Ignatius and his fellows could always find work to be done in the streets. Today's Jesuits and those who work with them continue that tradition.
New York—Nativity Mission Center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side has been educating inner-city middle schoolers for 30 years now. It’s a Jesuit response to an ongoing need: quality education for minority kids that will see them through high school and into college and out of a cycle of poverty.
IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA wasn’t by birth a city boy. He was raised in a rural area, surrounded by the finest creature comforts available to a well-born man in the fifteenth century. After his conversion and pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Rome it came to him: If you want to preach the Gospel so it can be heard, you have to do it where the people are. He also knew that those in need respond to those who speak their language, those who live among them, those whose service touches them directly.
From the beginning Ignatius insisted that his followers be educated men of the world, living out their commitment to the Gospel publicly, for people to see and hear. Here were men of God who weren’t hidden from view by monastery walls. Instead, they were living and working side by side with the people, laboring in the vineyard, as Ignatius put it.
This same Ignatian model, filtered through vast changes of the Church and the changes inherent in society, is very much in action today. Jesuits all over the United States work in urban settings running community centers and schools, providing health care, and sometimes simply being there for the poor and marginalized inhabitants of inner-city neighborhoods. In some cases that presence is through an institution: most Jesuit schools are located in the middle of large urban centers. Whatever their mission, these places meet a vital need for the populations they serve.
Camden—The Jesuit Urban Service Team pauses from their labors, which include family counseling and medical and legal services for the residents of this economically beleaguered city.
Camden, New Jersey, for example, is one of the most economically depressed cities in the country. “Anything the rest of New Jersey doesn’t want, we get,” says Fr. Charles Gonzalez, SJ, executive director of the Jesuit Urban Service Team (JUST) in Camden. “We have the toxic waste dumps, we have the prisons. New Jersey put us on the back burner and all but wrote us off.” Working with other community action groups, JUST helps the people of Camden organize and demand attention from the state and federal government.
“Though they’re giving Camden $195 million, that’s only a drop in the bucket, but there are plans to reorganize the local government to get rid of corruption, and there is other money to provide for social services,” says Fr. Gonzalez. “Up until now, services like JUST have been helping the people who live here simply keep their heads above water.”
JUST is what Fr. Gonzalez calls a “total service ministry”: they sponsor a medical center for those who can’t get health care, a legal center that deals with immigration and other problems for people who can’t afford a lawyer, and Holy Name parish and school.
“Vatican II and [former Jesuit Superior General] Pedro Arrupe asked that we answer the call of the poor,” says Fr. Gonzalez. “As Jesuits, we ask ourselves, where is the greater need? In the Maryland Province, the Camden area was where the need was greatest.”
Running such a varied ministry can be emotionally and financially draining. “It can be frustrating, because the pace of change is slow,” says Fr. Gonzalez. A big part of his time is spent traveling around, preaching about his ministry, and sending out letters asking for money. “Somehow, we always manage to get by,” he says.
Los Angeles—Fr. Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles offers gangbangers a way off the streets and into jobs via counseling, support, and training. He’s not alone in this ministry. Br. Jim Holub, SJ, teaches computer skills and web design to at-risk inner-city youth in Milwaukee (www.homeboyz.com); Fr. Jeff Putthoff, SJ, is similarly at work in Camden (www.hopeworks.org).
That “getting by” feeling is familiar to Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, director of Homeboys Industries and Jobs For The Future in Los Angeles. He sounded a bit surprised and relieved when he said one recent Friday, “We made payroll. I don’t know how we did it, but we did. We pay 70 people a living wage.” Fr. Boyle’s ministry faces the same problem many others have since 9/11—donations have gone down 25 percent. But the work of Homeboys Industries continues full force with one objective in mind: getting gang members off the streets and into mainstream society, where they can work, raise families, and contribute to their community.
“Gang members are on the lowest rung of society,” Fr. Boyle says, “lower than the homeless. We’re constantly doing battle with the perceptions people have of gang members. I try to put a human face on them.”
Fr. Boyle has been working with LA gangs since 1986. “I buried my first gang member in 1988. Last Monday, I buried my 109th.” Homeboys Industries has worked hard to try to keep that number down. “We look for gang members who want to leave behind drug selling and gang life,” says Fr. Boyle. “We have to discuss who they are, have they come to terms with the heartache they’ve caused by their lifestyle.”
