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Photographer Jim Scholz and his lifelong mission to honor beauty

April 27, 2018 1 comment

 

Photographer Jim Scholz and his lifelong mission to honor beauty

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2018 issue of the New Horizons

 

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Photographer Jim Scholz of Omaha finds beauty wherever life takes him. The 73-year-old former Roman Catholic priest began making images growing up in the St. Cecilia Cathedral neighborhood.

“I started shooting pictures in high school for the yearbook and ever since it’s been a real passion and interest for me,” he said

He recalls “the magic of that first print when I put the white piece paper in the developer and an image actually came up on it.” It happened in the Cathedral High darkroom. From that moment on, he said, “I was forever hooked by the magic that this is more than just reality. It’s a powerful thing.”

“I started off with a 35-millimeter camera because everybody had one. You could buy the film pretty inexpensively. You could develop the film in your own darkroom. I shot with that for a long time.”

He was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming during the Second World War. His father saw U.S. Army duty in the Pacific. After WWII, his father was offered a job with an Omaha company. Jim was 5 when his family moved here. His father worked management jobs at various Omaha firms. His stay-at-home mom eventually went back to work in her chosen field, dietetics, at area hospitals.

Serving a higher purpose

Scholz kept right on developing his photographic eye at seminary in Denver, Colorado, doing graduate work at Creighton University and serving metro parishes as an Archdiocesan priest.

“It was always a hobby.”

He doesn’t say it, but there’s a sacred dimension to capturing the essence of humanity and nature. As a priest ministering to his flock, he was called to mirror Christ’s unconditional love and to share the liturgy’s sublime peace. As a photographer, he reflects back what people project or see. Sometimes, he shows what they’ve never seen before. Surely, there’s something inspirational, perhaps even spiritual in that.

Omaha fashion designer Mary Anne Vaccaro admires his fidelity to beauty.

“Jim is very grounded and spiritual. As a photographer he embraces his creative gift with love, discipline and respect. He sees beauty in unexpected and unlikely places. His attention to detail and quality is amazing. His passion for his work drives him to excellence.”v

Tom Sitzman, owner of Connect Gallery in Omaha, sees in Scholz’s photography the same sensitivity and compassion that infused his ministry.

“I first knew Jim as my pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Omaha. His homilies were conversations, not lectures, filled with examples of everyday people living everyday lives. Those sitting in the pews could see themselves in those situations of the human condition – funny, sad, enlightening, tragic and giving – knowing he understood. His photography is deeply rooted and grounded in Jim the man and priest. They depict everyday events we too often take for granted. A moon rise over the city. Dark, foreboding storm clouds moving across a still sun-lit hay meadow, An old timber building. Jim knows where to stand to get the feel of size and distance as well as where the light is coming from. They are the works of a well-trained eye that knows how to compose a scene with his camera the way he did with words in a homily.”

Scholz ministered in Elgin, Nebraska and at St. Bernards, St. Cecilia and St. Leo in Omaha. The parish he served longest at was Sacred Heart in North Omaha, where he helped found Heart Ministry, which has grown to serve residents needs in the city’s most poverty-stricken neighborhood.

“I feel lucky to have been not only in that space but other parishes where I served or other jobs that I worked at. When you’re around someplace for awhile you’re hopefully going to make a contribution and I feel good about when I look back at something that helped people and continues to help people.”

Scholz received the 1995 Omaha Archdiocese Sheehan Award (then-the Presidential Citation) recognizing clergy as outstanding leaders in their communities.

Sacred Heart years

During his 1981 to 1998 Sacred Heart tenure, he took over an integrated parish in decline, its ranks thinned by white flight. Mass attendance was abysmal. Gospel already had a hold there, thanks to Father Tom Furlong introducing it in the ‘late ’60s-early ’70s.

“It was a very conservative, quiet little neighborhood parish,” Scholz recalled. “Most of the members were longtime parishioners, many of them quite elderly. Physically, the place was dilapidated. I felt we had to do something dramatic.”

He got the idea for more spirited, gospel music-based “uplifting liturgies” from an inner city parishes conference in Detroit. He was by impressed how churches in similar circumstances turned things around with the help of gospel. He saw the music as a homage to black heritage and a magnet for new members.

“What the music said was we are reaching out to your traditions and we’re trying to make you feel comfortable to come to our church,”

Scholz found a first-rate choir director in Glenn Burleigh, under whom the church’s full-blown entry into gospel began at the Saturday night Mass. The 10:30 Sunday liturgy remained ultra-traditional and sparsely attended.

“Six months later we’d gone from a Saturday service with 30 to 35 people, with hardly any music, to standing in the aisles full with a wonderful ensemble,

“Glenn wrote special music almost weekly for the service. People started to come out of the woodwork once the word got out. It was such a refreshing thing.

“We didn’t grow exponentially in black membership, although we did grow some. What we grew in was white membership.”

When Burleigh was hired away by a mega-Baptist church in Houston, Scholz tapped his assistant, William Tate, to take over. Scholz recruited a new choir director, Mary Kay Mueller, to energize the 10:30 Sunday service. For inspiration, he referred her to The Blues Brothers. So it came to pass the movie’s Triple Rock Church became a model for the expressive Sacred Heart liturgy. No, Scholz weren’t interested in “people doing somersaults down the front aisle. But he wanted “to come up with that spirit.” Unbridled. Joyous. Free. “We really need to come alive here,” he told Mueller. Thus, the Freedom Choir was born. The rest is history as that rollicking Sunday service began packing the pews and still does three decades later.

An abiding passion for photography 

All the while Sacred Heart grew its base, Scholz made photographs.

“When I had a little time off, an afternoon, or before I’d go to bed at night I’d probably spend the last half hour of my waking life that day by reading about photography or studying photographers like Ansel Adams and all these heroes of mine.

“The more you get into it then you start studying other people’s work and you try to emulate what they do and improve what you do. Ansel Adams wrote a series of books on the camera, the lens, photo development and so on. I checked them out of the library a number of times and studied these things to learn how he developed film and how he arrived at his vision.”

Other photographers Scholz has admired and studied include Wynn Bullock and Edward Weston.

Scholz followed his cleric calling for 27 years. After much deliberation and prayer, he shed the collar in 1999. He is still Catholic and regularly attends Mass. Now, he’s nearing 20 years in his second career as a full-time architecture, portrait and fine art photographer.

He describes his own aesthetic this way: “Probably at the baseline is a sense of beauty, whether color or color harmony or composition or subject. That would be the underlining thing. I love landscapes. I love abstracts, I love people, you name it.” He finds beauty in it all. “There are certain patterns hardwired into the fabric of our beings that produce pleasure, and we declare them beautiful. This is also true of music and other art forms. We are better because of what Michelangelo and Beethoven created and left to us;”

Ideas for projects are not hard to come by.

“I probably have more imagination than time. Every now and then I’ll get cranked up about a certain theme or methodology. I started a project photographing Omaha and Nebraska artists a few years ago. I just wanted to do that. I know a number of artistsand i started taking their picturesI’m about half way through that and hopefully I’ll have a show.

He envisions an exhibition in which each of his artist portraits is displayed next to a work by the artist, whether a sculpture or painting or whatever it might be.

“I’ve talked with a couple gallery owners about it. It might also be a book. We’ll see what happens.”

Catherine Ferguson is among the artists Scholz has photographed. He’s also photographed her work.

“Jim and I worked together to produce photographs of my stacked glass series,” Ferguson said. “He is a generous artist ready to help another artist see their vision realized. Jim is a patient, calm, gentle perfectionist. He gives me all the time necessary to have the prints exactly as I want them, no hurry, no pressure. I feel he is under-recognized as an artist in our community.”

Another artist friend is Shelly Bartek.

“I’ve known Jim from the time he was a priest at Sacred Heart to now where he is a successful national photographer,” Bartek said. “He is an authentic, all-around photographer serving to bring his clients the best quality images that represent their brand. His personal

passion to create art in his work has inspired us all through his concept and technical perfection.

“Best of all, he’s a great friend.”

About a decade ago, Scholz collaborated with writer Leslie Little on a museum quality book about Paris.

“I made the Paris Icons book images during two short visits to the city in 2007,” Scholz said. “It then took several months to edit, layout and in general prepare for print. The result was well received and we were awarded three international awards for the publication.

“It is always a joy to produce something of beauty that people appreciate.”

By choice, he’s not little documentary work on the gritty margins of life. “That’s a whole journalistic approach I respect greatly – it’s just not me. I like to show the best of people.” That includes showcasing the works of makers’ hands. Then there’s the joy he takes in picturing the natural splendor of God’s handiwork.

Expanding and honing his vision

Shooting Opera Omaha rehearsals and productions has deepened a long-held appreciation for music.

“What it’s done is it’s really stretched me in terms of my knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the whole operatic canon. My vision has been broadened.”

Photography has opened new vistas for him.

“If I never made another photograph, if I never went click again, I still think my life would be much richer because as I look at the world I see things that before I would never have noticed. The angle of the light or the color or whatever. There’s a whole bunch of stuff I would never have paid attention to, but the discipline of seeing as a camera sees forces you to see these things.

“I can sit an airport waiting for a plane for two hours and not be bored at all because I’m looking all around, seeing a grandma with little kids, the light coming in the windows, the big airplane rolling up on the tarmac outside. All this stuff.”

Cultivating a vision of what he wants to shoot and executing that vision, he said, is “a process.”

“It’s a lot more the work you put into it then the gizmo that goes click. The ultimate satisfaction is the process itself – getting to see things maybe in a little bit unique way and presenting them so that people say, ‘Oh, look at that, I never noticed that, I walked by this every day and never saw it.’ It’s finding what’s interesting.

