Laboring under twenty-first century burdens

Father John A. Kiley

The intersection of Broad Street and the service road that runs alongside Route 95 in Providence offers a double opportunity to reflect on some challenges in today’s society.

Quite often young men stand at the curb waving posters looking for work, requesting a meal, needing a home. Drivers in air-conditioned cars, with a full tank of gas, and their routes mapped out by a Global Positioning System (GPS), can only wonder at the defeats that have brought these young men to this street corner. Diagonally across Broad Street is Crossroads, an agency that nobly offers some shelter, refreshment and direction for men and women, and children as well, who are homeless. Hard times have been brought upon these individuals through family break-ups, through housing and job loss, through military service complications, through mental illness, alcohol, and drugs. Scenes like this are repeated throughout Rhode Island’s cities as the needy wait at bus stops or walk toward meal sites.

For the most part these disadvantaged persons elicit pity and not much more. Few are the shepherds who actively search the fields looking for their wayward sheep. But occasionally pity evolves into compassion and diligent persons, like the widow seeking her lost coin, commence some constructive activity for the relief of needy neighbors. Older Rhode Islanders will remember Bishop Russell J. McVinney as the quintessential pre-Vatican II prelate, as authoritarian as he was dignified. Yet Bishop McVinney quietly gave permission to then-Father Henry Shelton to establish community action centers in the state’s urban areas to promote justice in housing, to work for ample public transportation, and to sponsor periodic meetings where neighborhood voices could be heard. The Diocese of Providence was a very early advocate for social service issues in Rhode Island. With the hearty endorsement of Bishop Emeritus Louis E. Gelineau and Bishop Emeritus Robert E. Mulvee, Rhode Island Catholics continued to support a major hospital, area nursing facilities, ministries at the state prisons and the state hospitals, ministries to the mentally impaired and physically handicapped, twelve step programs at dozens of churches, regional and parochial food pantries and meal sites, and an AIDS ministry.

During Bishop Thomas J. Tobin’s eight years as bishop of Providence, the involvement of Rhode Island Catholics in matters of justice, rights, and services has grown apace on both the parish and the diocesan level. Under Bishop Tobin’s direction the Catholic Charity Dire Emergency Fund offers individual utility and housing grants to families in financial stress. Application can be made through any local pastor. Rhode Island elderly are serviced by a Neighborhood Friendly Visitor Program. Caregivers are awarded a break in their routine though the diocese’s Respite Care Service. There is also a Subsidized Homemaker Program for those temporarily incapacitated. Immigration and Refugee Services are receiving much attention from their multi-lingual diocesan staff. And of course the Catholic Church in Rhode Island has a constant presence at the Statehouse in the person of Father Bernard Healey advocating for all those in need.

Catholics throughout Rhode Island are certainly aware of the personal initiative Bishop Tobin has taken with his annual Keep The Heat On campaign. Over $100,000 is raised and distributed to needy Rhode Islanders during the winter months. Again, at the bishop’s personal initiative, the diocese provides warmth and shelter during the winter for homeless men through the accommodations at Emmanuel House, the former Carter Day Nursery, in South Providence.

Other practical assistance offered in these uncertain times included free help wanted advertisements in Rhode Island Catholic, the local diocesan newspaper. The diocesan office for social ministries also makes RIPTIKS Bus Passes available for the needy and offers free tax preparation for low-income individuals. And it is not only Providence that benefits from the bishop’s concern. Satellite social ministry offices are located in Wakefield, West Warwick, Pawtucket and Woonsocket. In the lifetime of those reading these reflections, the Diocese of Providence has had a distinguished history of involvement with social services. The Catholic Church is no stranger to community action.

The Catholic Church in Rhode Island was very much involved with justice for laborers in the nineteenth century. The Catholic Church in Rhode Island is still actively involved with those who labor under different burdens in the twenty-first century.