By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
ST. JOSEPH — Maybe St. Joseph is exactly the right size.
Christian congregations in other cities and towns also work together, especially to serve the poor.
But St. Joseph has taken ecumenical action to another level, perhaps because it is large enough to hold several congregations, yet still small enough that those congregations can’t live and work apart from each other.
Together, they are doing. And when one congregation, or even one person, has a great idea, help comes seemingly out of the woodwork of a variety of churches in town.
Just ask Ruth Costello.
About 10 years ago, Costello established Grace House entirely on her own. It was to be a place where the poor could have the dignity of “gently used” clothes, furniture, and household items such as dishes and flatware, all at no charge to them.
“God has made it all possible,” said Costello, a member of Grace Evangelical Church on the city’s east side.
Grace House has outgrown its first two locations and is now in a store front along a city bus line near 27th and Lafayette streets, just a block north of St. Francis Xavier Parish.
And that is another gift from God, she said. Costello’s Grace House not only pulls volunteers from St. Francis Xavier — in addition to several Christian congregations — Grace House has also coordinated its operating hours with the parish’s “House of Bread” food pantry just around the corner.
Grace House operates on a shoestring budget. But whatever needs Costello has, they seem to get met, down to the gift of a brand-new large capacity washer and dryer to make certain that the clothes she puts out for her clients are in the best and cleanest condition possible.
And it has it rewards. Costello remembered giving a boy a near-new pair of Nike athletic shoes, just like most of the other kids at his school wore.
“I never had checkmark shoes before,” he said of his new footwear’s distinctive logo.
“It’s a God thing,” Costello said. “As a community, when we work together, it can happen.”
It is also happening at the Hispanic Outreach at St. Patrick Parish on the city’s southwest side.
Adriana Mears, a naturalized citizen from Mexico, said the ministry serves immigrants, documented and otherwise, no matter their country of origin. In fact, St. Joseph is seeing a wave of immigrants from Burma who are coming to work in the city’s new pork processing industry.
Mears said that the ministry tries to match needs with the people who can help, including services such as English as a second language classes to a mechanic to fix a broken car, and take periodic payments for his work.
Consuela and Estella, not their real names, don’t have the proper papers that would allow them and their children to live without fear of deportation.
But they have found in St. Joseph not a community that shuns them, but a community with many people willing to help.
Consuela, who has been in the United States for 11 years, said she and her husband came here for the same reason immigrants from around the world have been coming to the United States for centuries.
“A better life for my children,” she said.
When they first arrived, Hispanic Outreach helped them with food and clothes until they found work and could get on their feet. She even earned her high school equivalency GED degree and wants to go to college.
The work they do here is amazing.
Estella, who has been in the United States for six years, still struggles with English, but she has her own interpreter — her nine-year-old son who is also one of the top math students at his St. Joseph elementary school.
“People here have helped me everywhere I go,” Estella said. “When we didn’t have money, they helped with the utility bills.”
Despite working multiple low-paying and part-time jobs, both Consuela and Estella volunteer with Hispanic Outreach, being the friend to others that Mears was to them.
“I know what it feels like to be in that situation and needing help,” Consuela said. “I tell my children, ‘You have to remember where you came from and all the help you got along the way.’”
Mears said that if more people would take the time to meet and know immigrants, the nation’s so-called “immigration problem” would be solved more easily.
That was one of the lessons of the day, said Jude Huntz, director of the diocesan Human Rights Office, during the final reflection at First Christian Church for the 50 participants who went to a dozen St. Joseph social service agencies.
“Our call is to see the reign of God back here in the real world,” Huntz said. “Our job is to liberate, whether it is from drug abuse, or racism, or the shackles of poverty. Our job is to bring forth a community of sharing. And that is going to involve a lot of tension, and a lot of frustration.”
Huntz underscored the point made in an opening reflection by the Rev. Darrell Jones, pastor of Grace Evangelical Church.
Focusing on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Rev. Jones said it was also the story of the Good Innkeeper, the person to whom the Samaritan took the badly beaten robbery victim, and who cared for him as long as it took on only the promise that the expenses would be paid.
The social service agencies, all staffed with volunteers and donations from several Christian denominations in St. Joseph, were really the Good Innkeeper, using the resources they are given to do the actual work of caring for those in need, Rev. Jones said.
“I think that is a very good picture of church ministry,” he said. “Who will support these agencies? Whatever it costs to make (people in need) well, who will pay it?”
The Rev. Roger Lenander, pastor of First Lutheran Church, also said that God’s love is meant to be shared.
“It’s not something we can keep to ourselves,” he said. “God’s love flows through us to others.”
The work is often exhausting and neverending, but by working with other congregations and other agencies, Christians in St. Joseph have learned to share the burden as well as the love, he said.
“We are part of a greater network,” Rev. Lenander said. “How can I act when I don’t feel like acting? How can I care when my reservoir of caring is empty? That is where God’s grace comes in.”
God’s grace can be seen throughout St. Joseph, Rev. Lenander said.
“This is a remarkable community where boundaries have gone down,” he said. “This is a community where congregations are less concerned about self-preservation and more concerned about mission. The pursuit of justice for all here is because we are God’s community.”