boise State University, where Catholic Extension has provided operations support for the past several years.  There too, I learned about all the ways that this ministry is ‘meeting people halfway.’

The worn out, orange carpeting and the musty couches with out-of-style patterns that adorn this facility would suggest that this campus ministry has seen better days.  However, the opposite is true.  This ministry’s impact continues to increase.   I met a group of students over lunch that seemed to have just as much confidence talking about their Catholic faith as they did discussing their beloved university football team.

Jerome, a senior at Boise State, attends weekday Mass at St. Paul Newman Center.

Jerome, a senior at Boise State, attends weekday Mass at St. Paul Newman Center.

At least three students shared similar stories about how Catholicism had never been a part of their lives growing up.  But, they were invited to St. Paul’s Newman Center by their peers and have decided to become fully practicing Catholics after experiencing the joy of this faith community.

As many as 12 of the approximately 300 students who are part of St. Paul’s Newman Center are currently considering vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

We met a young woman who came into the Church at Easter Vigil in 2009 through St. Paul’s RCIA program.  She is now seriously discerning a vocation to religious life and credits the supportive faith community of St. Paul with giving her the courage to do so.

When the Church meets people where they are at, it increases its ability to reach more.  The Catholic communities in Boise have figured this out and used this wisdom to their advantage.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management, Catholic Extension

Bringing the “Outside” Church “Inside”

“There is a sense of unity in that when we go to Mass, we are going to Mass with you — the entire Church.”

This quote in and of itself may not seem profound for the average Catholic.  We believe that when we go to Mass we are celebrating with our fellow parishioners, as well as with the universal Church.  Nonetheless, when I heard this remark from Frank, I rediscovered its meaning.

Clements Unit houses more that 3,700 Texas inmates.

Clements Unit houses more that 3,700 Texas inmates.

Frank is not your typical Catholic.  He is serving a life sentence at Clements Unit, a prison in Amarillo, Texas, where the average sentence is 65 years.  Despite his separation from the rest of the world, Frank does not feel alone.  He and approximately 1,500 inmates across seven prisons in the Diocese of Amarillo are ministered to by a team of five priests, eight deacons and 18 lay volunteers who devote their time to bringing the “outside” Church to the “inside.”

During a recent trip to the Diocese of Amarillo, Catholic Extension had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Frank, Wiley and Mike­— three practicing Catholic inmates within the walls of Clements Unit prison.  Each serving a considerable sentence.

Lay volunteer Roy (left) and Deacon Mike (right) minister to hundreds of Catholic inmates in the Diocese of Amarillo.

Lay volunteer Roy (far left) and Deacon Mike (far right) minister to hundreds of Catholic inmates like Frank, Wiley and Mike (left to right).

“We try to do all the same things that you do in all your churches,” Frank stated.  During 2010, the Diocese of Amarillo’s Prison Ministry held 167 Masses and 298 Communion services.  The inmates yearn for the Masses and services and any written materials they can have — including Catholic calendars.  Because prison regulations prohibit spiral-bound materials, every year the wife of one of the prison ministry volunteers removes the spiral bindings from nearly 100 Catholic Extension calendars and carefully rebinds them with yarn.  These calendars help the prisoners follow the Church’s liturgical calendar and are a valued acknowledgement of their faith.  In September, Catholic Extension awarded a $50,000 grant to the Diocese of Amarillo’s Prison Ministry to help sustain it through operational support.

Because priests are stretched thin, inmates and volunteers often gather and lead lay services or simply sing and pray.  Recent policy changes required the “prison parish” to break up into smaller services spread across different sections of the prison.  Though this has created additional strain on the priests, one inmate saw it as an evangelization opportunity.  Celebrating in areas outside of their chapel gives them the chance to reach out to other inmates.  Mike described, “If I can reach someone and tell them they have value, they begin to grow.  As they begin to pray their self-esteem rises and eventually they’ll reach out and bring a friend, too.”