“You’re expressing it from your perspective. You bring a whole life history and all kinds of things to color that.”

Photographers like him prefer to say they “make” rather than take photos.

“There’s a distinction.” Scholz said/ “You see something and you have a vision of how you want to present it.”

He saw in his mind’s eye what he wanted to achieve with his portrait of the late sculptor John Walz before ever shooting anything. “I had a vision of what I wanted to present, so I exposed the film to achieve that and I printed the print to achieve that.”

Walz turned a former Burlington Railroad Station power plant into his home-studio.

“I did the photo shoot with him part way through the remodel,” Scholz said. “I wanted to show him in his art creation, but we wanted a little mystery, so that’s why his face is a little in shadow.”

Contrasting elements can communicate mystery, energy, texture, whimsy, depth of perception, the passage of time, et cetera.

“I like to work with the idea of the human figure and the natural world,” Scholz said,

For an image he made of footprints in the sand at Canon Beach on the Oregon coast, he explained, “I wanted it to convey the essence of nature and humanity. The ocean is kind of symbolic of the timeless and I had to wait for somebody to walk along the beach to produce footprints, which get washed out with the next wave or two. That’s a story about how nature is constantly washing over us.

“As humans, we think we’re so important but in the big picture we’re real new on the scene and we probably won’t last all that long either. We’re just a little part of that from the beginning-to-the-end scenario.”

For a picture he made of a nude young woman lying on a fallen redwood tree in a Big Sur Coast grove, he wanted the contrast of “the old rugged, hard-edged woods and the softness of the young human figure.”

“That was done very deliberately to hopefully make the image strong.”

On a trip to Chatterbox Falls, British Columbia, he captured for posterity a sublime setting he awoke to,

“My friends, Ron and Judy Parks, rented a Nordic Tug for the summer to explore the coast and invited me to join them for a few days. We docked there for the night and in the morning I liked the reflections from the rain on the dock and the movement of the water. I made the picture with the falls in the background.”

During a Colorado sojourn he set out to photograph one of the state’s most prominent mountains, Longs Peak.

“Since the Forest Service does not allow camping there we had to leave the parking lot at midnight and climb all night to get there just before dawn. It was cloudy at sunrise but just for a moment the clouds partially broke and I was able to get the shot.”

 

Intuitive and intentional

Sometimes, the opportunity for a picture appears as he’s driving to or from an assignment.

“I was coming from Kansas City and I took the back roads and just about sunset I saw this partially plowed wheat field with terraced ridges in a pattern. So I stopped and took a picture. But the sky was very dull – there was nothing. Driving back, I was thinking, what can I do with this? Then I decided to put a woman’s flowing hair in the sky.”

He secured a model for the shoot at his studio. He made the image and overlaid it in the picture of the field.

“That was fun. I think that sort of thing makes the image richer.”

Manipulating images on a computer or in the darkroom, he said, “is just a creative tool.”

“People have the idea that in an earlier era of photography, working in the darkroom was somehow pure. Okay, it wasn’t, it never was. As long as I can darken this part and lighten that part (or crop or burn or do any number of things to manipulate an image), it’s a subjective, editorial process.

“Just the act of making a picture, you choose what to include in the frame and what not. My act of putting a frame around that image begins to edit right there.”

He embraces today’s digital tools.

“What I love about PhotoShop is that now I can do things that even in my wildest dreams in the darkroom I couldn’t achieve. For instance, I have an image of an abandoned ore processing plant high in the Colorado back country that’s been a favorite in galleries. I made it with an eight by ten camera and black and white film. I worked and worked in the darkroom to get all the various tonalities but it was hard because the inside of the building was kind of dark.

“Well, you can only burn an edge so much in the darkroom.”

For this oversized image, he placed his developing tray on the floor and angled the enlarger on the print.

“I’m crawling down there, lightening this part and darkening that part, but you could only go so far and you couldn’t change the focal contrast. With PhotoShop you can adjust the tonality and contrast. The nice thing is once you get done, two years or 20 years from now when you hit print it’s still going to come out the same.Or you can change it.”

“I had an early ’90s show of my work in Omaha. One of the prints was very successful in terms of sales. It also happened to be a print that involved six different negatives at various exposures in the enlarger. The original print probably took me six evenings from seven to midnight and now I suddenly had orders for 10 more. By the time I got done with that whole thing, I was spent and none of the prints were exactly the same because you couldn’t exactly get it the same.”

Whether intuitive or intentional, he’s after the same result – to distill beauty and endow permanence to an ephemeral moment.

Finding a niche

Scholz depends on what he earns photographing for his living. He started his own business, Scholz Images, in 1999. He works from a high-ceilinged downtown studio with ample natural light. It’s outfitted with lights, tents, screens, filters, cases and framed prints.

Most of his time is spent not on making photographs but scheduling. marketing, billing and other business matters. Finding and juggling projects isn’t easy.

“If you’re doing it on your own, you’re always kind of dancing between jobs. It’s a constant changing. When I first started the business I wanted to mostly go in the fine art direction. What i found is that in order to really make a living at it I had to have an additional niche and architecture became the thing I gravitated toward. I realized it was something I could do and it’s a good market. The architecture puts bread on the table and allows me to pay the mortgage and that sort of thing.”

He’s shot for Omaha firms Holland Basham Architects and HDR, for Lincoln-based Clark Enersen Partners and for Denver-based Fentress and Ruggles Mabe.

Fentress flew him to Quantico, Virginia for a week’s shoot at the National Museum of the Marine Corps and to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for an even longer shoot of the Central Terminal Expansion.

Traveling for his work brings it’s own challenges.

“When you travel a lot you get to sleep on airport floors, have bears come into your camp in the middle of the night, have flat tires on cactus in the back country, be in the center of a bison herd, have foreign police order you to not use your tripod. Just the usual stuff.”

When not flying, he travels to assignments via his trusty Chevy Silverado.

“I find I make my best photos when I have my camera and tripod with me. It can be anywhere that the moment presents itself.”

For most clients, he’ captures objective reality, though he sometimes heightens things via filters and strobes.

“With the commercial work I do, I’m called to record what’s there. Architects like to see all the bricks and everything the way it is. I then like to think of it the way a filmmaker does – how’s this going to look when the sun goes down and there’s still some light in the sky. You’re alway working with light.”

Another major commercial client is J & J Flooring Group, which has sent him on various assignments.

“It’s very challenging to get really interesting pictures of carpet.”

Buildings are easier. For his architectural work, he used to shoot with four by five film.

“In those days if you could get eight pictures a day you were doing really good, especially with color because you had to use several different filters.”

Though there’s little call for it now, he’s fond of large format film photography because he can attain certain qualities with it he can’t in smaller formats or digitially. He first moved to the bigger format in 1980.

“My father built a wooden kit for my four-by-five inch camera. I used that for years. Then I thought, well, if four-by-five is good, then eight-by-ten must be better, so I eventually bought an eight-by-ten.”

He admits he’s “a gear-head” like most photographers when it comes to camera gadgets.

What the large format offers in quality it sacrifices in efficiency.

“The tradeoff is, if you get the image perfectly you’ve got great quality to work with, but you can only make a small number of images, whereas with a smaller camera you might be able to get a hundred images in the same amount of time. So you have to pick your tool for what you want to do

“The larger format allows for more clarity and tonality. You can make increasingly large enlargements that still look good. But it comes at a great cost. The equipment is expensive but the really big cost is hauling it around because it’s heavy and awkward. It’s really tough flying. I much prefer to drive – that way I can load up the truck with lighting gear and I don’t have to worry about it being broken or arriving late or getting lost. When I fly, it really has to get edited down to the very essentials, plus backup. You cant check it – it will end up broken or lost. I carry it on board and stow it overhead.”

Old habits die hard.

“I sometimes think about getting rid of the four-by-five and eight-by-ten but occasionally I do have a client that comes along that wants something in large format film and I’m one of the few guys left that can do it.”

In order to stay current, he’s adapted to digital cameras.

He’s remained true to certain brands.

“I settled in on Nikon for whatever reason and have stayed with it because once you invest in a bunch of lenses then you can use them forever. I can still shoot with the Nikon lenses I got back in the 1960s. I don’t use them all that often anymore, but I can still use them on the camera because they never changed the lens body.”

Standing out from the crowd

For portraits, he uses whatever best serves the subject. A favorite portrait is of a corporate CEO whom Scholz wisely took out of the stuffed shirt, sterile office setting for something more fun and authentic.

“The guy needed a picture for an annual report. I could see in talking to him he just wasn’t into it at all, so I asked, ‘What do you like to do? ‘ He said, ‘I just bought a motorcycle and I like to ride it Sunday afternoons. I said, ‘Okay, let’s do that.” I sat in the back of a pickup with my camera and his wife drove. We were over in Iowa and we drove maybe 30-40 miles down the highway with his hair blowing in the wind. I made lots of pictures in black and white. The whole thing was stronger to me in black and white.

“Later, I decided I wanted a little more drama, so I put the clouds in. The only parts of the image that are in color is the burnt orange gas tank and front fender. It was a custom color designed just for that particular motorcycle. I like black and white because color sometimes is so pretty people stop there without looking deeper, where with black and white you’re reduced to light and dark contests that make your image pop.”

After decades making pictures for public display, Scholz is a fixture on the local photographic scene.

“In general, I think the photographic community here is pretty open and receptive. Most people like each other and get along.”

He counts as peers such well known shooters as Larry Ferguson, Andrew Baran, Monte Kruse. Patrick Drickey, Kat Moser and Sandy Aquila.

He’s talked shop with Omaha native Jim Krantz, who now enjoys a national and international reputation based out of Chicago.