Gang members come looking for clothes, tattoo removal, and drug rehab. If they have skills and show an ability to stay with a job, they get help finding work, sometimes at one of the five businesses that Homeboys sponsors, including silk-screening, graffiti removal, and maintenance services. Homeboys’ cornerstone business, a bakery where rival gang members work side-by-side baking bread, is being rebuilt after a 1999 fire.
Even with the harsh reality of gang violence going on all around him, Fr. Boyle remains hopeful. “We pray and try to keep God at the center of what we’re doing. After a while, you take it one person at a time.”
Richmond -- The neighborhood around Sacred Heart Center is a tough place for Dion’j and Kayla to grow up in. The center, founded by Jesuits in 1990, focuses on helping families: counseling, day care, and GED, computer, and parenting classes, among other programs. “Sixty percent of the families we serve have incomes below the poverty level,” says executive director Naomi Taylor, “and 40 percent of the residents in the area are school-age children.”
At Sacred Heart Center in Richmond, Virginia, Fr. Harry Hock, SJ, sees the importance of just being present in a place where hope is needed. “You see the cheerfulness of these people as they come to mass, as they bring their children to school,” he says. “We give them a place to go, someplace positive.”
Sacred Heart Center focuses on education, a traditional hallmark of the Jesuit mission. The center offers a day care center, an after school program, a teen program, and a GED program for adults.
“The GED program is important because three-fourths of the kids who come to the day care center come from single family homes,” says Fr. Hock. “We want to help these parents so they can do better for their kids. They are committed to their kids, very spiritually motivated. You ask one to lead a prayer at a meeting, maybe a parent you think doesn’t have a lot of education or spiritual background, and he or she comes up with something beautiful.”
Fr. Hock, who handles the books for the center, knows firsthand the constant struggle for money facing social service centers. “We’re always looking for funding,” he says. “Some comes from the government; the USDA helps with the food for the day care center. The paperwork involved is a big job. We’ve also started a Head Start program, which is government funded, so of course that’s a lot of paperwork too.”
Corporations headquartered in the area understand the importance of a stabilizing force in a dangerous neighborhood like this, so they contribute to the center. There is talk of neighborhood redevelopment, but those at Sacred Heart fear that new housing developments won’t be affordable for people in the area.
The center is a classic example of the most basic Jesuit ideal: get a ministry up and running and then hand it over to the local people. After being founded by the Jesuits, its leadership has been taken over by two women, Jeannine Harper and Naomi Taylor, both from the neighborhood. This leaves Fr. Hock, who serves as administrative assistant, to celebrate mass and preach, “work” that he relishes.
“The people in the neighborhood come to mass,” he says. “Once the Hispanics began joining our parish, our numbers doubled.”
Omaha -- St. Benedict the Moor is the only predominately African-American parish in town but only one of many urban parishes across the country staffed by Jesuits and serving other African-American and Hispanic communities.
More and more Hispanics have moved into many other urban areas of the United States besides Richmond, and local bishops have turned to the Jesuits for help in meeting the needs of this growing population. In some cases, that means the Jesuits have to change the focus of an existing ministry to meet the present realities of a neighborhood.
In Hollywood, California, Fr. Michael Mandala, SJ, is pastor of Blessed Sacrament, a parish that has changed over the years to reflect the face of the neighborhood it serves.
“Blessed Sacrament used to be the parish of the stars,” Fr. Mandala says. “Now it’s the parish of the domestics of the stars. Hollywood is a state of mind, it’s at the center of the entertainment world. But as a geographical location, it’s the inner city.”
It’s the latter to which Fr. Mandala ministers. His parish has opened a social services center for the homeless. They come there daily for basics like food, showers, clean clothes, and haircuts. “When I go for a walk in the morning at about 6:30, I walk by the center and there are people there, already lined up for the day. We don’t open until 10! That’s how great the need is.” There are so few social services in the area, in fact, that Blessed Sacrament is one of the very few places a homeless person can go for help in the neighborhood.
The parishioners of Blessed Sacrament are primarily Hispanic and Filipino, working jobs in the hotels, restaurants, and construction projects in the area. “These are generally blue collar workers living on the edge, from paycheck to paycheck,” says Fr. Mandala.
Blessed Sacrament works with community organizations to help get more affordable housing for the people there who are being pushed out by urban renewal. The mayor of Hollywood recently pledged $100 million to fund 500 units of affordable housing, and now it falls to the community organizers to hold the city to their promise.
