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.