“One of the local people I really admire is Vera Mercer,” Scholz said, “Her work to me is outstanding. I really love what she does.”

His work has shown at Gallery 1516 and Connect in Omaha, at the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney and at galleries in Kansas City, Missouri, Santa Fe, New Mexico and other locales.

His work is in public and private collections around the nation and even in in other countries.

Photography equals opportunity 

He makes images to be seen. Naturally, he likes it when people respond favorably to his work. Another fringe benefit of shooting for hire is gaining entree to people and places he’d otherwise not get.

“Being a photographer often times opens doors to things. You get admitted to a lot of places and things you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. For instance, maybe 15 years ago I got a call from a company here in town sponsoring ex-president Bill Clinton to give a keynote talk at an event in Aspen, Colorado. They wanted a lot of pictures of bill involved with people, so they flew me out to Aspen to do that. I spent three days with Bill. Hilary (Clinton) was there. I made all the pictures. Well, this repeated itself in Miami, once here in Omaha, and several times in Aspen.

“That’s not a world I would normally have access to at all, but it was really fun. I remember once in Aspen Bill got there in the afternoon. He was pretty tired having been on the road a lot. He checked into the hotel and decided he wanted to go for a walk downtown. He didn’t get more than a block when he was surrounded in this park by a hundred mothers with little kids. You could see him getting energized. It was fun to see over the course of several events how he would wk with crowds. He had a magic about him

“I remember prior to a cocktail party and dinner he was keynoting there were some guys waiting for his arrival and they were talking about how when they saw Bill Clinton they’re going to give him a piece of their mind. Well, Bill shows up and if by magic those guys are the first people he walks up to. He’s got his hand around one guy telling him a joke and within 10 minutes he totally won them over. I saw that hundreds of times.”

Being a photographer also means forever chasing perfection that can’t be attained.

“My photographer friends and I all know there are certain images meant to tease us into spending a lot of time and effort but we never quite get them. They’re always just a little beyond us.”

Scholz feels it’s good to have something to chase just beyond your grasp in order to stay sharp and hungry. “If you could roll a 300 game every time you bowl, you wouldn’t bowl. It wouldn’t be any fun. It’s the same thing with golf and shooting par.”

The same when making pictures.

“Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Hits and misses come with any creative art. There are times where from start to finish you work it right through and, boy, the whole thing just comes out great.”

The magic of first seeing an image he’s just made still enthralls him. Hooked for life.

Visit http://www.scholzimages.com.

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The Sweet Sounds of Sacred Heart’s Freedom Choir

March 10, 2015 1 comment

I keep getting assignments to write about various aspects of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in North Omaha and the latest is this Omaha Magazine (omahamagazine.com) feature about the church’s Freedom Choir.  The super-charged choir adds to the full-throated, body-swaying gusto that makes the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass there a draw for folks from near and far.  Just like the church is famous for its welcoming spirit, so is the choir.  Oh, and they can sing just a little bit, too.

 

Sacred Heart Freedom Choir | Feel The Revival

 

The Sweet Sounds of Sacred Heart’s Freedom Choir

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (omahamagazine.com)

 

 

Rousing. Inspired. Dynamic. Electric. Animated.

All apply to Sacred Heart Catholic Church’s Freedom Choir. Home for this contemporary gospel choir is a Late Gothic Revival-style house of worship in a poor, largely African-American northeast Omaha neighborhood. The choir, like the congregation, is mostly white, the members driving-in from outside the community.

The popular 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass features the high-energy choir’s joyful noise. The choir also performs at the parish festival, community concerts, weddings and funerals. In 1997 the group traveled to Rome, Italy to perform at St. Peter’s. The choir’s recorded CDs,

Its up-tempo, full-throated, Baptist-style flavor, complete with swaying singers and musicians, makes for vibrant praise and worship rooted in radical hospitality and stand-up-and raise-your-arms spirituality. Far from your mother’s staid Catholic service, this is Vatican II reform given full license to bust out in song, embrace, even dance.

Though seemingly free-form, it’s the careful design of former pastor Jim Scholz, who sought to shake up an aging membership. Drawing from urban, gospel music-rich liturgies and with a nod to the Blues Brothers, Scholz hired Mary Kay Mueller to birth the choir in all its from-the-gut expressiveness. That’s when the 10:30 Mass took on a lively, high-pitched fervor. As word spread, people packed the pews. They’re still flocking there decades later.

Tom Fangman and JIm Boggess replaced Scholz and Mueller, respectively, to carry on this big, brassy, yet solemn celebration.

“When people first come it’s to hear the choir,” Father Fangman says. “Then when they come they experience it’s not just the choir, it’s the whole community. We really are big on making people feel a part of it and welcome.”

“There’s a sense of inclusion in our particular faith community that keeps me coming back,” says Boggess, who’s regular gig is Omaha Community Playhouse music director. He knows top-flight talent and has plenty in the choir. Percussionist Michael Fitzsimmons is a Nebraska Arts Council touring artist. Soloist Natalie Thomas is lead vocalist with the cover band Envy. Fellow soloist Moira Mangiameli is a veteran theater actress-director. Both Mangiameli and Boggess have written hymns the choir performs.

 

Jim Boggess

 

 

 

Image result for moira mangiameli omaha

Moira Mangiameli

 

Many members have been doing this for years. That makes for tight harmonies and personal bonds.

“Over the years those people have gotten to be some of my best friends,” Boggess says. “They’ve been there for me in good times and in horrible times. I think whatever almighty spirit there be led me here for a reason and the reason was I needed to have those people in my life and I’m so much richer spiritually and as a person and as a musician for having known them.”

“It’s a family,” says choir president Sarah Ruma, who goes back 30 years, “We have our regular family and then we have our church family and that’s basically what Sacred Heart is and our choir is. Some of us have kind of grown up together. We started in our late 20s and early 30s and now we’re into our 50s and 60s.

“Unfortunately, we’ve buried choir members. That’s been hard. We sing together, we smile and laugh together and we cry together.”

Mangiameli says, “It’s the best part of my week.” She’s recruited her sister    Eileen to the choir. Like other devotees there Mangiameli was a disaffected churchgoer who got swept up in the spirit. “People get up and they clap and they rock out. It happens every Sunday. People are really happy to be there. There’s an incredibly positive and heartfelt vibe that just happens every Sunday and it extends to the choir, too.”

Fitzsimmons calls it “energizing.”

“It’s just a warm place to be,” Ruma says.

“I have been moved ever since my first Sunday here 16 years ago,” Fangman says. “I am moved every single week. I can’t wait for the 10:30 Mass.”

It doesn’t hurt that the music’s off the chain.

Mangiameli says, “There’s so many great people in the choir that it makes you better just to be a part of it.”

Boggess doesn’t turn anyone away. “If you can carry a tune that’s fine, but you don’t have to have a great voice, though I’ve got some people with magnificent voices, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “But really passion counts more than anything else. It’s supposed to be a gospel choir and that implies a certain freedom and that’s what I give them.”

“What really sets us apart is the musicians that play with us,” Mangiameli says. “They are just some of the best musicians anywhere around and they really inspire us as singers.”

 

Michael Fitzsimmons

 

Fitzsimmons says it’s the whole package. “The directors, choir and instrumentalists continually amaze and inspire me by their high quality presentation and soulful musicianship. “He says the experience of the Mass is very much interactive with the music.”

“The very best thing that happens is when you feel the energy coming from the congregation,” Mangiameli says. “When we’re in the middle of singing something and then all of a sudden they’re on their feet you know you touched them and made a difference.”

Sometimes, when the congregation’s really feeling it, she says, Boggess has the choir stop and listen to the collective voices. “You get goose bumps, it’s great, there’s nothing like it.”

Sacred Heart is located at 2204 Binney Street.

Everything old newly restored again at historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Omaha

July 15, 2012 3 comments

One of the most popular religious figures in Omaha is Rev. Tom Fangman, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church.  He oversees a parish that includes the church, an elementary school, and community outreach services offered through the Heart Ministry Center.  These and other activities serve the poorest of the poor in poverty stricken North Omaha.  A few years ago the historic church underwent a major restoration and in this article for Omaha Magazine I quote the pastor describing just what a transformation this makeover entailed in a neighborhood and community in need of whatever positive change that can come their way.  This blog contains other articles I’ve done related to Sacred Heart, Fr. Fangman, and the Heart Ministry Center.

 

Everything old newly restored again at historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine

 

In today’s parlance, everything “pops” now at historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church as the result of a 2009 restoration that Rev. Tom Fangman, pastor of the northeast Omaha parish, likes to call “an extreme church makeover.”

The $3.3 million project made long overdue improvements to the 108-year-old church at 22nd and Binney. Designated an Omaha landmark, the church is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The parish was founded in 1890 at a nearby location. The land for the present church was donated by Omaha business magnate and philanthropist Herman Kountze. The stone, late Gothic Revival style edifice with a 124-foot spire was erected there in 1902.

This long history has been much on the mind of Fangman. The Omaha native has served Sacred Heart for 12 years. As steward of the church, he feels responsible to the rich legacy it represents and for which he is keepsaker.

But a poor parish like his that serves an underprivileged neighborhood has few resources. What little it does have goes to Sacred Heart School and the Heart Ministry Center. Supporting the needs of at-risk youths and adults  takes precedence. That reality resulted in letting things slide at the church. Two years ago though Fangman decided repairs could no longer be put off.

“We didn’t do it out of luxury, we did it out of necessity,” he said. “Almost everything was in such dire condition that it needed to be redone or made new. Our stained glass windows had been declared dangerous by three companies because the lead was so old it was cracking and bubbling. The windows were falling apart.