Fr. Mandala has been very involved in the organizing efforts. He’s a board member of PICO, the Pacific Institute for Community Organization. But he says he also finds his pastoral ministry to be just as important.
“My job as pastor is to try to lead the community to help us experience God in our lives,” says Fr. Mandala. And that community is huge. On a typical weekend, 5,000 attend parish masses, three of which are in Spanish. “When we’re celebrating liturgy, people bring their concerns to us, and we address them through the message of the Gospel.”
Milwaukee -- Fr. Bill Johnson, SJ, heads Nativity Jesuit Middle School, one of the growing number of Nativity schools in the United States.Omaha -- St. Benedict the Moor is the only predominately African-American parish in town but only one of many urban parishes across the country staffed by Jesuits and serving other African-American and Hispanic communities.
Half a continent away Fr. Mark McKenzie, SJ, toils at St. Matthew Parish in St. Louis, ministering to African-American residents there. Like Blessed Sacrament, St. Matthew’s developed a community center; it started out as a senior center and now also caters to youth. Fr. McKenzie recites what almost sounds like a laundry list when asked about the things his parish is doing.
“We have a tutoring program, and we just got a grant for a drug abuse prevention program. The Christian Brothers opened up a middle school. A group of alums from Saint Louis University High formed a nonprofit and built basketball courts and a field where the kids can play.
“We’ve started a weekly Bible study group, and that’s been amazing, hearing parishioners’ share their struggles when triggered by Gospel stories, seeing how real the Gospel is to them.”
Fr. McKenzie deals every day with the reality of trying to make ends meet. “We live on the edge,” he says simply. The old gym became a new parish center a few years ago, but then the roof began leaking. The cost for a new one: $320,000. St. Matthew’s had to take out a loan; the parish center project had exhausted parish funds.
Despite depressing surroundings—there’s a crack house around the corner—Fr. McKenzie says he feels blessed to be working with the people of St. Matthew’s. “The Gospel comes alive here. We see the people Jesus hung around with, ordinary folks who try their best to stay holy while living their everyday lives.”
Chicago -- Fr. James Gartland, SJ, serves on staff at Cristo Rey Jesuit High. Though the school has served a Hispanic neighborhood for only six years now, it is a model being copied cross the country: students are in school four days a week; on the fifth they work in entry-level jobs for United Airlines, Chicago Board of Trade, and other corporate clients who hire the students, their pay going toward tuition.
In the case of St. Matthew’s, the Jesuits were asked by the archdiocese to take over the parish. The creation of the Jesuit Middle School in Omaha, on the other hand, resulted from a long process of Jesuit discernment. “In 1992, the Wisconsin Province got together and talked about how we wanted to do more ministry with the African-American community,” recalls Fr. James Michalski, SJ, president of the school. “We knew there was a need in North Omaha, so we talked to well over a hundred people, asking them what North Omaha needed and how could a few Jesuits and a few African Americans working together address those needs?”
When they decided on a Nativity-style school, Fr. Michalski set up task forces charged with different responsibilities, scouting locations for the school, for instance. “The school is 95 percent the result of the recommendations of the task forces,” says Fr. Michalski. “It was really a grassroots effort—we listened to the people.”
The middle school is modeled on the Jesuit Nativity school concept, with one big exception. Instead of starting with sixth graders, this school starts with fourth graders.
“We had three African-American principals on our task forces, each in different groups, and they all said the same thing: The African-American male gets disinterested in education by the second semester of fourth grade,” says Fr. Michalski. “As they reach the age of 10 or 11, they’re out on the street more, and they hear that education is for white people and girls. They begin to lose motivation. That’s when you start to lose them.”
“Our graduates, so far, are doing very well. About a third go to Creighton Prep, and others go to Rancalli, the other Catholic high school in Omaha,” says Fr. Michalski.
The school stresses the importance of sharing one’s gifts, asking its student to walk a few blocks down the street to a public school, where they tutor younger children—a very early introduction to the concept of service.
San Francisco -- St. Ignatius College Prep students take an urban plunge: a ministry characterized by direct contact with and service to the homeless and other marginalized groups. The point is to get students out of their “comfort zone” and face-to-face with life in the inner city.
In recent years, that idea of service has evolved into programs known in several schools as urban plunges. Plunges send students away from home, immersing them in the inner city. Some of the plunges last for a weekend, others for a week or longer. At Scranton Prep, for example, eleven programs in seven locations involve 141 students. The school has been sending ten boys to work for a month in a Mexican orphanage for 25 years now.