The Diocese of Amarillo's Prison Ministry offers spiritual familiarity in an otherwise isolated environment.

The Diocese of Amarillo's Prison Ministry offers spiritual familiarity in an otherwise isolated environment.

The last question we asked before heading back into the “free world” was, “What would it be like without this prison ministry’s presence in Clements?”  I listened to a few answers about how the Church is a positive, stable and familiar presence in an otherwise gloomy place, I heard these men recount that the Church’s presence makes a tremendous impact on their daily lives, that the guards even at times ask them why they go to Mass and what they get out of it.  Perhaps Wiley’s answer summed it up best. “Can you imagine what this place would be like if we weren’t praying?” he asked.  “Who would even be able to work here?”

— John Bannon, Manager of Digital Communications, Catholic Extension

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

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

The Other Side of Paradise

This week I was in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Catholic Extension supports the Diocese of St. Thomas.

I know what you are thinking: what a tough assignment for a Chicagoan like me, who hasn’t seen the sun shine or felt a warm breeze on his face since October.  For the record, I did see a palm tree or two; I did behold turquoise waters softly undulating over coral, and I did happen to see a sandy beach.  This is indeed a paradise.  But I saw a side of paradise that the bronzed tourists in flip-flops and souvenir t-shirts undoubtedly miss during their visits.  I got to experience the reality that the Church lives every day.

We began our visit in downtown St. Thomas.  An abandoned building that serves as a drug house sits across the street from the Cathedral school.  Two doors down is a brothel, and then another brothel, and one more block down is yet another brothel, the largest of its kind on the Islands.  A few streets down is a neighborhood where the Catholic Church operates a soup kitchen to feed people who are literally starving.

The Church is present to all people on the islands.

As the bishop so aptly observed, “We are really entrenched in the realities of the Islands.”

I witnessed firsthand how the church is educating and forming young people who are constantly confronted with these perils.  In the past ten years, Catholic Extension has been supporting education, outreach, and faith formation initiatives.  The diocese is forming a powerful support system around these children.  They will need it.  The harsh realities of the island are not far away… they are actually right across the street.

Abandoned vehicles, which serve as makeshift homes, and junk line the streets of this neighborhood on the interior of the island.

As I entered the various classrooms of the Cathedral School, which educates students grades K-12, I was greeted by children in uniform, who reflect the social and economic diversity of the island.  The children stand up with broad smiles on their faces to greet their guests with their customary words, “Good morning and God loves you.”  These kids were faith-filled, happy, hard-working and free to dream big. “I want to be lawyer,” said one 6th grade girl whom we met in the middle of her history lesson.  “I get up at 5 a.m. every day and take a boat to school from another island,” said one high school-aged girl from behind her biology book.  The church’s presence doesn’t stop at the end of the school day, as almost every teenage student participates in their parish youth group.

While the church has made some great headway in transforming these lives while confronting the realities of the island, unfortunate indicators suggest there is still much work to be done.

We visited the Island of St. Croix and were taken to an isolated and impoverished neighborhood.  To get there we had to take a rugged road, which ultimately became completely impassible by car, forcing us to get out and walk.  “Come, I want to show you this place,” the bishop said.  It is a shanty town.  Some people live in abandoned cars; others live in houses surrounded by barbed wire and rusty scraps of sheet metal.   There is junk everywhere, entangled by lush vegetation.  An elderly man waved to us from where he sat on a worn-out couch under a tree.  The bishop explained that he celebrates Christmas mass here.  It breaks his heart to know that at least 67 children live in this neighborhood, many of whom live in volatile home environments and are not being educated.

The place where the Bishop celebrates Christmas Mass.

“Joe, if we can just get a building in this neighborhood, just get a presence going, I know we can make a difference.”

His observation is so correct.

In all the communities I visit, I invariably discover that the local Catholic Church is entrenched, and therefore uniquely positioned to transform people’s hearts and their communities.  I also realize how Catholic Extension is uniquely positioned to help respond to these needs and opportunities.