There were cracks across the ceiling, and there were times when I’d be saying Mass and paint chips would fall down.

“We didn’t know how much longer the boiler was going to work.”

The first thing he did was assemble a project team led by: architecture firm RDG; general contractor Boyd Construction; Brother William Woeger with the Omaha Archdiocese; and Sacred Heart members Mike Moylan, a real estate developer, and Stephanie Basham, an interior designer.

Specialists from around the nation were brought in along with local experts, including Lambrecht Glass Studio, which restored Sacred Heart’s exquisite stained glass windows, and McGill Brothers Inc., which did cleaning and tuckpointing.

Rather than do a piecemeal fix over years, the consensus was to tackle the whole job at once. Fangman announced the capital campaign in 2008 and within a year all pledges were secured. “There’s no way our parish ever could afford anything like this,” he said. “We reached out and I spent a lot of that year going out and talking to people.” He made the case and folks responded.

“It’s close to a miracle.”

For Fangman, caring for the building meant respecting the history of the parish and preserving this place of worship for future generations.

“This is an important church in Omaha. It’s pretty sacred to lots and lots of families,” he said. “I just felt like we owed it to the people that started this parish 120 years ago. They built something and gave us something beautiful and lasting, and we have been the recipients of that. I just felt like we owed it to the people that gave this to us over a century ago and we owe it the people that will come next.

“It’s bigger than just what we’re doing today.”

Besides, he said, “Sacred Heart deserved a facelift.”

Years of crud were meticulously cleaned away. Grime, grit, soot. Decades worth cast a dark veil over the exterior, obscuring the pink limestone that, finally revealed again, resembles the subtle pink marble facing of the Joslyn Art Museum.

“The new vividness and brightness is amazing,” said Fangman. “I do feel like I am in the old Sacred Heart, but everything feels so new and preserved. It was very important to the whole team we maintained the integrity of the building.”

Even longtime friends tell him they can “hardly believe it’s the same structure.” “It’s exciting to see the pride that our parishioners have in it and in its beauty,” he added. “I still get choked up when I walk in there.” He said the project seemed to encourage neighbors to do fix-ups to their properties.

 

 

 

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Teams of craftspeople took over Sacred Heart during the intensive six-month project. Floor to ceiling scaffolding was put up. Crews worked day and night. To accommodate it all on such a short schedule the church was temporarily closed. Sanctuary items were removed. Services relocated to the school gymnasium across the street. Fangman said area churches were “gracious” in accommodating weddings and funerals.

The project’s  comprehensive scope encompassed: replacement of the roof, the gutter, the floors and the heating system; laying a new foundation; installing the church’s first air conditioning system; building a baptismal font; restoring the chapel as well as all the church’s extensive stained glass windows, murals and woodwork, including the pews and confessionals.

Watching it all unfold with curiosity and appreciation was Fangman. “We were under the wire so much, but everybody came through. We had people who were looking out for us.” And maybe a touch of divine intervention. He said a team of workers from New York City came in on their own one weekend, for free, to paint a chapel backdrop not in the budget. He said a craftsman who worked on the baptismal font described having a spiritual experience that prompted him to relocate his wife and daughter here from Florida. The family now attends Sacred Heart. The daughter is to baptized at the very font her father helped fashion.

It’s another example to Fangman of how “there’s so many God-things with this project.”

He said the revitalized church is a visible, tangible sign of Sacred Heart’s good works. He hopes more people come there to worship and to support its social justice mission. He prays it also stands as a symbol of revitalization for a community with great needs and sends a signal that Sacred Heart is there to stay.

“We’ve been here and were going to continue to be here.”

Fangman never knew a makeover project could be so impactful.

“When I started, it wasn’t clear to me what it would mean and how beautiful it would all turn out. It turned out better than I ever imagined.”

On Nov. 23 Archbishop George Lucas presided at the restored church’s dedication and the altar’s consecration.

The restoration project had turned up time capsules from previous events. Just as his predecessors did Fr. Tom composed a letter describing the latest milestone and placed it in a capsule for a future pastor to discover.

One more link in an unbroken chain of faith.

A queen gets his day in the sun: Music director Jim Boggess let’s it all out in “Jurassic Queen” cabaret

January 4, 2012 2 comments

Covering the Omaha arts-culture scene as I have for some 20 years I’ve met a lot of people doing a lot of fine work.  There are always newcomers to the scene, of course, whom I meet in completing assignments.  But there is a surprising number of veterans on the scene who for one reason or another or for no reason at all I miss connecting with all these years until the fates align and I subsequently meet them for the first time.  Jim Boggess is one of these.  He’s done a bit of everything in music and theater and I finally caught up with him on the eve of his doing a one-man diva show, Jurassic Queen, a couple years ago.  I think you’ll like Jim as much as I did for his warmth and honesty and absolute determination to be himself, no excuses or apologies, thank you.

Jim Boggess making friends with theatergoers, ©photo cornstalker.blogspot.com

 

 

A queen gets his day in the sun: Music director Jim Boggess let’s it all out in “Jurassic Queen” cabaret

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha Community Playhouse Music Director Jim Boggess likes big, brassy numbers. Sundays, he indulges his penchant for belt-it-out show-stoppers directing the Freedom Choir at Sacred Hearth Catholic Church. His dynamic, stand-up-and-shout lead at the piano cues the choir to make raise-the-rafters gospel sounds.

He’s been an “MGM kind of guy” since growing up in Estherville, Iowa, where his flamboyance fed off the movie musicals he watched at the Grand Theatre. He set his sights on show biz after seeing a high school production of Carousel. Being gay in a small, conservative Catholic community spelled trouble. Songs he’s written for his new cabaret at the P.S. Collective, Jurassic Queen: A One Diva Show, touch on those years.

“‘Gotta Go Away’ is about how I felt in that little town. I had to get out of there. It was not a safe place for me to be,” he said. No matter how ugly things got, he found refuge within his big Catholic clan. “My family was always wonderful to me.”

There’s a tribute to Barbra Streisand, long a figure of infatuation and inspiration. The diva’s music transported him beyond narrow-minded townies. “Listening to her when I was a kid got me through a lot of crap,” he said. He pokes fun at his over-the-top exuberance seeing her in concert for the first time last year.

One tune satirizes Catholic school. Two personal songs bracket the show. The opening title number “Jurassic Queen” defines him as “a survivor with a sense of humor who’s not afraid to talk about the amount of hair growing out of my nose.”

The closing ballad “is about never giving up the fight and about friends who are gone who can never die as long as you remember them,” he said. “I’ve lost my parents. I’ve lost friends – some to AIDS, one to suicide. I think about them every day. I miss them every day. There’s a period in you life when you really feel like you’re Typhoid Mary because everybody you know is dying. That’s a damn hard time to get through.”

 

 

The show is a declaration of what it means to be an aging gay man in America. Boggess insists it’s not some self-righteous polemic but a celebration of a rich life.

“I’ve had a helluva time and I’ve got some great stories to tell and some great songs to sing that aren’t just mine,” he said. “And I’ve got some funny stuff, too. There isn’t anything more boring than somebody coming on the stage and going, ‘I am gay and you must respect me.’ You have to have a sense of humor about yourself.”

The show also expresses the defiant attitude Boggess has cultivated. “I really just don’t give a damn what anybody thinks,” he said. “I mean, I care what my friends think but as far as total strangers and large legislative bodies I don’t.”

Omaha singer/actor Seth Fox, whose Royal Bohemian Productions is staging Jurassic Queen, said having the show at the P.S. Collective in Benson rather than a gay venue like The Max, where it previewed, makes a statement.

“It says we’re not afraid to be here and you have no reason to be afraid either,” he said. “This helps us to bring gay cabaret out of the gay bar into the mainstream. Make it less about being a gay-themed show and more about being a human interest show. Granted, some of the humor is going to cater to gay audiences but not all of it. There is something for everyone.”

“It’s not a drag show,” Boggess said. “I don’t wear a dress. I’m just who I am. It’s just me and a piano and a couple of cutouts.”

Besides, Boggess said, being gay is just one aspect of him.

“I’ve never ever defined myself by my preferences,” he said. “I define myself by the kind of person I am. It is certainly a part of me, an intrinsic part of me, but it is by no means all of me. There’s a lot more there.”

For a long time Boggess felt disapproval from the very institution that was supposed to love him unconditionally – the church.

“The exclusion of many different kinds of people made me very bitter towards the church. I never ever thought I would set foot back there again.”

But he did, finding “acceptance and inclusion” at Sacred Heart in north Omaha, where the gospel music he performs speaks to him. “It’s survival,” he said. “Show me any good gospel singer and I’ll show you somebody who’s survived.” The Freedom Choir he directs there is mostly white but they sure know how to get down with gospel.

“I’m as white as they come but I think there must have been some funny business in my family earlier because I feel a big affinity for it,” he said.

Versatility’s kept Boggess working steadily 35 years. He can sing, play, arrange and direct music. He acts. He came to Omaha in 1974, via the Mule Barn Theatre in Tarkio, Mo., to work in the Firehouse Dinner Theatre’s pre-show Brigade. He, along with Jim and Pam Kalal, formed the trio Best of Friends. Their dreams of Las Vegas revue stardom fizzled. He freelanced as music director at the Firehouse and the Upstairs Dinner Theatre. He toured two years with the Nebraska Theatre Caravan, composing two musicals with Cork Ramer. He played the pit at the Playhouse, where he also starred in La Cage Aux Falles. All of it, he said, proved “a great training ground.”

He’s held his present Playhouse gig for 11 years. His devotion to theater is a love affair. “You have to really have a passion for this to survive,” he said. He lives for those rare times when everything comes together.

