The National Catholic Review
At midday on Christmas Eve, I found myself under a large white tent adjacent to St. John’s Church in downtown Newark, where I was mingling with hundreds of poor and homeless people from that impoverished and battered city. I wish I could tell you I was there out of the goodness of my heart, giving of myself for a few hours on that special day. The truth is, work had brought me to this place. Had it not been for a writing assignment, I surely would not have been under a makeshift tent on Christmas Eve, talking with those for whom there would be little in the way of comfort later in the evening.

Every year on Christmas Eve, St. John’sthe oldest parish in New Jerseysponsors a party for Newark’s poor, homeless and hungry. They waited in a line that stretched along busy Route 21 in downtown Newark and wrapped around a side street. Volunteers handed out hot meals, gifts and smiles, while a band called the Holiday Express played Christmas music. Some of the volunteers danced with the guests of honor, most of whom, it seemed clear, would be spending Christmas Eve on the cold streets of Newark.

Helping to supervise this impressive undertaking was the Msgr. James J. Finnerty, pastor of St. John’s. He personally greeted many of the guests, most of whom he knew by name and by story. Here was a mentally ill drug addict; there was a single, homeless mother. So many of these people cannot hold jobs, he was saying. Some of them brought children with them as they waited in line for a hot meal of chicken, pasta and vegetables.

Years ago St. John’s established a program to feed the hungry in Newark, one of the nation’s poorest cities. It is the very definition of bad news/good news that the program has been a remarkable success. Volunteers serve 300 breakfasts a day, and 400 more meals at lunchtime. It is an impressive record. It is also depressing to think how necessary this church’s mission has become.

There was a time many decades ago when St. John’s was a thriving parish, back in the days when the city itself was home to nearly half a million people, when its main intersection, Broad and Market Streets, was one of the busiest in the country, and when Irish, Italian and other immigrants and their children called Newark home.

Those days are gone forever. The congregation has dwindled to a precious few, and is getting smaller each year. The English Norman Gothic church is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, which only seems to confirm that the parish’s best years are in the past. With the Archdiocese of Newark looking to close or combine parishes, St. John’s, it would seem, might well become history in the near future.

But if the pews in this well-kept church are far, far from filled, the parish itself has managed to adapt to changing times by transforming its mission. In the spirit of Catholic social teachingof Gospel teachingSt. John’s reaches out to help those who cannot help themselves.

The church could not perform this mission without the help and financial support of dozens of volunteers. Students from nearby colleges, including Rutgers University and Seton Hall Law School, regularly help with food preparation and service. Employees from local businesses also help out with time and money. The program, in fact, is self-sustaining; the church takes no money from the Archdiocese of Newark to fund its meals.

Watching both the volunteers and the guests on Christmas Eve, I couldn’t help but reflect on a controversy in my town, which borders Newark, but only in geography. In Maplewood and my neighboring town of South Orange, public school officials banned the playing of Christmas musiceven instrumental versions!with religious themes. Officials talked about the separation of church and state, but in the commentary that followed, it was not hard to detect fear and outright loathing of public expressions of religion and faith.

But it was religion and faith that led so many volunteers to this tent in downtown Newark on Christmas Eve, where the message of Christmasthe message expressed in so many Christmas carolswas not merely celebrated, but acted upon. Why are so many of us afraid of these messages? Why do we ban them from schools, from the public arena? The good will radiating from St. John’s on this Christmas Eve was founded on teachings found in sacred text, teachings that surely can make all of us not only better people, but better citizens. And yet, so many people insist that we dare not speak of such matters in the public square.

For Father Finnerty, standing in the cold as a wind whipped the tent’s flaps, the controversy over Christmas music in a nearby suburb was of no moment on this day of days. He had more important concerns, like the health and well-being of his flockthe poor of Newark.

As they waited in line patiently for their meal, their gift and perhaps a quick dance with somebody they might never see again, Father Finnerty glanced their way and said, We’re fortunate to know these people.

On Christmas Eve in Newark, I felt fortunate to know people like Father Finnerty.

Terry Golway is a writer for The New York Observer.

Comments

William Donohue | 2/16/2007 - 10:09am
Edward F. Harrington, in “The Metaphorical Wall” (1/17), effectively debunks the prevailing mythology about government and religion. The framers of the Constitution quite clearly sought to insulate religion from the reach of government; they did not seek to inoculate society from religious expression. But as Terry Golway points out in the same issue, “Matters of Which We Dare Not Speak,” the invocation of “separation of church and state” may be the preferred legal strategy, but it is “fear and outright loathing of public expressions of religion and faith” that is really at work. In short, there is more than flawed jurisprudential reasoning that is driving this issue.

