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Getting By With A Little Help From Our Friend

June 24, 2019 Frontpage No Comments


As I write this, the week’s news, both political and legal, provides plenty of grist for a column, but I’ve decided to ignore those things and do something I don’t often do. I’m going to write about something personal, something close to my heart.
It’s about a close friend of mine that didn’t get the job for which she applied.
The topic came to me over lunch while I was reading a column by Pieter Vree in this month’s New Oxford Review. Vree was writing about “The Myth of Meritocracy.” Meritocracy is the concept that suggests that status is earned, not inherited. He quotes British author Michael Young, in his 1958 bestselling book, The Rise of the Meritocracy: Society is “not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent.”
Vree then spends the rest of his column picking apart the “myth” with examples and statistics that include the recent scandals in which rich parents were paying big bucks to gain admission to some of the nation’s top colleges for their children.
Now, I’m not quibbling with Vree; he makes a persuasive case to dispel the “myth.” However, the article brought to mind some of my personal experiences with those who, shall we say, were among the less fortunate in society, and one young lady whom I grew to love and admire.
I spent nearly six years as chaplain at a drug and alcohol recovery program. This program differed from some of the more traditional programs you might know about. It was for people who had addictions and who were in trouble with the law. In many respects the program was a jail diversion program. Most of the clients had multiple felony convictions, breaking and entering, prostitution, firearms possession, gang activities, and the like.
One man I dealt with, Ben (names are fictitious in this column), was facing nearly 45 years in prison. Another I dealt with was Jeri, who had a rap sheet nearly as long as my arm. I won’t go into what each had done — suffice it to say it was not God’s work. Each could have spent most of the rest of his or her life behind bars.
But they didn’t. They, much like the “myth,” pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and succeeded. But for each, like many of the others, it not only took quite a bit of inner strength, but large doses of Christian faith.
The program was located in the same building that housed the county jail. By the time Ben left the program, it included women who often posed different problems for us. Unlike most of the men, the women were often victims before they became perpetrators. Thus, I dealt with them a little differently than the men.
As I met the incoming clients, I would always make the suggestion that they become involved with some kind of faith community. There were numerous churches that would send cars each Sunday to pick up those who wanted to attend services. For those not happy with the denominations from which they had to choose, I told them that if they sought a different denomination, I would call the pastor and arrange for them to be picked up.
It didn’t take long to realize that there was an almost direct correlation between those who were willing to accept joining a faith community and their success in rehabilitation. I could almost tell at our first interview which ones had a higher probability of success due to their openness to the prospect of — as AA adherents would put it — a higher power.
That’s where Jeri comes in. I would pick up those interested in attending Catholic services each Sunday. One Sunday, Jeri, who was almost the last one I would expect to be there, was in the small group that was waiting for me. She would ride with me each week to Mass. Finally, she told me that she had been baptized Catholic and asked me how could she get back into the Church. I made an appointment for her with one of our priests for Confession.
I picked her up on the appointed afternoon and took her to the church. One of the things I noticed with Jeri — as I had with others in the same circumstances — was that the person I took back to the facility was not the same person that I had taken to the church. There was something liberating about the sacrament they received that changed their attitude.
To make a long story short, Jeri had not been confirmed. We found her baptismal record and she was enrolled in our RCIA program and was received into the Church at that year’s Easter Vigil. My wife, Luanne, was her sponsor. As I worked through the RCIA process with Jeri — we had to do it individually since she could not leave the program facility when the group met — I detected in her a yearning, almost a hunger, for more information about the faith.
Jeri, you see, had a little flame in her which was gradually being stoked into a larger fire. As I look back, most of the folks I had dealt with had that same small spark — that little bit of God — that gradually brought about a conversion of the will that gave the individual a new outlook on life and new goals. Those that failed didn’t necessarily lack that spark; it just was never cultivated. It was allowed to lie dormant and never developed into the full-fledged fire.
But Jeri, like many others, took the bull by the horns and, with the help of God, raised herself above mediocrity and took on the world. While she was in the program, she got a menial part-time job with one of the area’s large employers which she kept after graduation. She was gradually promoted within her venue to positions of more and more responsibility.
Meritocracy is not entirely a myth. I’ve seen that it can be achieved, not only by sheer pluck, but with a large dose of faith in Jesus even by those we might consider the dregs of society.
A couple of months ago Jeri called me. She wanted to tell me that five years ago that day she had woken up in jail for the last time. She thanked me for what I had done for her and what she saw as God’s plan for her life. Those are the kind of phone calls that make all the frustrations of ministry worthwhile.
She had recently applied for another job in the company. It would have been a huge promotion to a much better position in a much larger venue. Jeri told me she didn’t expect to get the job. She was, after all, only with the company five years and had no formal education beyond a GED. But she’d try anyway, if for no other reason than that it would be good experience.
Out of twenty applicants, she was given one of four interviews. After which she said she was nervous, but realized she was only a long shot.
Those who have had trouble with drugs and alcohol and who have been in trouble with the law — anyone really who has been living outside of societal norms — are often cast away, looked upon as someone not worthy of a second thought. The only reason they are that way is that no one has stoked that little spark inside of them. Think about that next time you have the opportunity to pour a little gasoline on that fire, or assist someone who can.
Churches and parishes who open their doors to those society deems undesirable are providing that fuel. Whether the person responds is, of course, up to them, but it is our duty to at least open the door. And what wonders we can do.
Jeri didn’t get the job. But the surprise was that out of the twenty applicants, she was the runner-up! She is and will be a winner — all with a little help from her Friend, a carpenter’s son whose light she saw and followed.
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On Sunday December 1st I will celebrate the 35th anniversary of my ordination to the holy priesthood at the 11 AM Mass at Church of the Holy Family 315 E 47 Street (between 1st and 2nd Aves), NY, NY. A reception will follow in the church hall. You are cordially invited to attend

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