This week I was in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Catholic Extension supports the Diocese of St. Thomas. I know what you are thinking: what a tough assignment for a Chicagoan like me, who hasn’t seen the sun shine or felt a warm breeze on his face since October. For the record, I did see a palm tree or two; I did behold turquoise waters softly undulating over coral, and I did happen to see a sandy beach. This is indeed a paradise. But I saw a side of paradise that the bronzed tourists in flip-flops and souvenir t-shirts undoubtedly miss during their visits. I got to experience the reality that the Church lives every day. We began our visit in downtown St. Thomas. An abandoned building that serves as a drug house sits across the street from the Cathedral school. Two doors down is a brothel, and then another brothel, and one more block down is yet another brothel, the largest of its kind on the Islands. A few streets down is a neighborhood where the Catholic Church operates a soup kitchen to feed people who are literally starving.
As the bishop so aptly observed, “We are really entrenched in the realities of the Islands.” I witnessed firsthand how the church is educating and forming young people who are constantly confronted with these perils. In the past ten years, Catholic Extension has been supporting education, outreach, and faith formation initiatives. The diocese is forming a powerful support system around these children. They will need it. The harsh realities of the island are not far away… they are actually right across the street.
Abandoned vehicles, which serve as makeshift homes, and junk line the streets of this neighborhood on the interior of the island.
As I entered the various classrooms of the Cathedral School, which educates students grades K-12, I was greeted by children in uniform, who reflect the social and economic diversity of the island. The children stand up with broad smiles on their faces to greet their guests with their customary words, “Good morning and God loves you.” These kids were faith-filled, happy, hard-working and free to dream big. “I want to be lawyer,” said one 6th grade girl whom we met in the middle of her history lesson. “I get up at 5 a.m. every day and take a boat to school from another island,” said one high school-aged girl from behind her biology book. The church’s presence doesn’t stop at the end of the school day, as almost every teenage student participates in their parish youth group. While the church has made some great headway in transforming these lives while confronting the realities of the island, unfortunate indicators suggest there is still much work to be done. We visited the Island of St. Croix and were taken to an isolated and impoverished neighborhood. To get there we had to take a rugged road, which ultimately became completely impassible by car, forcing us to get out and walk. “Come, I want to show you this place,” the bishop said. It is a shanty town. Some people live in abandoned cars; others live in houses surrounded by barbed wire and rusty scraps of sheet metal. There is junk everywhere, entangled by lush vegetation. An elderly man waved to us from where he sat on a worn-out couch under a tree. The bishop explained that he celebrates Christmas mass here. It breaks his heart to know that at least 67 children live in this neighborhood, many of whom live in volatile home environments and are not being educated.
“Joe, if we can just get a building in this neighborhood, just get a presence going, I know we can make a difference.” His observation is so correct. In all the communities I visit, I invariably discover that the local Catholic Church is entrenched, and therefore uniquely positioned to transform people’s hearts and their communities. I also realize how Catholic Extension is uniquely positioned to help respond to these needs and opportunities. The church is entrenched in the realities of life, both the joys and the sorrows. The church sees both sides of the island.
Through its 1,000+ grants per year to U.S. –based Catholic “mission dioceses,” Catholic Extension and its donors are working hand-in-hand with these local churches, infusing new life in under-resourced communities near and far. — Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management