It’s hard not to be intimidated sometimes, or to feel discouraged or fearful about what’s happening in the world. However, the oft-spoken scriptural adage, “Be not afraid,” is in the forefront of my mind as I return from Youngstown, Ohio. In 2010, Catholic Extension started supporting this diocese of the Rust Belt. The commitment came as the diocese was facing great evil in its inner city.
In January of 2010, Angeline, an 80-year-old parishioner of St. Dominic, was fatally shot as she was leaving church in an apparent botched mugging. In September 2010, tragedy again struck when two 75-year-old parishioners were fired upon 12 times in their car. Tom, the husband, was killed by a bullet to the head, and Jackie, his wife, was shot in the leg. Although Jackie survived, part of her leg had to be amputated. The couple had been “mistaken” for rival gang members.
A family member of one of the deceased spreads dirt on a vacant lot to plant seeds that will yield new plants as well as new hope.
Parishioners of this resilient community on Youngstown’s south-side have refused to let these incidents darken their spirits. They realize that it’s a moment to “be not afraid.” To support them, Catholic Extension and the Diocese of Youngstown are collaborating on “Project Grow: Planting Hope.” The project engages community members, parishioners, and teenage Catholic students from across the diocese to restore hope to the neighborhood by cleaning up junk and planting grass and vegetables in lots where drug houses once stood. While the project will eliminate urban blight, it also serves as a means to engage the diocese’s young Catholics, to teach them the value of service and to help them see Christ in everybody and everywhere, including in these struggling neighborhoods.
On May 21, with support from Catholic Extension donors, more than 120 young Catholics hit the streets of Youngstown in various locations to take the neighborhoods back. The evening before their work began, the youth were prepped with prayer by participating in Eucharistic Adoration. They were instructed to see Christ not only in the chapel but in the streets of Youngstown, and to discover for themselves what it literally means to renew the face of the Earth.
“These young people are a symbol of hope for us,” said Fr, Greg, St. Dominic pastor, who spoke as kids worked around him in the 80-degree sun picking up old liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia from a vacant lot next to the parish, while planting grass seed to create a playing field. “Catholic Extension wants to instill the Catholic faith more deeply and this is what we are doing today,” he added.
Family members of the deceased also were among the workers. I spoke to the nieces of one of the slain. “We will not let this violence define us. But being out here today helps give us some closure,” one said. More importantly, the family members wanted to “stand with the parish” in its effort to fight back.
John Drummond, a recent graduate of Ohio State University as well as an alum of the Catholic high school down the street from St. Dominic, was in charge of logistics. “I think this service has taught kids that your community is much larger than the 10 houses on your block,” he noted. He gives these kids credit. “These kids are really inspiring,” said John, who is only in his early 20s. “This generation gets a bad rap because people assume ‘these kids don’t want to do anything; they just want to play on their iPhones,’ but these kids are working hard.”
What’s the impact of this experience on the kids? You be the judge.
“This teaches us to help your neighbor,” said Taylor, a high school freshman.
“Poverty is not just in other countries, it’s right here in the U.S.” said Taiwana, also a freshman.
“I want to do this again soon,” said Mahia.
Change has to start somewhere. On May 21 we took a great step forward for inner-city parishioners as well as for young Catholics from across the Diocese of Youngstown. Catholic Extension will continue supporting the diocese to solidify and grow this hands-on evangelization.
— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management