Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Dear Neighbor from Whom We Do Not Separate...

Gray House
Casserly House

During my recent trip to Massachusetts, I had the opportunity to visit two sites where sisters welcome the dear neighbor into their home, truly divide the city and respond to the needs that present themselves. Gray House in Springfield and Casserly House in Boston are homes that were bought specifically for the purpose of living and ministering among neighbors in economically stressed areas where there are great needs.

Gray House was purchased in 1982.  This house damaged by fire was restored over two years through the generous donations of labor and supplies.  Opening in 1984, the unmet needs have determined the services that are offered.  English as a second language is a big need for the local immigrant community.  35 volunteer tutors work with up to 100 students one on one and in small groups where they can get the individual attention and encouragement that is often lacking in larger classroom settings. 
Deirdre in the food pantry

Gray House also offers a food pantry and small used item shop. Volunteers assist staff in providing these needed services, sorting clothes, greeting clients, bagging food and many other tasks.  Agrégée Deirdre Griffin spoke about an annual gift that comes from a local Jewish temple which donates 100 pairs of new shoes every year for children in the neighborhood.

The after school program provides 15 youth in the 2nd to 5th grade with homework assistance, relationship building skills, structure and a family style dinner nightly.  The small number of children served allows for individual attention which shows in the progress that the children make.

One staff person shared that the people who come to Gray House are members of our community, not clients.  This sense of being of the neighborhood permeates everything they do.

Many of the programs at Casserly House are similar to those at Gray House.  In fact, they consulted with the staff at Jubilee House (Hartford- Nov 19, 2011 blog) and Gray House as they set up their home.  In January 2006, in response to a challenge the Boston CSJs set for themselves, they purchased this home near the site of their first ministry in Boston.  There was no preconceived notion of what Casserly House would do.  After living in the neighborhood for six months and talking with the neighbors, they began their first program. 

A class on grocery shopping as a tool to practice English
The first request came for help learning English.  This is now a core part of their program with neighbors coming by from 9 to noon, Monday through Friday to learn English. The children said they needed help with their homework and so the After School Program was developed where children receive help with homework, computer training and art classes.

On the morning I visited, there was an unexpected school bus strike.  Anxious parents came to Casserly House to try to understand what was happening and problem solve how to get their children to and from school.  When there was an increase in domestic violence in the neighborhood, the neighbors came together at Casserly with government officials to try to figure out what could be done- and they came up with a workable plan.  Police officers and city council members often stop by Casserly House where they can learn from the people what their needs and hopes for the neighborhood are.

The program helped this woman with English,
citizenship  and bringing her children to the US
Again, while I was at Casserly House, a woman came in to talk with Sr. Nancy.  She shared that she came to the US with no English.  In her country in West Africa, women were not educated so she could not read or write in her native language.  Over time, she has learned to speak English very well, has become a citizen and been able to bring three of her children to the United States.  “I am so happy and grateful to Sr. Nancy,” she shared.  I asked her how she had persevered through such challenging times.  She looked at Sr. Nancy and spoke about the program’s support making it possible for her to have hope for her future and her families future.

For Sisters of St Joseph, our earliest documents and our consensus statement remind us that our relationships with our neighbor are fundamental to our reason for existing.  At these two houses, it is evident that our charism is alive and healthy.

Reflection by Sr. Mary Beth Ingham, Sister of St Joseph of Orange at the Leadership Assembly

Below is the reflection from the Leadership Assembly shared with Sr. Mary Beth with the rest of us. Her reflections were based on the following biblical readings:  1 Kings 17:10-16 and Mark 12:41-44.

Sr. Mary Beth Ingham

As we come to the end of our assembly this year, two women join us. Together, they witness for us the power of ‘a life of most pure and perfect charity.’ They each model for us what self-gift can look like, and how in an abundance of generosity life enters the world.
As I reflected on these readings, a memory came to mind. Shortly after the disaster of hurricaine Katrina, I was at a gathering where we shared our experience of some responses to this tragic event. One of our sisters who ministers in Tijuana, Alicia, spoke of the generosity of the people in her parish, who gave willingly and abundantly, even in the midst of their poverty. As I listened to her, I reflected on the link between poverty and generosity, and on the way the very poor can teach me about what it means to give my life away, for the life of the world.

 Prior to this gathering, I had not thought of these two women as images of God, or even images of Jesus, but today I am struck by their actions as an ‘incarnation’ and an invitation – love made flesh, love poured out, a genuine kenosis – self-emptying love. Sr. Benedicte de Vaublanc, a sisters of St. Joseph of Chambery, believes that Fr. Medaille wrote the Eucharistic Letter after he was asked to step back from the foundation in Le Puy and elsewhere, after he had to ‘divest’ of his deepest dream, after he knew what it meant to give everything away. It was only then that he could meditate on the Eucharist as the sacrament of absolute self-gift, the sacrament of God’s abundant love, the sacrament of love poured out for the sake of the world.

We see a similar insight coming from our readings today. These two women are both widows, they have no status in their society, and they live in a world very like our own: where hunger stalks many cultures, where ecological disaster seriously threatens whole populations, where the nameless and the powerless have so little. And despite all this, like the people of Tijuana, in the midst of their scarcity, they find the courage to be generous. They recognize that someone needs their help, someone whose needs are greater than their own. Today these women challenge me and perhaps all of us toward greater and greater faith-filled generosity.

The widow who helps Elijah is not afraid to speak her truth to someone more powerful than she. He is the one, after all, who called down the drought upon the land… he is responsible for her suffering. And yet, she is gracious and generous in her willingness to share her bread, handing over all she has. For at this moment, in her eyes, he is more needy than she. And, as we know, her generosity is repaid with the hundredfold, her jar never goes empty. She has enough to live on.

The widow of Mark’s gospel is even less known to us. We don’t even know where she comes from or why she puts her two coins into the basket. Yet she, like Jesus, is seized by love and hands over everything, even the little she has to live on. As she does this, she relies completely on God’s abundant love to sustain her into the future. She relies, as the psalmist says, on the Lord and has nothing to fear.
These women are models for us today: models of divine love, models of self-gift, models of generosity in the face of scarcity. How am I, how are we called to imitate them? Where are the needy around us? Where are the needs in our world? How can we follow their example of abundant love and be sacraments of divine generosity in a world so driven by competition and consumption? As we continue our liturgy, may we pray that we might be so transformed as to become Eucharist for one another and for the world. May we continue to encourage one another and be strengthened by God’s love in our words and in our deeds. May we never forget that our faithful God is a God of abundant love who will not allow our jars to go empty, so long as we remember who we are and who we are called to be for those who suffer, for the outcast, for the stranger, for the poor. And may our actions be bread and life for the world.