Except when we stumble across someone who’s made a life of reckless giving. When we meet someone who has shamelessly neglected their own well-being, financial future, their family’s immediate needs, we can’t help but feel sorry for them. How foolish! This is America! If you’re poor, it’s your fault, right? That’s what God made bootstraps for. We help other people when we invite them to our botox party. We help them when we sell them a car. We really help them when we send in our check for our 3rd favorite charity’s golf tournament foursome. We help when it doesn’t mean having to encounter another human being face to face. Or we help with string attached.
When we meet people who challenge our truth, we can’t run from them. They don’t necessarily challenge our “beliefs”, because a lot of times we believe something (like, say for instance, in God) but act as if we don’t. They challenge our truth. Our actions are our truth. And when we see someone living their truth (and it’s working), we’re forced to acknowledge their absurd behavior, and examine why they have peace, joy and happiness in their lives, and we do not. We cannot figure out why our incessant pursuit of comfort, power, pleasure, prestige, etcetera, has returned short-lived positive results (followed by more misery).
So let’s talk about Juan Fernando Castillo, or “Fernando”. Fernando founded St. Martin de Porres Outreach Community Ministries, now located on Palm Beach Blvd, eight years ago, because “more than 60% of the people living in this area work in the field. Those are the ones that pick the tomatoes, the lettuce, all the vegetables, and the oranges. They are very low income, and because of the immigration issues we’ve been having, most of the farmers are afraid to hire them. Well, they have kids. We’re especially concerned with the old people and the children.”
We’re introduced to this man and his mission through our Social Justice Ministry. When I met with Sandy Szymanski, Barb Durkin and Vickie Gelardi, they explained that all one would have to do is meet Fernando, and they would understand what he was all about. Putting ‘it’ into words isn’t easy, but there’s a total lack of fear in this man. He knows that when a person gives their life to God, there’s nothing God won’t provide.
“I believe God gave us a lot, and I believe we need to pay back what we’ve received. We see so many people in need – and these are not just regular people. We see a lot of drug addicts. We see many people with mental illness. We have girls that work the streets, in fact, our next door neighbor is a hotel… well, a lot of the girls swear they are over 18, but when you talk to them, you hear about their lives. They’ve had a terrible life. They are young, young girls. We try to convince them to leave the streets and live a different life.”
How quick are we to judge the prostitute or street junkie? Really though, these are life choices that these people have made! Would it be any surprise for them to die of AIDS? Would an EMT bat an eye to find one of these creatures overdosed in some dark alley? It’s easy to close one’s heart and believe people “get what they deserve” when confronted with the ugliness of the world, but there are two problems with that (and probably more).
One, the social outcasts of our society have no experience with God’s love, and therefore don’t love themselves, have no self-worth, and more than likely have never had a loving relationship with another human being – ever. And two, we can’t isolate ourselves from the world because people are everywhere, and it’s almost impossible to get to know someone – at a deep, personal level – and not grow to love them. God put this in us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
So Fernando’s problem is big. “I don’t know where most of them would go if we weren’t here. We don’t discriminate and we don’t turn people away. A lot of the food kitchens ask for papers, or ask for an ID. Or they supply food for one day, one meal, and you are told not to come back again. Here, you can come… you don’t need an ID.”
His problem will only grow because he refuses to turn people away. In his stubbornness, he will meet the most broken people in our city, and he will get to know them. He will grow to love them, and in many instances, he will be their only model of God’s love. Because of this, he might run low on time and food, and resources for his mission, but he’ll be stuck with an abundant and constant source of joy and peace in his life. He won’t know what to do with it all.
Well, I mean, he could always start another mission. “We have a program called Jobs for Life. We try to prepare people for more technical work. We help them with their finances. We help them get ready for interviews, and if they want to start a small business, we help them get the tools to do so.”
“We are not just giving out food. I have enough kids of my own,” he jokes. “We are here to help people out of poverty by simply giving them the tools to do so on their own. The people in our ministry that work in the kitchen here, they teach those that come in how to be better helpers – not chefs – but they teach them the skills that will help them get better work, more money, better living conditions, and better working conditions in the future. Right now, a lot of our people work in the fields for 10 hours to make $40, that’s if they get paid – often they do not. That is not okay. Last year we had 17 kids come through here that were working in the fields, and now they are working as helpers for carpenters, electricians, and plumbers. I am a general contractor, so I teach them. I worked building medical centers in New Jersey for many years, so I have the skills to teach.”
“The reality is, all we need is the patience to listen to a needy person. We never ask them ‘How can we help you?’ We ask them, ‘How can you help yourself?’ When they are sick, you will find a medical person to help them. The people are out there. It’s true. All you need is the patience to listen, and you will care about the community.”
Catholic Social Doctrine tells us that we need to meet people where they are, and Fernando’s people are hurting, but they’re open to change. When you listen to someone in conversation, you get to know them. And when you get to know them, you care about their cares. And when we care about their cares, we do what we can to alleviate their pain, and in doing so, we find joy. We can experience the presence of the Holy Spirit – and that is a feeling that no check, no drug or car or shiny piece of jewelry can touch.
If it worked the way humans have tried to make it work, there would be a rational measurement to our happiness. Wealthy people would be the happiest, and the poorest the most miserable. But it’s not that way. We can only have the peace, joy and happiness that God wants for us to the extent that we are willing to let go of our selfishness (read: greed).
“There are a lot of young people that are on drugs, or drink too much alcohol, and when they come, we just ask them if they want to pray with us. When we first opened, I only found one person that was willing to pray,” Fernando laughs. “They basically said, ‘haha, no we don’t do that.’ And now, when we serve meals – all these years later – people come to me and ask if I’ll pray with them. They recognize that praying, and getting close to God is a good instrument. They recognize that God is the solution. So that’s progress.” He gets close enough to touch the wounds of the poor, and in turn, some of his own are healed.
We asked Fernando what we could do to help his mission and he humbly asked for a few things. If you’d like to volunteer or give, call 239-603-3873 or 239-333–9826. Or email email@example.com Watch his interview on the 23rd Times. Thank you!
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