During Advent in 1991, I was invited to give an evening of reflection on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception for church ministers at St. Anselm’s Parish (now named Word of God Parish) in Swisuvale, PA. As the pastor and I were discussing my background during the time I spent in Midland, TX, at St. Anne’s, the extended ministry I became involved with at Clearview Hospital (a facility for those recovering from substance abuse) became a source of interest and an opening to a rewarding ministry as a deacon in Pittsburgh.
My pastor wanted a clergy representative to reach out to the Catholic patients in recovery and I was to be there on a bi-weekly basis, and just to the Catholic patrons. I had never been involved with anyone having a substance abuse problem and wasn’t sure how to even begin a dialogue with any of them. The facility required the patients to spend a little time in a meeting room with me as a way for us to get acquainted. As I stood before the group, about 10 or 12, their demeanor was one of “Ok, let’s get this over with.” My first words were something like; “I am not here to judge you or preach down to any of you; I just want to let you know that God doesn’t condemn you or look down on your needs as people, but to bring His Love and friendship to each one of you.”
It’s interesting how that short statement can affect anyone who might feel alone, disconnected from society, or frustrated due to their individual circumstance in their own corner of life. Hearing that God loves them without condemnation can be an eye-opening revelation and perhaps, find a way out of their turmoil that so many will use to put addicts down.
The group almost unanimously straightened up and listened intently for the 45 minutes I spoke and my message about returning on Sundays for a prayer service would be the norm of my ministry. Needless to say, they all attended the services and the mother of a past teenage patient assisted me with arranging the music and readings. She was a Baptist as was the minister whom I alternated with on Sundays. Southern Baptists, I found out, were not conducive to alcoholism and to find these two with an acceptance to sharing this ministry was a revelation that proved to me that the Holy Spirit was alive and active in this place.
One event that made me very humble was the fact that during my three-months at this facility all 10 residents chose me as their 5th step confidant. That is not the usual manner since each resident was to find a counselor and someone who understood the tenants of addiction. I had neither the personal understanding nor was I a counselor. However, each one found something in me that I didn’t even know was there. All I can say is the Holy Spirit worked wonders in that time. I also realized what a priest may hear during confession. I heard everything less murder from those who trusted me and I found a new meaning to the word love. I discovered a sense of ministry to this day that would be hard to change in the lives of God’s Children, relating to Matthew’s Gospel Chapter 25: 31-46.
As far as Catholic residents were concerned, there were only a few who were Catholic, and maybe some weren’t certain if they believed in anything. However, I was there to minister to all who would listen and share God’s Love. Their choice of doctrine was not the issue; it was their need first, then the Grace of God touching each one in his/her acceptance of the Holy Spirit’s Gifts. There is no doubt this part of my ministry was to have an amazing impact on the future of me as a deacon.
While talking about my time at the Texas facility the pastor of St. Anselm’s pointed to the now closed convent and said; “have you heard of P.O.W.E.R?” I simply said; “what’s that.” After a brief explanation and the suggestion for me to call the director, my thoughts were, “will they welcome me?”
I want to mention here that in 1994 I wrote an article for “Deacon Digest” relating to my ministry at POWER. Without copying the article here I will allude to some of the thoughts that I previously wrote and therefore not plagiarizing my own information in whole as written.
After meeting with the staff of POWER it was decided that Saturday mornings would be a good time to begin with an Ecumenical Prayer Service with voluntary attendance. The residents would choose the music, read some of the Sacred Scripture, and take the opportunity to witness on the theme of the service.
The first morning I arrived a little early, which is usual with me, and as I sat on the top step of the porch a young lady came over and sat down beside me. She said; “Hi, my name is Mary and I’m HIV Positive.” I quickly turned to her put my arms around her and holding her tightly said; “I love you" and from that point on Mary became my most ardent participant and helper during each session we had. My words to her also were God Loves you and there is no condemnation for anything she was involved with. One more item she related to was; “I was told there are three things I can never be forgiven from and since I’ve already committed them God won’t forgive me.” I was quick to correct this terrible notion some uninformed person told her, and assured her that God forgives all sin! I could sense a sigh of relief in her demeanor and if I accomplished nothing else during my three year ministry at POWER, this I knew was the message of God reaching one more soul.
Two more, of several comments that were mentioned to me from the women are;(1) “My family is Catholic, but due to my parents’ divorce, we were forced out of the church. Is it any wonder that I mistrust the church, now?” “How can God forgive me since I don’t even understand His Will?” (2) “Some people, Catholics no less, said to seek forgiveness for my sinful drug addiction.” “When I stop using drugs Jesus will forgive me and I’ll be completely healed.” “Only sin will cause me to go back to my old ways.” “I prayed to Jesus, stopped for a while, and am back where I was.” “What happened?” “Doesn’t Jesus care?” I want to cry or show my frustration to those who have been charged with the task of pastoring the flock, but seem to allow some to remain outside as if only those with acceptable sociological maladies are the chosen. The others, such as alcohol and drug abusers, or those with other addiction problems are far below Christianity. These well-intending ministers (cleric or lay) might say; “Jesus died and rose for selected people,” perhaps the 144,000 that other sects preach about. Certainly not people who won’t quit drinking, working the streets, or turn their back on the teaching of the Church. It would be like thinking that our sins are forgiven, but only once as long as we never sin again. Imagine God saying that! Peter asked Jesus if my brother asks for forgiveness how often should we forgive him? Seven times? Jesus said not seven times but seventy times seven times. So it is with the compassion we must show towards anyone who has this disease and constantly be there to support them, even though it isn’t easy. I have a close relative with a severe alcohol addiction and even when not drinking or using pills the addictive personality is not easy to live around. Trust me, I have walked the walk and know how difficult it can be. I used to ask the women at POWER; “How many times have you been in recovery?” They would answer; “twice, three times, ten times, or I lost count.”
First I experienced a real mission to addictive persons in Texas, then shared the need that exists with so many in Pittsburgh. I learned very quickly to not judge, how to reach down with the compassion of Jesus Christ, and finally found a ministry that preaches from the streets and the real poor are found at a dumpster or back alley crying out for love that only is found in Christ’s patience and enduring forgiveness.
“Of His fullness we have all had a share-love following upon love.” cf John 1: 16