The church is entrenched in the realities of life, both the joys and the sorrows.  The church sees both sides of the island.

Carefree children play within the protective walls of the Cathedral School.

Through its 1,000+ grants per year  to U.S. –based Catholic “mission dioceses,” Catholic Extension and its donors are working hand-in-hand with these local churches, infusing new life in under-resourced communities near and far.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

Small Investments, Big Results

Monsignor Gene Driscoll, pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Lubbock, led the effort to establish the parish in 1998.

Fresh off our recent visit to the dioceses of San Angelo and Lubbock in the dry western half of Texas, I am struck by the fact that we witnessed something special: the fruits of investments made years ago.

Thirteen years ago, Catholic Extension made a $20,000 grant to the diocese of Lubbock to begin the process of creating a new parish in the diocese, the first in its 28-year history. “I didn’t even have a chair to sit on,” recalled Monsignor Gene Driscoll during the tour of the parish he helped found. Catholic Extension’s grant supported the establishment of an office for him at the Cathedral of Christ the King from which Monsignor Driscoll could begin his work of forming the new parish. In 1998, he gathered 20 couples and together they knocked on 9,500 doors in the area where the proposed parish would eventually be built. Their community outreach effort seems to have paid off. Thirteen years and two building phases later, Holy Spirit Catholic Church boasts more than 1,200 families and is bursting at the seams with activity. Since the first mass was celebrated in the fall of 1998, 470 people have been baptized. The community shows no sign of slowing down. To meet the demand for religious education, it has plans to build 14 more classrooms to supplement the existing campus which already includes a sanctuary that seats 1,400, a parish hall, a preschool and a baseball field.

The Holy Spirit Catholic community now worships in 1,400 seat sanctuary. The first mass was celebrated in 1998 in a Knights of Columbus hall that stood where the church now stands.

On another stop, south of San Angelo, the small town of Eldorado is home to a population of less than 2,000. We met with five of its teen residents who, thanks to a diocesan program called Make A Difference started with a $40,000 Catholic Extension grant in 2005, are committed to doing just that: make a difference.  Deisy, Audrey, Lauren, Joseph and Michael remarkably recounted how they each begrudgingly, at first, but joyfully, by the end, traded cell phones, junk food and sleeping in for a week helping strangers and growing in their faith.  Make a Difference, created by Franciscan Sister Adelina Garcia, OSF, is a week-long summer experience designed to expose Catholic teens from parishes throughout the diocese to a life of Catholic faith in action. Each day is filled with an experience of hands-on community service followed by an evening of prayer and reflection.  The intended result for participants, said Sister Garcia, is a broader sense of the Church and a deeper commitment to living their Catholic faith. The teens we met were living proof that it has worked.

In the background, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, home to “difference makers” Deisy, Audrey, Lauren, Michael and Joseph.

“It made me want to help people more and do other stuff with the Church,” said Joseph, a tall athletic young man who, alongside his brother, Michael, starts on the varsity basketball team and who, with their sister Lauren, is one of three in a set of triplets. It has given them confidence in their Catholic faith, too. In an area where Catholics are less than 20% of the population, Make A Difference gave the teens the support they needed to learn the faith from peers and leaders during the week and provided them with a network of friends to draw upon once they went home. More proof of the program’s effectiveness? Working with materials developed by Sister Adelina, Deisy is hoping to work with other Make A Difference alumni to mount a local version of the experience for more teens from her parish to experience.

Up until now, when visiting a mission diocese, I often found myself encountering something great, watching the seeds of something new take hold, like a new program or new building.  Instead, on this trip, alongside the new projects and possibilities, we encountered the fully-grown fruits of projects started years ago by Catholic Extension funds that today are flourishing on their own in the able hands of committed volunteers and leaders.  Modest investments made years ago by Catholic Extension donors are today paying dividends in the lives of thousands in San Angelo and Lubbock.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management