On Tuesday, February 4, 2014, Fr. Domenic Rossi, O.Praem., spoke to the students, faculty, and staff at an assembly. Father is the Founder and Executive Director of Bethesda Project, one of Philadelphia’s largest interfaith homeless housing and support organizations. In a very charismatic and passionate presentation, Father explained how he was called to this work, which began by leading a prayer group in 1977 at Daylesford Abbey.
While they were praying together, asking for understanding from God as to what He wanted of them, they all opened their Bibles to a random page. Several of them opened to the same exact Scripture passage from Isaiah:
You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here I am.
If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Houses in Ruins. (Isaiah 58:4-12)
This prayer time was followed by a dream, in which Father saw his grandmother abandoned. He mentioned that he had a close relationship with her and was so disturbed by the dream that he woke up immediately and asked himself, “What does this mean?”
He said that in his mind’s ear he heard a voice say, “You should be upset at anyone being abandoned as much as you are upset at the thought of your grandmother being abandoned.” Father said that he stilled prayed for guidance because he did not know exactly what all of these things meant. After another dream in which he cared for a stranger by offering him something to eat, he received an unsolicited offer to take over and manage a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. He agreed, and with a group of volunteers began what would become the Bethesda Project.
As Father described to the assembly, the mission of the Project is to be “family” to those who have none, to be interveners of the homeless who are in need of healing, to not make them feel like a meaningless number lost in a social services agency. Bethesda Project provides shelter, housing, and programs that reach out to chronically homeless men and women. Those who work in Bethesda Project want to assure that each person’s uniqueness is recognized. Father said that the staff and volunteers of Bethesda Project follow a creed of compassion. It is about knowing another person and building a relationship not based on money, but on a desire to know someone and his or her unique story.
The assembly left a lasting impression on me, and I would guess, on many other students, faculty, and staff who listened to Father so intently.
Earlier this week, I happened to read a piece of research completed by Bill Meehan, III on the library of John J. Raskob. Bill spent some time in The Patio library, reviewing portions of Mr. Raskob’s collection that was returned to Archmere over the years by family members. Combined with research completed at Hagley Museum and Library along with other sources, Meehan presented an overview of the contents of Raskob’s library that he kept at Archmere, his New York apartment, and at Pioneer Point Farm.
One particular collection that caught my interest was entitled, Pocket University. In 1925, Raskob ordered a set of these books, which provided a curriculum of “essential” liberal arts reading for the year as determined by the books’ publisher Nelson Doubleday. Meehan quotes Raskob in a letter dated February 18, 1925:
The course of reading prescribed is one which can easily be followed as it is not arduous and with a little persistent attention in the beginning, the following of the course soon becomes a habit, and habits once established are, of course, easy to follow.
Meehan comments that Raskob was assembling his library during the “golden age” of book collecting, which ended with the Great Depression.
As I considered these two ideas this week in preparing this monthly letter, I tried to reconcile in my mind the two quite disparate images — homelessness and antiquarian book collecting for private home libraries. How are they at all connected?
In fact, it would seem that one would be embarrassed to admit that he or she were spending energy on collecting books while people were in need of a home. And yet, that is precisely what had occurred and still occurs. Many question what could be done with the resources spent on “luxuries” to alleviate the serious social concerns that forever remain with us, particularly homelessness. As Fr. Rossi suggested, many of the homeless are transparent to us; we choose not to see them, or we consider them to be someone else’s concern.
To reconcile these thoughts requires perspective. For example, while Raskob was acquiring his books, reading voraciously and giving creative thought to what he read, he was also very philanthropic to Catholic and civic causes. Not only did he contribute financial resources to a variety of projects, he often provided the idea or the innovation for the creation and sustainability of processes intended to improve the quality of life for the larger community. He conceived of the idea of endowments for non-profit causes, suggesting wisely that proceeds from annual returns on investments would add greater stability to organizations, which had to raise funds annually to operate.
Mrs. Raskob writes in the Raskob-Green Record Book that the library was “to cultivate the mind.” She elaborates further:
…a place where…books to suit all moods and supply knowledge might be found… He who loveth a book will never want a faithful friend, a wholesome counselor, a cheerful companion, or an efficient comforter. (p. 142)
She and her husband believed that education and knowledge acquired through inquisitiveness and persistent good habits of learning were crucial in shaping their children’s development. While the children were afforded much opportunity, it went hand-in-hand with much responsibility.
I believe that recognizing that we are stewards of gifts we have been given is key to understanding the great disparities between rich and poor, those who have and those who have not. For us to know our true vocation in life, we need to listen to the call to share our resources with others in proportion to what we have. The call may come in a dream, in a book, in an actual phone call, or even in another’s voice.