By Charlie Johnston
I had gotten down to Thomasville, Georgia with my son for a brief, unexpected visit. Figuring out how to get to southern Florida, we discovered it was actually cheaper to rent a car than to take a bus (that only works if you are going to take and bring the car back – one way car rentals are still expensive). My son, a cop, was on shift that Monday morning, but he planned to take me to the car rental place at 9 a.m., giving me plenty of time to make it for a 7 p.m. meeting in south Florida.
Except he had calls…lots of calls to go to. He did not manage to get me there until 11 a.m. – and that in transit to a non-emergency call. I told him irritably that I would think, after a busy week-end, the crooks would have the decency to sleep in on Monday. When we got to the car rental shop, Charlie just dropped me off and sped away.
I hit the road and did not plan to make many stops. It was kind of cool watching the pines melt away into palms as I got further south. This was going to be a fun trip no matter how it all turned out, for the coordinator was my old school friend, John Bailey. John and I shared 1st chair trumpet in the band. We actually should have been rivals, because he was the home boy, popular with everyone…tall, tanned and handsome with lots of dash and panache in school. I moved into town in seventh grade, plain and slightly built, but plenty sure of myself. I told him maybe a week after I arrived that I was going to oust him from his pre-eminent seat in the trumpet section. I didn’t mean any harm – just thought he should know to soften the blow. Our band director, in a diplomatic masterpiece, navigated the needle by keeping him first chair and naming me solo trumpet player – in essence, making us both first chair. Within a few months, it wouldn’t have mattered as John and I became inseparable buddies. Later, in high school, Denise Molidor sat in front of me in French class. One of the prettiest girls in school, with long, straight, silky blond hair, she was lively and we had become friends. She would always turn around to ask me questions – or to tell me what she and her friends were up to. John saw her several times and enthused over how “smokin’ hot” he thought she was. I told him she was my friend – and I would be glad to introduce them. It took a while, as Denise was not as initially enthused as John…but they started dating and never looked back. I was best man at their wedding. (Actually, a much younger, more svelte version of me was best man at their wedding).
Ha! John and one of my priests talked recently over the phone…and I got a little nervous for I was told they had a two-hour rollicking conversation. If anyone knows where the bodies are buried, it is John. It was great to spend time with John and Denise – and their three adult children, Caitlyn, Brett and Colton. Alas, Colton was not able to get in town while I was there. Brett played NCAA Basketball, while Colton is a hockey player. I often describe my son as a taller, stronger, younger, more handsome version of me. Boy, Brett is the same compared to his Dad! One day when I had an afternoon down, Denise and I looked at pictures of old high school friends as they are now. Some just look like wrinklier versions of themselves, some were utterly unrecognizable.
I got in just under the wire at 6:30. John and I headed out to meet with some of the volunteers who comprised the host committee, Bob and Laurie Davis and Barry and Julie Carew – and I spoke with a men’s Emmaus group. We went and took a look at the hall at St. Mark’s in Davie where I would speak the next night. It was a large, cavernous hall with a lot of reverb. Bob was taking care to get the sound taken care of so people could hear.
All were a little surprised at the turnout. About 120 people showed up. Bob had arranged for a remote microphone so I could walk around a little, but as we got started, it was a little tough. The crowd was too big for people to hear me clearly without a microphone, but not big enough to absorb enough sound to damp down the natural reverb in the hall. It worked out okay, but the sound quality on the video just would not have been useful to anyone. They were a lively diverse group with lots of questions and comments – and some had traveled for hours to get there. There was one woman, obviously Evangelical, who made a comment that we need to depend on the Word of God, the Bible solely to get us through. She made her case with gentility and didn’t try to harangue anyone about “Bible Only.” While I am Catholic and not a “Bible Only” guy, it is one of the two foundational pillars of our faith – and I think it helpful at times to be reminded how important it is. Another lady said that the only thing we should concern ourselves with are the Rosary and Adoration – that those are the only things that matter. I don’t quite agree with that, but that’s okay. That case created a minor situation the next day though, as the woman was next to me at Daily Mass. Afterwards, they had Adoration – but I had appointments I had to get to. She told me I had to stay for Adoration and was a bit insistent. I told her, a bit irritably I am afraid, that I had to go. I worried all day that maybe I had misinterpreted her insistence and had been needlessly short after she pushed me.
While the crowd was good and engaged, the greatest thing about southern Florida was all the groups I got to meet with who are devoting themselves to helping others. The first of those is the Schott Center in Cooper City. It is a center where people with various developmental disabilities are in community with each other. Originally it worked heavily with deaf people. Now, it deals with all manner of disabilities. Pablo Cuadra, the Director of Religious Formation, gave us a tour of the facility, explaining its history and how it operates. The picture at the top of this article is just outside the hall. It looks like a Statue of Mary with a wrought iron fence around it. But when you look more closely, you will see it is actually a Rosary for the blind. The little balls at the top of each pike in the fence are for each of the prayers of a full decade. Perhaps it was the sense of discovery once I realized what it was, but this little garden Rosary moved me deeply.
The large, spacious chapel is used both for Catholic services and for a Protestant worship service on Sunday evenings. There are a complex of apartments specially geared for the developmentally disabled just off the property (those are separate because they involve government money. The Shott Center takes no government money so that the feds can’t regulate their religious worship and practice, but they serve that community). Though a Catholic initiative, Schott directors and volunteers work to make it welcoming and serve all the developmentally disabled who have settled near there. One of the most fruitful things they do is teach art to those who use the center. Some of the most profoundly intellectually challenged people are able to speak with startling profundity through art. I am adding Schott Communities to the “Go Forth” links. They do good work, take no government money, and are constantly struggling to make a budget. If you can, a little donation to them would be a big help.
