Bringing Hope Where it is Most Needed

In 1994, Time magazine labeled Lake Providence, Louisiana, “The Poorest Place in America.” The situation is not much better 18 years later. There is very little industry in this town, located in the northeast corner of Louisiana along the Mississippi River. Most of the buildings along the main street are run-down, and the stores are all shuttered. Very few people have jobs. There is nothing for the children and teens to do in the summer. According to one resident, if people can get out of Lake Providence, they do.

An abandoned home in Lake Providence, Louisiana.

An abandoned home in Lake Providence, Louisiana.

In the midst of what may appear to be a hopeless situation, there is one woman who serves as a source of hope to the community. Sister Bernadette Barrett, SHSP, known by everyone as “Sr. Bernie,” is that source of hope. Sister Bernie has been in Lake Providence for 10 years; there have been several sisters from her religious order who also have lived and served in the community. Recently, the other sister who had been living and working with Sister Bernie died; so, for the time being, she ministers alone. But behind her small stature and Irish brogue is a woman of great faith and strength.

We had the chance to visit Lake Providence on our recent visit to the Diocese of Shreveport. We sat down with Sister Bernie and Father Mark Watson, who is the pastor of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, along with some members of the community. We were happy to have the chance to meet Sister in person, since we had heard so much about her work. Catholic Extension supports the sisters in Lake Providence by providing them with salary subsidies.

Sister Bernie Barrett visiting with members of the community.

Sister Bernie Barrett visiting with members of the community.

Sister Bernie coordinates the Lake Providence Collaborative Ministry Project. All of the members of the community spoke of the profound respect they have for her. Though many in this ecumenical group are not Catholic, they had countless stories of ways Sister Bernie had helped each of them and their community as a whole. And although they are incredibly distraught about what has become of the town, they continue to work with Sister to address some of the challenges through community action. Many became very emotional when speaking about her presence. They said, “Sister Bernie gets things done. When she’s coming, people say, ‘Oh, no…’” One of the women, Ethel, stated, “If we ever need a mayor, we’re all going to vote for Sister Bernie.”

Lake Providence community members share their stories with us.

Lake Providence community members share their stories with us.

Father Mark, who also has a real interest in social justice, spoke of Sister Bernie’s connections with St. Patrick’s and described her as a woman of faith who begins each day with Mass in the church. Then she spends her day bringing the love of Christ outside of the church walls to the people of the community. We left our visit struck by what one woman of faith can do to make a difference.

— Terry Witherell, National Representative for Strategic Initiatives, Catholic Extension

Prisons, Ports, and Payless: Jesus visits the bayou.

David Smith casually chats and distribute pamphlets to two passersby at the “Ministry at the Mall.”

If Jesus were to visit Southern Louisiana, like we did last week, I think we’d find him showing up in some unlikely places. Thanks to some interesting ministries and innovative leaders supported by Catholic Extension throughout the bayou region, the notion that “Jesus meets people where they are” is taking on a whole new meaning.

Take for example, the kiosk sponsored by the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux at the Southland Mall in Houma, an oasis of Catholic freebies and educational material in an ocean of frenzied shopping. Located just outside of The Limited and a Payless shoe store, the kiosk has been staffed daily since November 1st by employees of the diocese and volunteers from the Catholic community. The vision for it belongs to Bishop Sam Jacobs who tapped Nancy and Dave Smith to organize daily volunteers, telling them “If Jesus came to Houma today, he’d go straight for the mall.” Bishop Jacobs himself is a regular at the kiosk who, according to David Smith, is a natural “mall minister”.

“This is his brainchild.  He comes out about twice a week, stays an hour or so and reaches out to everybody.  It’s amazing!” he said. In fact, it was Bishop Jacobs who encouraged us to visit the kiosk. We found it to be an exciting expression of the diocese’s commitment to evangelization along the same lines of the many programs Catholic Extension supports in Houma-Thibodaux, like the committed team of Hispanic volunteers we met at Sacred Heart Church in Cut Off, ably-organized by Sister Marta Perez, M.G.Sp.S., and Fr. Jerod Duet.

David and Nancy Smith stand proudly outside the kiosk sponsored by the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux at the Southland Mall in Houma, Louisiana, where they serve as volunteers to reach out to the community.

From the mall in Houma to the prisons in Lafayette, “meeting people where they are” takes a decidedly different shape.  In the Diocese of Lafayette, Jesus is showing up in the lives of those in prison and those hurt by the imprisoned.  Through the diocese’s Prison Ministry and the Survivors of Violence Ministry which are, according to director Ed Boustany, “two bookends of the same story – [serving] the two groups of individuals that are affected by violent acts,” the Church is a compassionate presence in some of the most heart-breaking situations in people’s lives, offering counseling to violence survivors and spiritual guidance and sacramental ministry for those in jail.

“There’s something about the power of the presence of the [Blessed Sacrament] that really affects these men,” Boustany says about the prisoners he leads communion services for. “They realize that it’s going to be something beyond them that’s going to save them. It comes from faith. It comes from that surrender to God when they can’t seem to surrender to anything else. And that’s where I think we make the difference…That’s what I see leads these men to change.”

The diocese’s presence in their life doesn’t end when they get out of prison, either.  Boustany coordinates parishes’ efforts to reach out to the recently released. He says many former inmates who were accompanied by the prison ministry while in jail now serve as volunteer mentors for those who remain.  He feels blessed by the dozens of volunteers who make themselves available to share their faith often under trying conditions and with little acknowledgement.

Deacon Lapoint, center, visits with Brian Hole, left, and Neil Dews of Seattle, Washington who spend time at the Seafarer’s center while awaiting work for their tugboat docked in the Port of Lake Charles.

Making his way west from Houma, past Lafayette, Jesus would very likely end up where we did among the docks and ship yards of the Port of Lake Charles. That’s where we met Deacon Patrick Lapoint who directs the Lake Charles Seafarer’s Center on behalf of the Diocese of Lake Charles. The center is the local outpost of an international network of chaplaincies dedicated to the unique lifestyle of sailors. The needs of sailors who often spend nine months or more away from home are often simple and straightforward, remedied by the nightly shuttle to a local mall or movie theater. But sometimes, Deacon Lapoint becomes a seaman’s only advocate in the face of unjust working conditions or personal emergencies.  More often, his is the only welcoming face that greets a sailor in an unfamiliar port thousands of miles from home.

In each case, and much like the places we witnessed throughout Southern Louisiana, Deacon Lapoint is the Church in its fullest expression of Jesus’ mission: present on the side of the forgotten and too-often overlooked, patiently and lovingly accompanying those whose lives are eclipsed by the immediate demands of the tragic and the mundane, providing the sure hand of welcome and assistance on their journeys.

Boats in the port of Lake Charles.

How has the Church been present to you in a time of need? How has Jesus met you where you are?

– Frank Santoni, Regional Director of Grants

For more on Catholic Extension’s journeys, follow Frank on Twitter.