“There are moments in shows and in music when it goes right, when it truly is an expression of you and the other performers and the chemistry and connection between you and the audience has an undefinable magic. It’s equal parts instant gratification and pride. Those moments don’t happen all the time but, boy, when they hit there ain’t nothing like them.”

He often collaborates on cabarets headlining others, including Fox, Jill Anderson and Camille Metoyer-Moten. He felt the time was ripe for his own one-man turn.

“It’s just another side of me that I thought I’d let out,” he said.

Better do it now, he thought, at age 55. “I mean, how long will I be presentable?”

Good Shepherds of North Omaha: Ministers and churches making a difference in area of great need

July 4, 2011 2 comments

If you have visited the site a few times in the last week or two then you’ve probably noticed I’ve been changing things up even more than normal by posting stories that cover an unusually broad range of topics. That diversity of content is one of the things that I think distinguishes this site from a lot of others. The following long story is actually a package of profiles I did for The Reader (www.thereader) of ministers and churches serving predominantly African American northeast Omaha. These good shepherds are in some cases at the forefront of large community-based initiatives attempting to engineer a turnaround of the area, which has great needs, and in other cases leading smaller grassroots efforts focused on changing one block, one neighborhood at a time. The story tries to convey the role of black ministers and churches today and yesterday and where they fit into the fabric of community engagement and redevelopment.

 

 

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North 24th Street, photo by lachance (Andrew Lachance)

 

 

Good Shepherds of North Omaha: Ministers and churches making a difference in area of great need

©by Leo Adam Biga

A shorter version of the story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Church is universally the tie that binds and the salve that heals. Its significance in the black community is even more profound given African Americans’ historical disenfranchisement.

“Faith has always been the element that motivated us and allowed us to continue forward in perilous times,” says Salem Baptist Church pastor Selwyn Bachus. “When we didn’t have anything else the one thing we did have was faith and the one institution we had and still have is the African American church. Every major movement in the history of African Americans has been founded on faith and out of the church. It’s the primary thing and everything else kind of grows out of that.

“You can use the visual of a bicycle wheel. Faith is that hub and the other efforts are really spokes out of that hub, which is the thing that holds it together.”

He says church remains central but its “interaction with congregants is not as intense as it once was.” As blacks’ living patterns have grown more dispersed, many no longer live in the immediate area their church occupies. Bachus says Salem members come from all over. He reminds, however, Omaha remains segregated, thus blacks still predominately live on the north side of the inner city, where most black churches are located.

With worshipers’ lives more mobile, their time more pressed, the family structure more fractured and people’s needs more acute, he says church ministries have evolved to focus on youths, couples, families, seniors. Everything from financial to computer literacy to life skills training is offered. The church is meeting place, mobilization center, sanctuary, conscience, healer, forum, refuge. It’s where fellowship’s found, tradition preserved and ritual celebrated — where the cycle of life plays out.

The black minister is shepherd, counselor, confessor, educator, orator, leader, role model and, depending on who wears the collar and what the times call for, agitator, protester, witness, critic, community organizer and social activist.

Five preachers pastoring North O churches are profiled here. Each discusses ministering to their people in times that, if not perilous, are challenging.


Apostle Vanessa Ward
, Afresh Anointing Church, 4757 No. 24th St.
From the front porch of her northeast Omaha home, Apostle Vanessa Ward describes the transformation her block’s undergone in a decade. Situated in an area called Death Valley for its frequent, sometimes fatal gun violence, the Omaha native no sooner states, “This is a high risk neighborhood,” when the crackle of gunfire interrupts the mid-summer afternoon quiet.

“We gotta pray. That was not good,” Ward says solemnly, head bowed in prayer.

©photo by Eric Gregory, Lincoln Journal Star

 

 

An ugly reminder gang bangers still menace these streets. But not on her block. Not anymore. Not since this wife and mother of four began ministering right where she lives — not just from the Sunday isolation of the pulpit at the 75-member Afresh Anointing Church (Body of Christ) she pastors. She admits she was like everyone else. Too apathetic and afraid to do anything about the chaos around her.

“This neighborhood used to be so bad there was no way you and I could be sitting outside like this,” she says to a visitor, “without filth in the street, loud music, prostitution, corner boys, as we call them, selling drugs on every corner. Oh, 10 years ago, you never would have been able to do what we’re doing now.

“I remember watching a 7-year-old in the back of my house selling drugs.”

She remembers consoling the mother of a young man killed in a driveby right in front of her house.

A large, now abandoned home she points to just up the block was a gang den.

“They would sit right there and throw dice in the daytime. Shoot, argue or do whatever they want because when the neighborhood’s disconnected nobody cares as long as it doesn’t hit my house or affect my child. And that’s a mistake.”

She says she was part of the culture of silence that prevails in North O, where “the rules of this kind of community are, don’t get involved, don’t call the law, mind your own business, pull the shade down.” Her own blind eye to it all bothered her. It led her to do some serious soul searching.

“I was praying. My main question was this: How can I be so powerful in my pulpit and powerless on my block? Why isn’t anything changing around me? Because it first had to change within me.” That revelation, she says, “took me on a journey.” She charts that journey in her new book, Somebody Do Something.

She felt called to organize a block party with food, music, information booths set up by community agencies, a police presence. It meant talking to gang members.

“The rules for a block party are that everybody on the block has to give their consent, so that forced me to have to go and approach what most would call undesirables. It took a lot of courage. It took a lot of stamina. But I just knew it needed to be done.”

She asked them to abide by three rules — no drugs, no alcohol, no weapons — and “they agreed.” From that first party in 1996 through the most recent one last July, she says, not a single incident’s occurred.

“No violence, no drug charges, nothing at any of these events that get as big as 600 people,” she says with pride and thanksgiving.

 

 

 

Apostle Vanessa Ward

 

The parties became the impetus for broader, long-term change or “healing.” She began doing cleanups — picking up litter. Others followed her lead. Pretty soon, homeowners were fixing up their properties and looking out for each other. It continues today. The negative elements faded away once residents interacted as concerned neighbors taking a collective stand in reclaiming their block.

“The neighbors started buying in,” she says “and now these neighbors do their own. The example was set.”

For Ward, being able to “bring a neighborhood together” is an expression of “signs and wonders” at work. That success, she says, validates what citizens can do “on a small ghetto block” and, she hopes, offers a model for doing it on a wider scale.

There’s much to emulate. Her leadership’s helped make the area’s Central Park Neighborhood Association a proactive force for positive change.

Neighbors maintain two community gardens on the block. The Peace Garden grows vegetables “that everybody in the neighborhood can glean,” she says, and the Hope Garden is a budding fruit-flower bed on one side of her house.

Ward envisions turning portions of the Hope Garden into a playground as well as a space for arts-craft activities, mentoring and job/trade training. She dreams of converting the vacant, former drug house into “a community center” for GED training, drug rehab and other services. She sees the home she now occupies one day being a mission house for those wishing to serve the neighborhood’s needs.

It’s all part of her belief that efforts to overturn social ills must be community-based, like her own “trench ministry.” Says Ward, “A lot of times if you don’t work it from the inside out what tends to happen is it doesn’t have longevity.” She realizes she needs to be right at ground zero to make the most impact. “The people need it,” she says. “They don’t know neighborhood, they don’t know community. We preach about it and we talk about it but people need to see a true evidence that Jesus is still alive. They need to touch it, it needs to be tangible.”

Just as Christ “met people where they were,” so does Ward, a highly visible figure in The Hood. Engaging people where they live, she says, requires change agents rid themselves of prejudices and resentments. She had to herself. Where before she wanted to tune out and cut off after a long day, she makes herself available 24/7. Her door always open — to anyone. She’s the block’s eyes, ears, voice, heart, soul.

“If you’re really looking to make a difference in people’s lives you’ve got to start with yourself,” she says. It’s about being authentic. “People can tell it. The street knows the street. They know if you’re faking, if you’re shaking, if you’re only going so far, if you don’t approve. It’s all over you.”

If we expect kids to leave gang life behind, she says, we need “to offer a better way.” Better options. Like real jobs. “That kind of encouragement is inclusive, it’s not exclusive.” She leads several youth ministries that attempt to do just that. The Omaha-based African American Empowerment Network she’s a part of has been working with gang members to get them to leave that life and placed in jobs. She co-chairs the Network’s crime prevention covenant with John Ewing.

Her outspoken Apostleship, she says, makes her “controversial.” Being a female minister, she says, makes her “unwelcome in some pulpits.” None of that stops her from proselytizing her concepts for building community as a speaker, panelist, trainer, facilitator and organizer. Her message is always the same: “Don’t just talk about it, don’t just preach about it, don’t just teach about it. Do something.”


Rev. Portia Cavitt
, Clair Memorial United Methodist Church, 5544 Ames Ave.
Newly installed Clair Memorial United Methodist Church pastor Rev. Portia Cavitt is still getting a feel for North Omaha. She was previously at Allen Chapel AME Church on the south side. She grew up in St. Louis and moved to Omaha for the first time in 2004 to pastor Allen. That followed years as “an itinerant Elder” serving churches in San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis and Hutchinson, Kan.

When Clair called on her this year, it meant changing denominations and geographic locales. She continues serving Allen until it finds a new pastor.

 

 

Pastor Portia Cavitt

 

 

She sees similarities between the two inner city sectors in terms of segregation, poverty, gang violence and education gaps. The needs in North O, she realizes, are even more pronounced. The STD-HIV/AIDS epidemic among African Americans is much on her mind. She’s active in efforts to raise awareness, promote testing and advocate safe sex. The high jobless rate found her asking employers at a Clair job fair tough questions — namely, why employers offer black applicants mostly entry level customer service-telemarketing posts that don’t pay a living wage.