The place I completely fell in love with was the Marianitas House in Opa Locka, Florida. We actually passed it twice before finding it, for it is a converted ranch style home. The nuns come from Venezuela. We came in a few minutes late for the mid-day Mass in their little chapel. It was all in Spanish. The little nun behind me, who I later found was Sr. Doris, had a lovely and robust singing voice. There had been three sisters
in the little convent until recently when the oldest passed away. That created a bit of a financial crisis. See, the sisters feed 300 families per month. That is not 300 meals, but 300 sets of actual staples and groceries they put together to feed a family for a month. They provide day care services for families in need so they can work. I greeted about 5 children who had just gone down for their naps and weren’t even pretending to be asleep when we passed through. They were all such enthusiastic, happy kids. Anyway, the financial crisis was caused because they no longer get the deceased Sister’s retirement check and food stamps. Don’t anyone dare to criticize that! If you are using your retirement and food stamps to feed the truly needy, I say more power to you and I will brook no argument on the matter.
In pictures, Sr. Elsie looks notably solemn. Do not be fooled. That sweet nun has a delightful, pixieish sense of humor. Even though we did not speak each other’s language, we were cracking each other up. Inspired at one point, I held my keys out to her. She was puzzled briefly until I said, “Aqui..a key.” She loved the little bi-lingual pun. They live so close to the edge of financial disaster…and are so joyous and confident in the Lord’s providence they utterly inspired me. They do not worry, but trust God, and are filled with infectious joy. For whatever reason, Sr. Doris and I were drawn to each other. She has been here since 1961. You might wonder how she could be here that long and not speak English. Remember, this is South Florida and they serve a largely Hispanic community. Though I don’t speak Spanish, I do speak French – and so am able to parse together some things and make myself understood in simple ways. Sr. Doris and I spoke quietly and privately with each other for a few minutes…one of those souls with whom I felt an instant and powerful spiritual communion. She told me of a prayer intention she wanted me to pray for her – and I shared a need with her. She made me promise to come back…and insisted I learn to speak Spanish while promising that she will immediately begin studying her English more intently, that we may speak in more depth when I come back to visit again.
They live and work in such simplicity that they do not have a website. But they work on such slender resources and with such confidence. If you can, please send them a little…but it would have to be a check or money order. Their address is:
Marianitas Sisters, Inc.
2781 N.W. 135th St.
Opa Locka, Florida 33054
If you live in the area, rice and cooking oil are two staples they always need. Sr. Elsie told me that it is important that any rice given come in five-lb. bags rather than bulk, for it gets expensive and difficult for them to break the bulk into separate five-lb. containers, which are what people need. I was so moved by their generosity and faith, I told John to give my $300 fee to them after I was gone – and as you know, I’m not Mr. Gotrocks. But by gum, if you are using your retirement checks to feed the hungry, I figure God is calling me to kick in what little I can.
I was struck to see that Michael Brown had linked to a piece on the prophecies of St. Mariana de Jesus Flores of Ecuador the, to whom these sisters are much devoted, the day after I visited. The order was founded by Sister Mariana Torres, also of Ecuador.
We also visited Sheridan House in Davie, a residential facility for middle-school age kids who are not in serious trouble, but are on the verge of getting there. It is very structured, and works with parents – mostly single Moms – to help get the kids back on track and provide parents with the resources they need to get to work and enhance home stability. It is doing great work and is well-funded, by a lot of churches and Christian business people, so I don’t need to make an appeal on their behalf. I was tickled that the vice-president, Rick Weber, came from Bloomington, Illinois. A faithful Evangelical, I thought he had been formed in the vibrant Evangelical community that exist in Bloomington and among which I have many friends. But it turns out he did not find God until he got to Florida.
On each of these visits, I will likely do later stand-alone articles. People ask me what to do now, how do we prepare. Here, I think, are answers that I will want to highlight throughout my journeys. These are people who, whatever the headlines, do their daily work well – being a sign of hope to those around them, reaching out to their fellows both in season and out of season as St. Paul was wont to say. Do the same as best you can – for it is in these sorts of little communities that lie the seeds of renewal for our once great society. The halls of power have already become salted fields in which nothing good can grow. The seeds of renewal lie in simply acknowledging God, taking the next right step, and being a sign of hope to those around you. These people and thousands like them are not talking about it, they are living it.
I spoke with the women’s Emmaus group at St. Mark’s also. They are all deeply committed to living the faith and reaching out to others around them. On the night before I left, we had a private dinner at John and Denise’s with some of the people who had organized everything and some of their friends. I love those intimate, laid-back affairs where you can all just talk and ramble a little. (Lest you have somehow missed it, I do love to ramble on sometimes!) One final note: for dessert, Denise had picked up a Key Lime Pie from Costco. I love Key Lime Pie. To my amazement, this was one of the best I have ever had. I don’t know whether it was just this particular Costco that made it so good or whether there is a common recipe for all of them. But I will tell you this…I intend to find out. It may not be as good elsewhere, but I have generally found that even a bad Key Lime Pie is better than no Key Lime Pie