Friars, including Brian Menezes, and lay people process through the streets of Philadelphia to mark the Transitus of St. Francis.
As their nine months of ministry through Brothers Walking Together recently came to a close, two of the participants shared their reflections on how the interprovincial post-novitiate program helped them grow spiritually and personally; took them outside of their comfort zones; strengthened their bonds of unity, fraternity and community; and deepened their journeys in Franciscan life.
Brian Menezes (SJB), Philadelphia, Pa.: To say that my ministry in Philadelphia is to provide food and clothes to the poor is putting simply what we do at St. Francis Inn and Marie’s Closet. It may interest you to know that our ministry does not end with what seems like handouts to the individuals without food, clothing or shelter, whom we refer to as guests. We work tirelessly to serve our guests seven days a week and do our very best to make sure that they have all they need to make it through another night in the Kensington neighborhood. Our guests are an integral part of our operation, just as we are to them. We rely on each other, and together we form a small, but caring, community. In all honesty, our greatest gift is the volunteers that come and help us out before, during and after the meal. Some come from the immediate area, while others come from as far as Boston, the Carolinas and Wisconsin. We even had a trio fly in from California, and they loved serving our guests. As you can imagine, the needs of some of our guests can be quite great because of a shortage of mental health resources, affordable housing, medical care and a sympathetic ear. Our biggest challenge is to keep hope alive and not give up, even when the help we offer is turned down or when things become difficult with our guests.
Living and ministering in the Kensington neighborhood has helped me hone in on my spiritual connection, a connection which I believe has made significant growth ever since I started off on my formation journey. These nine months in the Brothers Walking Together program have strengthened my resolve to be a Franciscan and affirmed my call to serve the children of God. Fear is a personal hurdle which I have begun to confront during my time at the Inn. I believe that with continued loving growth in my personal connection with God, I can overcome this challenge and many others.
Living in Toronto (where Brian is from) has shown me how people from different parts of the world and with unique perspectives can come together and build a beautiful city. Similarly, I believe the new province will bring together brothers with many special talents from across the country and replicate what JP (Joan Perez Lombera, SB) I experienced in the Brothers Walking Together program on a nationwide scale. This shared wealth of experiences, talent and ideas will help us minister in ways that we did not imagine was possible and help us focus on bringing that Franciscan spirit, joy and love into the 21st century.
A heartfelt blessing
I want to extend a big thank you to all the friars, FVM’s (Franciscan Volunteer Ministry), staff and volunteers at St. Francis Inn and Marie’s Closet for being such wonderful people. I could see a bit of myself in each and every person I encountered, which made it all the more special. Even when I move to Chicago, a little part of me can still be found in the hearts, thoughts and spirit of all the brothers and sisters who minister at the Inn.
In the fall, I will be heading to Chicago to grow in faith, love and joy by studying about God. I am pursuing a master’s degree in theology at Catholic Theological Union alongside my brothers from across the country. No friar is good at saying good-bye, but I’d like to think of it as leaving a piece of my heart wherever I go so, that in the end, my heart will encompass the whole globe through the loving and caring works of charity like those at St. Francis Inn.
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Tyler Grudi (HNP), Negril, Jamaica: Daniel Cruz (HNP) and I arrived in Jamaica last August while the pandemic was still going strong. We started our time there tutoring and helping out at a virtual learning center that allowed local children to use Wi-Fi to access their online school work. As things progressed and schools opened up, we tutored three days a week at Revival Primary School, teaching English and math to third and fourth graders. We also served at St. Anthony’s Soup Kitchen a few days a week the entire year. We assisted lay women with preparing over 360 lunches a day for the people of “Little Haiti,” a squatter community across the street. We also assisted people coming to Mary Gate of Heaven for assistance with prescriptions or food supply.
The greatest challenge in ministry was the pandemic. As restrictions were beginning to loosen in the United States, Jamaica increased their restrictions. Many children in our communities had no devices or Wi-Fi to access their classes online. As a result, hundreds of students were left behind for two years of virtual learning. By the time children were back in school, they were grade levels behind, and tutoring sometimes felt like one step forward, two steps back. But the greatest gifts this year were the lay people (mostly women), who helped us find resources for teaching and encouraged us to speak Patois and take initiative in ministry situations. The women at the kitchen were especially helpful this year and were like our adopted aunties, always looking out for us.
Living the Gospel
The poor have not only become more a part of my life, but they’ve become more a part of my heart. As I’m preparing to leave after my nine-month assignment here, many of the people I will miss will be the people we served. In Negril, you end up seeing the same faces on the street or at the soup kitchen. Relationships form, and you begin to know each other on a first name basis. One day, someone on the street was asking about “my friend.” He was referring to a woman named Kay, who was living homeless on the street and dealing with some mental health issues. I talked to her a lot over the course of the year, and I’m glad people call her my friend. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I felt privileged to be invited to play my cello with the various church communities across Westmoreland Parish. It was an instrument not many Jamaicans have heard of or seen. I’d argue that besides Patois or English, Jamaicans’ second language is music. I learned to play my cello in a gospel/reggae beat, as well as sing Jamaican choruses (Jamaican spiritual songs) before Mass. Sharing in the music of the people was a great joy this year. I was also invited to preach every Wednesday at daily Mass. Daniel preached every Friday. These moments challenged me to humble myself before the daily Mass community and allowed me to briefly process some of my ministry experiences in the light of the Gospel.
This year, our community shared a lot about our hopes and fears with the R&R process and the unification of the provinces. A line from Chapter 5 of our Constitutions has stuck with me in my ministry this year: “In order that the Church may always be seen more and more as the sacrament of salvation for our time, the friars are to set up fraternities in the midst of the poor and in secularized groups and consider them a privileged means of evangelization.”
The friars in Jamaica consider their relationships with all people, Catholic or otherwise, to be privileged spaces of living the Gospel. Their example of living the Gospel first by their deeds has been a tremendous source of inspiration for me as I begin my life as a lesser brother. And, as the provinces come together, it will be important for all of us friars to cultivate our missionary spirit. As we consider future ministries and future places to live together, I hope we can think outside the box and look for those often neglected, poor, or even secularized spaces, where the Spirit may be calling us to give witness.
I could not have done this year without the friars of SJB, as well as my classmate, Daniel. Every time new friars join a community, the dynamic changes. This year, my brothers created a space where we could all share our needs and concerns and one where I felt free to be myself. This was my first assignment, and I am privileged to have spent the year in such an exemplary community. Jim Bok, Tim Lamb and Colin King have all set the bar for what community can be when every friar takes seriously his commitment to living the Gospel in fraternity. If any friar, whether in SJB or another province, desires to do mission work, I cannot recommend coming to Negril enough. I hope more men will consider Jamaica for a future assignment.
This summer, I will be living at 31 Street in Manhattan, working at residences for homeless people with mental illness. In September, I will be moving into the St. Joseph Friary in Chicago and beginning my master’s degree in theology. I’m hoping to concentrate my degree in biblical studies and missiology.