James C. G. Conniff | 1/14/2005 - 4:10pm
If Terry Golway wants to take a more chutzpah-laden run to defy and defeat the assault on Christmas, let him try this:

A few Christmases ago a Neptune, N.J., Catholic who prefers anonymity had an idea that's catching on across America: "Why don't we continue to celebrate the Christmas message," he asked, "by using the annual First Class Madonna & Child U.S. postage stamp on business and personal throughout the year? That will remind everyone who handles the mail what Christmas is all about."

Tom saw it as a ready-made way to counter the increasingly harsh campaign to secularize the real reason for the season: Christ Himself. But a mere postage stamp to counterbalance empty greetings like "Happy Holidays" for the meaningful "Merry Christmas!" Mary and Jesus on an envelope to remind people and help restore respect for traditional observances such as caroling and exhibiting in the public square the Holy Family's crèche that Saint Francis of Assisi gave us? What more relentlessly public a venue?

Every Christmas Tom buys $100 worth of the Madonna & Child stamp as soon as it appears. When he runs out he just buys more, since he was pleasantly surprised to discover most post offices keep that stamp in stock, some until the following October. The word spreads fast once friends and neighbors hear about it.

Why not join this wonderful crusade? Whether your post office can keep you supplied or not, the U.S. Postal Service will supply the stamp any time all year in packets of five totaling 100 stamps @ $37 postpaid from its Philatelic Agency at 475 L'Enfant Plaza, Washington, DC 20260-0010, or process credit-card orders on the Internet at pmceo@email.usps.gov.

Lucy Fuchs | 2/16/2007 - 10:21am
I did not appreciate the importance of the separation of church and state until these past few months. As I see it, the wall of separation is to protect the church from being encroached upon by the state, but it is also to protect our freedom to practice our religion from encroachments of the religion of the majority.

Here in Eastern Kentucky, where I now live, I have learned what it is like to be in a minority. I am a liberal Catholic surrounded by fundamentalist Christians, good people all but totally sure that they know exactly what God wants, including who is to be president. They also decide who is saved and not saved and what every word of the Bible means. I can only imagine what Jews, Muslims and persons of other non-Christian religions must feel.

Terry Golway wonders why people seem afraid to speak of their beliefs (“Matters of Which We Dare Not Speak” (1/17). Here there is a great deal of what I call God-talk. People speak of “bringing Christ” to others, meaning telling them about Jesus. I would rather have people “be Christ” to others, as apparently Msgr. James J. Finnerty and others do. I cringe at so much God-talk. People have the right to speak for themselves, but I resist others’ too facile attempt to speak for God. There is already too much of that in the world.

James C. G. Conniff | 1/14/2005 - 4:10pm
If Terry Golway wants to take a more chutzpah-laden run to defy and defeat the assault on Christmas, let him try this:

A few Christmases ago a Neptune, N.J., Catholic who prefers anonymity had an idea that's catching on across America: "Why don't we continue to celebrate the Christmas message," he asked, "by using the annual First Class Madonna & Child U.S. postage stamp on business and personal throughout the year? That will remind everyone who handles the mail what Christmas is all about."

Tom saw it as a ready-made way to counter the increasingly harsh campaign to secularize the real reason for the season: Christ Himself. But a mere postage stamp to counterbalance empty greetings like "Happy Holidays" for the meaningful "Merry Christmas!" Mary and Jesus on an envelope to remind people and help restore respect for traditional observances such as caroling and exhibiting in the public square the Holy Family's crèche that Saint Francis of Assisi gave us? What more relentlessly public a venue?

Every Christmas Tom buys $100 worth of the Madonna & Child stamp as soon as it appears. When he runs out he just buys more, since he was pleasantly surprised to discover most post offices keep that stamp in stock, some until the following October. The word spreads fast once friends and neighbors hear about it.

Why not join this wonderful crusade? Whether your post office can keep you supplied or not, the U.S. Postal Service will supply the stamp any time all year in packets of five totaling 100 stamps @ $37 postpaid from its Philatelic Agency at 475 L'Enfant Plaza, Washington, DC 20260-0010, or process credit-card orders on the Internet at pmceo@email.usps.gov.

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