Her first priority at Clair, an old-line church of 200 members atop an Ames Avenue hill, is getting to know her flock, one that’s old and weary. Members have drifted away. Her mantra to bring folks back is, “come get your hillside experience.” She wants Clair to be a “beacon of light” for an area beset by despair.

She wants believers to “come and hear a word that will encourage them, that will empower them to go out and make a difference.” That will give them a voice “to speak up and declare what is it that your community needs. I mean, is there a Neighborhood Association that would help you take pride back in your block, your home, your property, your community? That’s what I’m hoping to offer.”

For Clair or for any church to prosper, she says, there must be a multi-generational membership that includes intact families. The broken family syndrome in black culture puts a strain on community and church. Historically, she says, the black church has been an extension of the family.

Cavitt feels the black church is still the inspiration and anchor it’s always been but that as times have changed new leadership needs to emerge alongside the church.

“The people still hold their pastors in high esteem as a community leader, as a spokesman for them,” she says. “But I think people today have lost their own voice and need to find their voice. Back in the ‘60s, during the civil rights movement, yes, the black church was deemed being the center. That’s where the meetings or rallies were. The pastors spoke. But there were also community leaders. And they locked hands together and the people followed and participated.

“Now I think the people have gotten quiet and they want the leaders to do the leading. But I want my congregation to realize, yes, I might be your leader but I can only do so much as we lock hands together and go together. I’m not the only spokesperson. Some of you are more equipped and knowledgeable and outspoken than I am on some issues. We need to stand and support each other on all issues.”

 

 

Clair Memorial United Methodist Church

 

 

If the disparities are to be rectified, she believes the black church will be involved  — if for no other reason than that’s where the majority of African Americans gather. It’s where pledges are made and coalitions built. “Because we still view the church as that power source,” she says. “On Sundays or during mid-week service I know the people are listening and you have an opportunity to encourage them. We try to address our violence and our unemployment issues. We’ve got to. The Bible speaks to all of that and so I have to make that come alive.”

The black church is where hope springs eternal. It’s where, she says, people “have an opportunity to band together to make a difference — as long as people can see that change is on the way. Sometimes change is slow. But as long as you’re working toward a goal, it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get to it.”

Cavitt, like her friend Apostle Vanessa Ward, sees black churches beginning to work more collaboratively but still having a ways to go. “It can get better,” Cavitt says. “We are not as cohesive as we can be.”

Again, like Ward, she feels being a strong female minister poses problems for some  — making unity difficult. “We have to embrace each other and respect each other regardless if I’m a female or not. I don’t have time to play games. I won’t take a back seat to anyone. I mean, you don’t have to respect me for my sex but you should respect me for what I represent. I’m in a main line denomination at a major church. I can be a radical at times but after all of these years I have so much to offer that I can’t go backwards, I can only continue to move forward.”

The fact that Clair, which had a female minister once before, chose her is all the validation she needs. “For this church to lift my name and desire to have me says a lot about my ministry here in Omaha. They wanted a pastor like me.”

The single and childless Cavitt says “it would be nice to come home to someone who takes care of me but I don’t need that because my members are my family.”


Rev. Jeremiah McGhee
, Mt. Sinai Church, 4504 Bedford Ave.
The core needs of Omaha’s black community have changed little since the civil rights era. The black church has been there for the whole ride. Since the ‘70s Rev. Jeremiah McGhee’s worked the front lines to address inequities. He says churches play a vital role in this work but have their limitations. He notes, pastors can’t be experts in everything and seldom can a problem be tackled in isolation from others.

Thus, any serious discussion of community needs must encompass multiple factors from a broad range of informed perspectives.

“We gotta find jobs, we gotta help people get better educated, we gotta help people with their health problems, we gotta help right down the line,” he says.

For churches or other organizations to face these matters alone, he says, “it gets overwhelming.” The best-intentioned efforts then tend to “fizzle out.” That’s why he’s encouraged by some new initiatives, especially the African American Empowerment Network, that target these issues through expert-based coalitions or covenants.
“We’ve got our best and brightest leading,” he says. Ministers like himself and churches like his own, the non-denominational Mt. Sinai, a 70-member congregation he pastors, are part of the Network. The community-wide effort, he says, promotes public-private, religious-secular partnerships, thus taking the pressure off churches in an era when a shrinking social safety net finds churches offering services and programs far beyond what they once did.

Mt. Sinai’s typical of most churches today in providing things like an after-school program, a computer lab, a pantry or a homeless ministry, et cetera. It’s not like it was when he grew up, when “we were one big family — the neighborhood, the village. Because of that brokenness today, a lot more has fallen on the church.”

He says strengthening families is a must. He also says churches can be relieved of responses better suited to others as more community-based solutions develop.

“That makes it easy for us,” says McGhee, who’s married and a father of 10, “because we don’t have to be everything to everybody anymore.”

McGhee’s led Mt. Sinai to do “extensive outreach to the homeless.” It began with church volunteers feeding the homeless downtown. It expanded to sheltering people, first in members’ homes, then at the Colonial Hotel. It grew into New Creations, a five-building, 28-apartment complex converted to transitional housing for homeless men, women and families. New Creations operated from 1996 until earlier this year, when Mt. Sinai’s partnership with another non-profit failed. McGhee’s looking to restructure and reopen New Creations.

All along, he says, black churches “gave attention” to the very concerns the Empowerment Network focuses on “but we lacked experience, we lacked expertise.” Then there’s the question of time and resources and pastors spreading themselves or their churches too thin. Not to mention the resistance some put up to anything smacking of religion.

He says the black church’s traditional social justice mission has never wavered but is perhaps less visible or recognized now because its emissary may not wear a collar. “The church is there, it’s just not the pastor — it’s a member of the congregation that’s there,” he says. “As pastors we’re encouraging our people to get involved in politics, education, economics. We’ve got sophisticated, educated members of our congregations that go do those things.”

Wherever McGhee is involved he makes no bones where he’s coming from.

“We don’t want to be Bible-thumpers,” he says, “but I’m going to live my faith. You can’t expect me not to be who I am or to act the way I believe just because I’ve got a lot of people around me who maybe believe different or don’t believe at all.”

In the end, any coalition must put aside competing egos, agendas and philosophies and attend to what needs doing.

“The street’s dirty, let’s sweep. We need houses built, let’s build ‘em. We’ve got kids that are undereducated, what are going to do about that? And so as we approach those things in that way across the board we’re finding a greater acceptance,” McGhee says.

He said he and pastors of different faiths are getting better at “building relationships.” Fewer turf wars. More cooperation. More compromise.

“They listen to me, I listen to them, and we manage to work at it a lot stronger and to keep focused on the prize.”

He says it’s no accident the Network, for example, made faith the first of its 13 covenants or that members work hard at building alliances. Many steering committee-leadership team members “are very strong in faith,” he says. “They’re believers.” Some are clergy, some are not.

“We have decided we will be solutions-oriented. I have never been more impressed with African Americans that have come together who want to work together, who like each other,” he says.

All this partnering is bringing black churches in closer contact. His church was one of several on the north side to collaborate on a summer youth program at Adams Park Recreation Center. McGhee heads the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (IMA) and says that group and other black faith-based groups are increasingly “coming together. We’re talking about things regularly. We’re keeping each other informed. We’ve got good relationships and out of those grow commitments. Now when we hear anything about what’s going on, we’re connecting.”

“Before we’d seem to come together and we’d kind of spin our wheels awhile and in the end a little got done but not as hard-hitting as today,” he says. “We’re determined. This group of pastors is working together. We share the same interests. We live in the same community. We’re pastoring the same class of folk — that are struggling. Divided we fall. We can’t make it if we don’t begin to put our heads together and work smart and that’s what we’re doing now.”

He says it’s vital churches fulfill their historical leadership mission. If churches are to lead by example, he says, they must be open. The same with the IMA, which he acknowledges has been resistant to women members.

“We’re learning to get past that,” he says, because a welcoming church excludes no one. “It’s men, it’s women, it’s interracial, its intergenerational, its interdenominational. As pastors we need to lead the way. We need the congregations and the community to see us leading and taking charge in that.”


Rev. LeRoy Adams, Morning Star Baptist Church
, 2019 Burdette St.
Morning Star Baptist Church represents the dichotomy of Omaha’s black community. Its magnificent, multi-million dollar facility bespeaks a place of worship that’s well attended and supported. With 1,500 members and growing, Morning Star is a success story. Its pastor, Rev. LeRoy Adams, a rising star in the Baptist Church nationally, in demand as an inspirational speaker and leader.

The 83-year-old institution’s a neighborhood anchor flanked by two more community stalwarts — Conestoga Magnet Center and the Hope Center. Nice new homes on North 20th Street are nearby.

 

 

Morning Star Baptist Church

 

 

Like most of North O, the area’s basically safe. The normal rhythms of daily life unwind in well-kept neighborhoods with families, businesses, schools, churches. It’s also true that routine is interrupted at times by gun violence. An illicit drug-sex trade operates openly. The perception from the outside looking in is that all of North O’s a war zone or wasteland. Not so. However, the reality is that gun violence and other social ills are persistent problems. While not unique to that area they are predominantly centered there due to a high concentration of conditions  — poverty, unemployment, gang activity — that cultivate them.

Adams, a Buffalo, N.Y. native who’s married with two kids, dislikes how the media disproportionately highlights problems over success stories in his community.

“Sometimes I get very perturbed about that because we know what’s happening here. There’s the good and there’s the bad. But we get this stereotypical negative view that North Omaha is a place of reproach. That it’s a mission field for the churches in West Omaha to come. There’s no balance. There’s no appreciation for this being a very large area that’s also doing great things.”