According to Fr. Herb Keller, SJ, president of Scranton Prep, students there keep journals of their experiences, write reflection papers, and then spend their senior year religion classes in ongoing reflection on their experiences.
At Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose, the typical plunge weekend starts with students taking time to reflect. “It begins with a period of reflection and honest discussion of the beliefs participants hold about homelessness,” says Jeff Gonsalves-McCabe, director of Bellarmine’s Christian Service Program. The students then spend the weekend working at agencies that aid the homeless. They work directly with the homeless but also talk with city representatives, homeless advocates, and church leaders about what is being done to address the whole issue.
“As the weekend draws to a close, we have a period of evaluation,” Gonsalves-McCabe says. “Each student comes up with a personal commitment, and the group decides on a commitment they can make as a group to respond to the problem of homelessness.”
Since most Jesuit schools are in the middle of cities, they usually don’t have to look further than their own backyard for opportunities to reach out to the marginalized. St. Ignatius High in Cleveland, for example, staffs a day camp just off the school’s main campus with 30 kids in the summer between their freshman and sophomore years.
According to Andy Bramante, vice president of administration at St. Ignatius, “Each student acts as a counselor for five weeks for two neighborhood kids between the ages of six and twelve. These are huge challenges to our kids in the reality of these kids’ lives, dealing with the behavioral and educational impact of poverty. Ultimately, our kids learn that what the ‘poor’ kids want most is friendship and affirmation, and friendships evolve.”
Boston -- Jesuit Urban Center, housed in Immaculate Conception Church on the city’s South End, prepares for one of its Last Tuesday dinners, held monthly for people with AIDS/HIV.
While some Jesuit urban ministries battle poverty and large issues like gang violence and homelessness, others act as an oasis for those choosing to live in the city while trying to live out their Catholic faith.
Boston’s Jesuit Urban Center, for example, grew out of a need the New England Jesuits saw during the worst of the AIDS crisis in the mid 80s. “Families didn’t want AIDS patients,” says Fr. Thomas Carroll, SJ, director. “Some Jesuits working here opened a house for those who had nowhere else to go. Immaculate Conception became a church where AIDS victims could have their funerals.”
Today, people know more about HIV and AIDS, and the focus of the Jesuit Urban Center has changed. There is an interfaith counseling service, a program that offers the 19th annotation retreat (a chance for people to follow the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in their daily lives), and monthly dinners for those with HIV and AIDS.
With the majority of his congregants gay and lesbian, Fr. Carroll finds himself primarily in the role of educator. “I give them a knowledge of Church teaching and encourage them to greater integrity in following the teachings of the Church,” he says. “I educate them about the cause and tradition of the Church, I help them get to know the teaching, and then I try to help them to respect the teachings themselves, while being aware of their own consciences.
“These are people who are passionate about and committed to being Catholic and, if necessary, transforming Catholicism.” Many of his members are active in Voice of the Faithful, a group that wants to work for positive, peaceful change in the Catholic Church.
“If you’re going to communicate with the Church, you need to do so in a way that’s respectful. Angry rhetoric doesn’t help. We work to encourage each other.”
He feels comfortable working in what many consider a controversial setting. “Typical of Jesuit ministries, we’re on the edge. Jesuits are always going to be on the edge, looking for new fields, looking for God in all things. We often have degrees of hope others don’t have.”
And that’s the common thread holding all these ministries—and ministers—together. They yearn for change, however insignificant their efforts may seem at times, in the midst of all the obstacles they face. Fr. Boyle’s philosophy is “one gang member at a time.” Fr. Gonzalez echoes that philosophy and tells a story about a young woman with AIDS who wanted to see her incarcerated brother one last time before she died. Fr. Gonzalez, who had never met this family, went to the woman’s home, talked with her, prayed with her, and then set out to do the impossible and get her brother out of jail for a few hours.
But things fell into place. Using the countless connections he has made through the years in Camden, he got the brother released from jail temporarily so his sister could say goodbye.
“She said, ‘Felix, I’ll love you forever, but I have to go now and be with our father,’ ” Fr. Gonzalez recalls. “He said goodbye to her. After he left, her breathing slowed, a peacefulness came over her, and she died a short time later.
“We have a God who cares enough for us that he can bring people together like that. Look what God did! I didn’t do it. God did.”
He pauses for a minute, then says quietly, “That’s why I’m here.”