The worn and faded wooden pews behind him were barely filled as he stood at the church doors fully vested for Mass looking out into the street in front. Tenements, closed store fronts and a mixed community of people filled his view. The bustling activity of this low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn, more people moving about external to the church building than moving around internal, navigated their activities under the shining sun on this spring morning. Some of the economic activity he could observe were of a shady nature as drugs circulated between hands, trafficking deals were exchanged, and the scent of old booze encircles those drowning lives in engaged in industries not necessarily conducive to the gospel of life and love. Yet he saw himself as their pastor.
When he looked at the young men in particular – many of whom were somewhere on the prison pipeline either waiting to get in or just getting out, dealing in the streets, he began to see something more in them. Through his eyes formed from years of prayer and a desire to know Christ, he began to see them not simply as the crimes they were committing but in fact good entrepreneurs, mis-placed in trade, yet underneath talented men in the raw. He saw they needed a new direction for their talents.
With few people filling the pews, funds not streaming into the collection baskets, and young people finding community and engagement in these streets rather than the church basement, the fate of his parish was like other inner-city parishes. The parish was fiscally unsustainable and now, powers above him had determined it was destined to be closed.
The pastor’s eyes, looking into the streets, however, began to see a new vision and perhaps a more-life giving way to serve his parishioners – a new way to be parish church. He saw Christ in these streets. He thought “Why not create right there in those streets small businesses that would offer those potential entrepreneurially talented young men a chance to learn business and management skills in more honest and life-giving trades rather than drugs and other darker investments?”
The desire – and courage - to see Christ alive – the grace to receive the vision fully – the courage and faith to act in love and service. Today’s Gospel message was about to come alive in the 21st - in Brooklyn!
With the full support of his congregation and religious order, Fr. Jim O’Shea embraced this vision – this invitation to be Christ in the world he lived – and embarked on a journey to bring the vision to life.
Realizing he had no meaningful or relevant background of his own to create this new business venture, he came to discover – or shall I suggest “led”? to the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. IVC is a service corps of retired women and men who dedicate two days a week – in leadership and direct service to non-profits that address the needs of people living in low income communities across the country. Inspired to give and be in direct service to others they bring the wealth and gift of their skills and expertise honed from their careers, education and family experience. They are supported in their service work by a spirituality program based in Ignatian spirituality, the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola Founder of the Jesuits.
Within a short period of time three Ignatian Volunteer service corps members, a retired business man who created and developed a successful antiques business, a retired engineer and a retired accountant joined forces with Fr. Jim to create Reconnect – a non-profit that launched a local coffee shop, a graphic t- shirt business and a small bakery – located on the same street as the former parish - where young adult men, desiring to build a positive future, could learn and develop job skills, grow in management abilities and at the same time run local establishments that would enhance the economy – and community life - of this neighborhood in a positive way.
Last year while visiting our IVC volunteers at this site, I had the honor to witness a powerful exchange of words between Ron, the retired antiques businessman and one of the young men he has spent a couple years mentoring in his growth and development as a manager of the T-shirt shop. The love, affection and deep admiration expressed between mentor and mentee, two men who came from very different worlds economically, racially and educationally, was captivating in its reflection of a relationship that in fact transformed both men’s lives. I could see they were the face of Christ for each other and their witness was now revealing Christ in a very truthful way to me.
They had the courage and Desire to see as love sees, the grace to receive that love, the power to change and renew and the inspiration to serve so that others may see too.
These readings today, in this post Easter season, remind us of the real and ongoing presence of the Risen Christ that calls forth in an invitational way to each of us to have courage to see the real Christ, receive His love deeply and then act out of that love and bring forth new life.
In Acts and in the first book of John we hear that we are invited – called - to be converted. We are invited to desire God but first we are invited to turn away and let go of those things in us that pull us away from God’s love – sin. Later in the psalm we pray to God to let the light of his love shine on us. That light will renew us.
The Gospel tells of one of the many times post resurrection where Christ appears to his disciples – in a vague, mysterious “ghost-like” way. He is present yet not seen fully. “They were startled and terrified”. Unaffected by their fears He invites them to come closer, to touch and see how real He is. When they seek harder, look unafraid, he is fully revealed. He eats with them. Shares time with them. They are incredulous for joy; they were amazed. As he assures them, and they listen to him, he then “opens their minds to understanding the scriptures”. He continues to teach them the lessons of God’s love. He readies them for service and mission – and for the gift of the Holy Spirit who will come next to fill their hearts with fire for God’s love.
As a pastor in Brooklyn, if Fr. Jim kept his eyes on the emptiness of the pews and the collection baskets, he and his waning parish could have been – might have been - overwhelmed with fears and anxieties. Instead he heard an invitation to be something new, something that would bring a new mission to the people in his neighborhood and would invite then to convert, and if they choose to let go of sin could find and live a new life. In this new parish, God’s love would be present through this unique and practical mission.
The three IVC volunteers, were invited to take a fresh look at life. A life not often equated with retirement but one of service. They too were called and invited to go to places they normally would never traverse- perhaps even dangerous, overcame fears and anxieties of reaching out to people of diverse backgrounds and experiences to answer a call to let go of selfishness and say yes to live a life that mirror’s Christ – one that serves others. They leave their homes each week to give of themselves and all they acquired in life to serve to the betterment of other men and women whose lives are challenged and less fortunate.
Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit is real, alive and sharing a meal today in a café in Brooklyn. In my work with IVC I am daily both humbled and inspired as I see these comparable stories of Christ alive where hundreds of IVC volunteers serve in inspiring and impactful social service and educational non-profits across the country. I am in awe of IVC volunteers as they are the face of Christ to me.
Today’s Gospel calls us to live Easter and to ask ourselves in prayer: Do I have the courage to see the real Christ in our world today? Do I ask and actually receive the grace to let go of that which prevents me – my own sins and anxieties - from the desire to live as Christ for others in our midst. Do we allow Christ to open our minds and our hearts to where He teaches love? Can we be fearless and new as Easter people? Can our Church serve in the way Christ calls which may be different than where we are comfortable? Can our faith move from invisible to invincible?
Today we hear how we are invited to see Christ fully – not as a ghost. When we do, we hear how Christ assures and calms our anxieties, heals us and gives us the grace to renew and progress His love in the world through our service to others in whatever ways we can.
Let us share a meal with Christ in the Eucharist today, receive Him fully and without fear and then go out and renew ourselves, our friends and families and especially our broken communities with that love of Christ living in and between us.
Mary C. McGinnity
With over 30 years in leadership positions in education, faith formation, pastoral counseling, parish ministry and faith-based non-profit social justice and service organizations, Mary’s vocation has been propelled by seeking ways to answer the question, “How can the Church and its institutions serve as a reflection of Christ as healer?”. As a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, she served two years as a Jesuit Volunteer where she taught in two inner city catholic high schools. Upon completion of her terms of service with JVC she went on to pursue her graduate degree in clinical pastoral counseling at Iona College while also serving as a pastoral associate at a Franciscan parish. She co-founded and served as Executive Director and clinical director of a large parish based counseling and mental health center. Mary later went on to serve as deputy director and later Executive Director of the Department for Justice and Service at the Archdiocese of Washington (DC) where she was responsible for parish social ministry development, public policy advocacy on social justice issues, diocesan leadership for Catholic Relief Services and CCHD. She led the development of a leadership training institute for Catholic social teaching and is co-founder of four faith-based non-profit social outreach services. Mary currently serves as President and CEO of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps a national service corps that enlists men and women over the age of 50 in service assignments in non-profit service agencies meeting needs of people in low-income communities across the US.