Like it or not, shootings on the north side get reported. He and his church hardly ignore the violence there. He’s made the issue a priority of Concerned Clergy of North Omaha, which he heads. He advises Mayor Mike Fahey on ways to intervene in the gun culture. Morning Star provides youths positive alternatives to street life. His church organized the summer sleepover program at the Adams Park rec center. The rev leads prayer marches and vigils. It’s through efforts like these black churches act as stabilizing forces every day — a fact he feels gets overlooked.

As he’s well aware, solidarity and indignation only go so far. Public-private responses that give kids alternatives to gang-street life are needed.

He agrees with friend and fellow clergyman Rev. Jeremiah McGhee that the black church has much help in the social justice struggle today. “That particular burden is not just upon us anymore,” says Adams, “it is shared by many.” Rather than diminish the church, he contends sharing the load with other institutions enhances the church’s work and increases its reach.

He says collaboration’s healthy as long as “we don’t forget and ignore the influence of the church. Our history will remind us our church has always been the foundation of change in America.” Whether a local effort like the Empowerment Network or a national one, he adds, “it comes right back to the church. Our history has always been the church. Our hope has been inspired by the church.”

An institution the size of Morning Star can also afford to extend its reach in ways little imagined in the past. For example, Adams says his church is planning to build a family life or wellness center with a range of programs, activities and services for black seniors. Additionally, he says, Morning Star’s looking “to be a little bit more entrepreneurial by creating jobs in our community” through such church-owned businesses as a book store, a restaurant and a beauty/barbershop.

This kind of economic reinvestment in the community, he says, “provides us a foothold beyond the norm” for Omaha but common among large churches in other cities. “That’s kind of where we want to lead our congregation, so that we can be a dominant presence in our community. I’m kind of excited about it.”

Adams sees the black church enjoying a renaissance today. “Not only are we growing numerically but we’re seeing this diversity,” he says. Morning Star, which he describes as “progressive,” is an illustration of these trends. It’s more than doubled its rolls since he arrived nine years ago and attracts a mixed house of worshipers by race, ethnicity, income, affiliation — from a wide geographic area.

The black church is also a model for other faith groups.

“We’re seeing many other denominations taking some of our culture” — gospel music, praise and worship, call-and-response — “and adopting it to their style of worship, and that’s gratifying to see that,” says Adams.

Omaha has many black churches but he feels the bigger ones like Morning Star and Salem Baptist Church too often overshadow their smaller counterparts.

“There are several others that are doing a great job. Every church and every minister that serves in some capacity is important.”

Unlike McGhee, he sees Omaha churches “yet divided” denominationally and geographically. “There is a splinterization that exists in many ways, in many forms, in many fashions and Omaha is too small of a city to be that way,” he says. “Whether it has to do with race, reconciliation or dealing with poverty we have the persons and resources here to invest in making Omaha what she can be.” Now it’s just a matter of getting those stakeholders “involved in changing Omaha.”


Selwyn Bachus
, Salem Baptist Church, 3131 Lake St.
Salem Baptist Church is a rock in northeast Omaha. The landmark owns the largest membership, more than 3,000, and most glorious worship center of any black church in the state. In a metaphorical sense African American leaders here hope to build upon its solid foundation and that of other institutions and organizations in the area by implementing strategies that, if successful there, will revive an area smack dab in the heart of the black community.

Rev. Selwyn Bachus has pastored Salem only since 2005 but he owns a long history with the 86-year-old church dating back to his childhood in Kansas City, Mo., where his minister father was a friend of then-Salem pastor J.C. Wade. Bachus accompanied his parents on visits to Omaha and Salem, which became like a second home. That background gives Bachus, who’s married with two children, a deep appreciation for Salem’s legacy.

 

Pastor Selwyn Bachus

 

 

He came here after stints in Virginia and Ohio. The challenges and opportunities posed by Omaha’s inner city are similar to those of urban black communities elsewhere. When the head of Omaha’s most prosperous, influential black institution talks, people listen, and what Bachus says bodes well for a community that’s struggled to find sustainable economic development. Decades of instability have marked the area since the late ‘60s. But Bachus sees a turnaround in the offing and attributes the promise of better times ahead to a confluence of shared interests.

“I’ve lived in four different cities for fairly significant periods of time and have never been able to see the community unified in such a way. And so that excites me to see that people can bring to the table their efforts and say clearly that we want to do what’s best for the community as a whole.”

He refers to Omaha’s African American Empowerment Network and to parallel initiatives underway here whose leaders “bring expertise and experience” to focused efforts aimed at raising the black community.

Bachus is active in the Network, whose Empower Omaha covenants encompass everything from improving educational achievement to spurring economic development to creating affordable homes to supporting black businesses. The Network looks to apply all 13 covenants to the area Salem resides in.

That section is slated as a target or test site because there are anchors in place in Salem and in the neighboring Urban League of Nebraska, Charles Drew Health Center, Salem Village senior residential community and Aframerican Book Store, among others, and in the stately Miami Heights homes. A planned redevelopment of the Pleasantview projects is on the drawing board.

Even with these stabilizers, residents experience poverty, unemployment, violence, health issues and a myriad of other problems in disproportionate numbers. The Network seeks to use existing anchors as building blocks to strengthen the area overall and impact those specific inequities. Success there could be replicated throughout the community to realize the larger revival of North O envisioned.

Salem’s already made huge commitments. In 2000 its $7.5 million worship-education center opened and that’s spurred added redevelopment in the neighborhood. Its multiple ministries reach out to people across the board. It’s planning a community development center. Still only in the conceptual stages, the facility may include an early childhood development program, a gym, a stage, classrooms and a pantry. Bachus is encouraged that fellow stakeholders in the community have expressed support for the center and the various programs and activities it can host.

The synergy Bachus sees is not a moment too soon in his opinion.

“African Americans in Omaha are at a crisis point,” he says. “We’re at a crossroads. There’s extreme possibilities. There’s great possibility for greatness in our community but we have to do it now.”

The World-Herald’s reporting on the extent of poverty in Omaha’s black community, he says, “gave us a dose of reality that was not very palatable. I think it really awakened something within us.” For Bachus it’s unconscionable “a city as wealthy as Omaha” can allow the hypocrisy of “five Fortune 500 companies almost literally within a stone’s throw of a poverty stricken community.”

He expresses dismay “at seeing some of the progress made over the past 40 years begin to erode.” He says that loss, too, has been a wake up call to action. “If not now, never,” is the mantra. The time for rhetoric, he says, is over. It’s time to act.

“No longer will we talk about the problem without seeking to alleviate the problem,” he says. “If we don’t fix the problem we’re a part of the problem itself. Don’t just talk about it, be about it. Don’t protest or criticize if you’re not part of the solution.”

 

 

Salem Baptist Church

 

 

Bachus says coming out of the civil rights experience blacks “looked for a leader to motivate us and give us a vision,” ala a King or Jackson, “and I think what we’ve come to realize is there’s no one leader at this point that’s going to be able to do that. And so as a result we’ve seen the effectiveness of collaborating as leaders.”

Barack Obama may prove a catalyst for sweeping change but there’s a sense African Americans are more diffused politically-socially-religiously than assumed. Even someone as dynamic as Obama may only get the support of a segment of blacks when it comes to social policies or programs.

The days when a single figure, elected or unelected, can marshal a nationwide movement may be over. The days when the black church can be out front leading the charge may be past. But Bachus echoes his colleagues in saying the church is still a bastion of black culture, it just operates in a more collegial, cooperative, community-oriented way. That’s why Bachus and his fellow ministers now partner with a broad coalition of public and private sector figures and entities.\par

“It’s a collaborative effort that brings persons and expertise to the table to allow us to do what we do even more effectively.”

He’s optimistic about progress being made behind the scenes by the Empowerment Network and other efforts. He says the strength of these approaches is that clergy, activists and social service professionals are working with strategically-placed public-private lay leaders in key  indicators like education, employment, economic development, housing. The church is not taking a back seat but walking hand in hand with change agents, many of whom are leaders at their churches.

Clergy or not, Bachus says the blacks taking the lead in Omaha “have a sense of calling, a sense of direction. It doesn’t come from the world, it comes from God.”

If the black community is to arise, he’s sure it will be a faith-inspired resurrection.

More Shepherds for the Faith and the Cause

©by Leo Adam Biga

Fr. Ken Vavrina, St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, 2423 Grant St.

African American Catholics comprise a minority within a minority. Historically. Omaha’s home base for this small but persistent segment has been St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, whose black namesake and gospel music-infused services reflect black culture.

After decades serving the poorest of the poor on Native American reservations, in India and in Africa, Father Ken Vavrina ministers to Omaha’s most disadvantaged residents as St. Benedict’s pastor. He knows The Hood well. He pastored at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s. He knew Black Panthers. He was on Nprth 24th Street when it burned during the riots.

“It has not come back since then,” he says.

After serving St. Richard Church he took over St. Ben’s in 2007 at his request. Before him, assigned priests lived off-site for years, leaving a void and disconnect with parishioners and neighbors. Vavrina, a Clarkson, Neb. native, insisted he reside at the rectory. “You gotta live here. You gotta live in your community,” he says.

His small parish today is at “ground zero.” Yes, there are pockets of stability and revitalization but this zone’s depressed by poverty, prostitution, drugs, gangs, gun violence and scant economic development. Within view of his rectory is an open market for crack cocaine and human trafficking. On one side you buy dope. On the other, sex. Whatever your fix, suppliers stand ready. Walking a visitor outside, Vavrina points to “the girls” working the streets down the block. Parish members counsel some of these young women in the hope they’ll make better choices.

