New York Encounter, Day 3: Hope Always Surprises Me
by Carla Galdo
At the close of the New York Encounter weekend, the event “Hope always surprises me” featured six speakers whose lives had involved substantial challenges even prior to the difficulties of 2020. All had discovered urgent needs in themselves or in others that cried out for real, specific, and deeply human responses. They shared stories of challenges, experienced by so many during this past year, that “provoked [their] humanity to stay afloat,” as Father Julián Carrón expressed it at the close of the event.
Carolina Brito, Principal at Boston Public Schools' Rafael Hernández Dual Language K-8 School, explained how at the start of the pandemic, the need to quickly equip their majority-Latino community to face the oncoming weeks and months led to a beautiful moment where it seemed that “the world open[ed] in a time when all the doors closed.”
With 75% or more of her school community living below the poverty line, the switch to remote learning was not only a crisis of education but one of survival. When Brito needed to distribute thousands of pounds of donated food and supplies, a surprising coalition of “suburban soccer moms” came to help. She was inspired, she said, by witnessing people in the community taking action together in spite of normally being part of such different walks of life; she noticed that “you move because your brother or your sister needs you, and you leave the rest at the door.” Quoting Amanda Gorman's poem “The Hill We Climb,” Brito ended her witness on a hopeful note: “while once we asked,/ ‘how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe,’/now we assert,/ ‘how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?’/We will not march back to what was/ but move to what shall be.”
Matthew Laracy shared how, along with a group of family and friends, he founded a non-profit in Jersey City, NJ, called Magnificat Home. Housed in two former convents, this space offers a home to low-income women. Laracy is not only the director of Magnificat Home but is also deeply involved in the daily life of the women who live there. Describing the residents as “endearing, humble, full of faith, often wounded, sometimes crazy but in entertaining ways, and entirely captivating,” he insisted on the necessity of healing through paying attention to the other, and through a simple fidelity to personal presence with residents.
Covid-19 could have complicated or frustrated these methods, but as keys to the Magnificat Home ministry, Laracy made sure they continued. “Thank you for taking care of us through that,” expressed a resident after a particularly difficult moment of the pandemic. “Well, what did we do?” asked Laracy. “We just showed up.”
Father Dustin Feddon's experience of founding Joseph House echoed Brito's experience of people coming together from all walks of life to meet a need. He did prison ministry and watched as men who were formerly incarcerated--often in solitary confinement, conditions similar to “living in a mop closet”--were at a loss as to how to start their lives once they left prison. Inspired by Pope Francis, and by Bryan Stevenson's call to “proximity” with those most in need, he began the endeavor to establish Joseph House.
Parishioners and other laypeople in the community were Joseph's House greatest resource, helping residents to get to appointments or offering advice and support. This dried up during the lockdowns and pandemic upheaval, but Father Feddon hopes for its renewal as the ministry continues. As a Church who wants to share the Gospel, he noted, “we should be a people of hospitality, welcoming strangers and exiles back into the land.”
Gabriel Tunage-Cooper, a resident of Joseph House, accompanied Father Feddon and shared his experience of being “overwhelmed with love” by the community as he began his studies towards obtaining a GED. His work on the house's overgrown backyard, side-by-side with Father Feddon, helped their relationship to deepen, as together they tamed weeds and planted flowers. He displayed a recent, and clearly very beloved, tattoo of “Joseph the Dreamer” which he said would remind him, even after he moves on from Joseph House, of the need to care for himself and his dreams.
Juan Tapia-Mendoza, founder of Pediatrics 2000 and member of SOMOS Community Care, shared the story of how he went from living as a gang member in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood to his current profession as a successful pediatrician. His transition from life in his native Dominican Republic to the inner city U.S.A. was fraught with difficulties, but he referenced two key elements in his ability to overcome his circumstances. First was constantly remembering his mother's advice: “Juan, if you fall down, stand up”; second was coming across a mentor who listened to him and believed in him and helped him get back on track educationally. He has chosen to remain in the New York area where he grew up in order to advocate for people in underserved communities, whose needs were highlighted by how hard the Covid-19 pandemic hit them.
The evening closed with remarks by sociologist Mikel Azumendi and Father Carrón, with a gorgeous interlude: a rendition of "Deep River" by Vaneese Thomas.
What are human beings hoping for? Azurmendi asserted that it is not enough to simply respond to material needs. For the child who labors in a factory, the immigrant fleeing to find a new life, an elderly person who is suffering, the answer is the same.
Each hopes for someone to rescue them. "I think everyone is hoping to be loved. Only love gives hope." With even the thorniest political problems, "There's a way out. Love provides the way out."