A gleaming new, state-of-the-art building in a poor section of the South Bronx? One, moreover, that houses free services for local residents? A rarity indeed, and yet there it was: the Mercy Center (www.mercycenterbronx.org), facing me as I turned onto 145th Street for a late afternoon visit. Two Sisters of Mercy, Mary Ann Dirr and Mary Galeone, led me to the center’s “gathering room,” where I was introduced to three neighborhood mothers. These three exemplified the realization of a major goal of the Mercy Center: the empowering of women and families in the face of challenges that come from poverty.
All three have faced problems endemic to this largely Hispanic area of the city. Heading the list are domestic violence, lack of affordable housing and scarcity of jobs. One mother familiar with domestic violence at first hand was Sandra Rodriguez. She spoke of enduring years of abuse by her alcoholic husband. “I accepted it because I felt I had to for the sake of my kids,” she said. “But when he started in on them, I knew it had to stop.” With the help of the Mercy Center—located at that time in two rooms of a nearby parish school—she obtained an order of protection. The order will have to be renewed in a year, so the struggle continues. But now she is working in the parish school’s cafeteria and spends free time in such community outreach efforts as addressing the problem of teenage gangs.
Another woman present at our conversation was Alba Torres. As a teenage mother she had learned the need for parenting skills, a need arising from her own difficult experience raising a child on her own at a very young age. Her contacts with the center led her to help start parenting classes there, dealing with key issues like the lack of communication between parent and children. “When young mothers come here,” she said, “they have someone to talk to who’s been through what they’re going through.” She currently heads the center’s family life program. Still another mother with us was Catherine Loredo, a once painfully shy woman who, through the center’s business training program, has grown in the kind of self-confidence essential for facing the demands of job searches and interviews. Taken together, the three epitomize growth in self-esteem as well as in empowerment.
Empowerment has gone hand in hand with the center’s spirituality program. Several groups meet regularly to study Scripture and then, through that lens, examine the world around them with a view toward challenging evident wrongs. One striking example of the potency of this Scripture-based approach concerns the neighborhood’s primary health problem—asthma. For years, it has been aggravated by a nearby medical waste incinerator. Joining with a South Bronx consortium, the members of the spirituality group added their own leverage and helped to force the incinerator’s closing.
Both Ms. Rodriguez and Ms. Torres are Puerto Rican; Ms. Loredo is from Belize. But among the Hispanic population of the Mott Haven area, the fastest growing segment is Mexican. Many speak little English, a circumstance that has led to ever-expanding courses in English as a second language. So great has been the demand, the sisters said, that once the waiting list reached 150, “we stopped taking names.”
Because many of the newly arrived Mexicans are undocumented, trust had to be established before they felt it safe to come to the center. Their vulnerability is reflected not only in their immigration status, but also in the fact that, aware of this status, landlords and employers can easily exploit them because they lack access to the legal system.
A tour of the building followed our conversation. Besides the main floor, we visited a spacious basement equipped for computer training, counseling and job training. In a neighborhood likely to remain poor for decades, the space on both floors represents new possibilities for both individual and community growth, possibilities that have already borne fruit not only for the three mothers, but for many other residents as well.