“A lot of our young boys and some girls are being sucked into the street, and they’re good kids,” he says, “but they have to develop the discipline to make short-term sacrifices for long-term benefits. We need to be able to help these kids have that discipline.”

He’s sending a message that we “won’t be intimidated by the violence” and he’s putting in place mentoring programs that impact young people where they live.

An Adopt-a-Family program matches at-risk families headed by single mothers with volunteers from metro area churches. With the right advice and support, the goal is to turn clients’ lives around. The program grew out of St. Ben’s ongoing support of a neighborhood family impacted by gun violence. The church has also rededicated the Bryant Center, a once popular recreation facility on its grounds whose outdoor basketball courts had grown largely dormant and run down until recent efforts to refurbish them. A new summer/fall hoops league with coaches, referees, strict supervision and police security has taken off.

For projects like these to work Vavrina knows ecumenical partnerships are needed and therefore he’s formed broad alliances across the public-private-Christian spectrum. For example, he often works with clergy from area Protestant churches.


Fr. Tom Fangman
, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 2207 Wirt St.
The Sacred Heart Catholic Church congregation is marked by racial, ethnic, socioeconomic diversity. Like St. Ben’s, Sacred Heart embraces gospel music and black religious iconography to reflect the predominant culture it inhabits.

The church operates one of a dwindling number of inner city private schools. Sacred Heart Elementary School serves African American students from largely low income families. Few of the students are Catholic but their parents prize “a faith-based education,” says church pastor and school president Father Tom Fangman. The school’s much-copied Life Skills, Building Blocks for Success Program aims to prepare students for real world experiences.

Support comes from CUES or Christian Urban Education Services, a nonprofit whose board members of different races and faiths endorse the school’s mission and track record. Fangman says 98 percent of Sacred Heart grads complete high school compared to 72 percent of students on average from other area schools.

 

Sacred Heart Church

 

The church also serves the community via its Heart Ministry Center, which provides needy residents with clothes, household goods and food. Its pantry allows clients to self-select their own groceries. Education programs are also offered. Youth-adult ed classes cover everything from nutrition to early pregnancy to literacy.

“It’s a hub for outreach,” Fangman says. “I mean, things are just constantly happening there. We’re forming all these great relationships with the community. I would put this up with just about any social service agency in North Omaha.”

Partnerships abound, including cooperative ventures with other churches, Creighton University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Fangman says Sacred Heart provides a consistent presence in a neighborhood sorely lacking stability. “I believe we’re an anchor,” he says. “We’ve been here a long time and so we have a history. And the people in the community know the school’s making a big difference in lots of kids’ lives, which I think brings hope.”

The Omaha native’s exactly where he wants to be. “I always wanted to do inner city ministry,” he says. “It’s a ministry I find fulfilling every day.”


Rev. Johnice Orduna
, New Life Presbyterian Church, 4060 Pratt St.
“I’m one of those born-and-bred called-to people, because I never knew anything but the church,” says Rev. Johnice Orduna, an Omaha native whose life’s been one long faith journey.

Orduna, a licensed/certified missionary, started out a Baptist. She’s ministered in Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian churches on the north side. One of her Nebraska Synod assignments was at Omaha’s Augustana Lutheran Church, where she brought the perspective of “a crusader” and the reputation of “a dangerous black woman” to a congregation once resistant to interracial fellowship. She did formal anti-racism training for the Lutheran Church.

As a mission developer she formed a congregation that became Fontenelle Community Church. Her ministry reached out to youths and families in crisis.

Semi-retired today, she’s now filling a temporary post at New Life Presbyterian Church, which lost its pastor. She’s doing “supply preaching” until a new pastor’s found. New Life’s a blending of the former Calvin and Fairview Presbyterian Churches, whose congregations were all-black and all-white, respectively. When the inner city parishes faced closure due to declining membership they merged, and a mixed race church was born.

Racial diversity in the pews is a rarity. She says, “We gotta get past this business of Sunday being the most segregated day of the year. If we can put our barriers down and not operate in our little heresies that say, ‘My way’s the only way to get to God,’ then we really could enrich each other.

“We haven’t gotten there. It’s too safe to do it the other way.”

 

 

New Life Presbyterian Church

 

 

She admires New Life, saying it’s a congregation “where people just come in and be who they are. I mean, they have their tiffs. We all do. But it’s never a gamebreaker. These folks have made a decision — We’re going to be here and we’re going to be together doing this, regardless, and we’ll work through whatever it takes. If more congregations would do that then we wouldn’t have these rifts. There would be so much that we could empower ourselves to do.”

In her opinion, churches get bogged down in a survival mode of maintaining the status quo. She advocates getting outside the four walls to do evangelization.

“Our neighborhoods are lost. We’ve got kids killing each other in the street who have no clue what the inside of a church looks like,” she says. “That’s where you have to be — literally out on the streets. There’s a fearlessness required. You can’t go in your house and lock the door and keep yourself safe. You gotta be willing to go to the 7-Eleven parking lot where the kids are and greet them with dignity and respect and then begin to let them know who you are and who Jesus is.

“I think Jesus is as transforming as ever but it’s how you deliver the message. You cannot assume anymore that kids are going to have heard any of that.”

Orduna rues the loss of intimacy that once permeated the black community. She believes the black church is not as unified as it was in the civil rights struggle but remains critical for instilling or restoring a “sense of community” in neighborhoods.

 
 

Open Invitation: Rev. Tom Fangman engages all who seek or need at Sacred Heart Catholic Church

January 9, 2011 1 comment

In an era when Catholic priests are too often in the news for the wrong reasons it’s a pleasure to write about one who is highly respected by the church and by the community.  The following article for Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) about Rev. Tom Fangman is not the first I’ve written about this priest or the parish he pastors, Sacred Heart, in a largely African-American neighborhood in Omaha, Neb.  But while those earlier pieces, which can be found on this blog by the way, deal with the rip-roaring Sunday service he presides over, complete with a gospel choir and band, and the multi-million dollar restoration of the church, this latest story focuses on him and his calling as a priest.  He’s a sweet, gentle man who has managed the difficult task of not only keeping his parish church, school, and social service center alive but thriving in a district beset by profound poverty and high crime and an area hit harder than most by the recession.  His winning ways with people from all walks of life, whether CEOs or parents just struggling to get by, is what makes him so good at what he does.

 

 

Open Invitation: Rev. Tom Fangman engages all who seek or need at Sacred Heart Catholic Church

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

 

When Rev. Tom Fangman arrived as pastor at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in 1998, the northeast Omaha parish was already known for its humanitarian embrace.

If anything, though, this hometown cleric with a gentle, jovial demeanor has broadened and deepened the caring community he guides there by forever reaching out to others. Gladly receiving all, he asks people to give, aware that service to others heeds our better angels.

“I’ve always been a people-person,” he said from the cozy living room of the rectory he resides in behind the church. “I find so much joy being around people. I’ve just been blessed with good people in my life. Before I came here Sacred Heart was known as a very welcoming community, a place where people of all different backgrounds could go and feel a part of, a place where they feel they belonged. I am most proud that we’ve carried on in that same spirit. I know it’s a community, I know it’s a community that cares. We’ve maintained that charism.

“We’ve also been a parish that has always had a strong conviction towards social justice and serving the needs of others and providing for the poor. We are that place and we are a place that I know for certain impacts the community. We’re helping lots of young people. I’m really proud of what what we’ve maintained in continuing to do for kids.”

On a frigid Saturday morning in November, there was Fr. Tom doling out donuts, muffins and thank-yous to delivery drivers picking up Thanksgiving gift pouches for the parish’s twice-annual holiday food distribution. A record 330-some families in need received a turkey, plus all the fixings, for Thanksgiving. The operation, which runs with friendly, relaxed precision out of the parish’s Heart Ministry Center (HMC), is repeated for Christmas.

For the weekend chiller, the affable padre stood outside, bundled from head to foot, meeting and greeting volunteers, an easy conviviality and respect between the priest and his flock. Typically, he downplays his part, instead praising the large team that makes this compassionate response a reality.

“Being the pastor here is just kind of like orchestrating,” he said. “It’s recognizing people’s goodness and gifts and inviting them to offer themselves. If people are offered an invitation, they’re going to go with it. The things that happen here are because there are lots of really good people. They’re willing to get involved and to give of themselves.

“There’s lots of things I love about being a priest but one of the most exciting is when people become aware of God’s presence in their life, and no two stories are ever the same. Every person has their own journey and own ways that are revealed to them.”

 

 

He said he’s come to view his ministry as inviting people to give, whether their time, talent or treasure, in order to be of service to others. He said he’s often teased that he has a way about him that makes it impossible for anyone to say no.

“Well, there are people who have said no to me, but I’ve just kind of learned that shouldn’t stop you,” he said. “You go to the next place, you find the next person. I believe in the goodness of people. I also have high expectations of what people can do, and sometimes they really need that invitation to show that.”

Located at 2218 Binney Street, Sacred Heart serves the most poverty stricken area of the city through three nonprofit arms Fangman oversees. The most visible of these is the church, which originally opened at another site clear back in 1890.

The present stone, late-Gothic Revival church that stands today opened in 1902. Through Fangman’s leadership the parish was able to find the funds and in-kind contributions necessary for the building to undergo a $3.3 million restoration in 2009. He announced the capital campaign to fund the project in 2008. After making the case, folks responded, and within a year all pledges were secured.

More than a picture-postcard Old World edifice made new again, the church is a well-attended gathering place that draws worshipers, just as Sacred Heart counts parishioners, from all over the metro. The hospitality there is evident in the way newcomers are greeted. The Sunday 10:30 a.m. Mass is famous for its spirited celebration, complete with a rousing gospel choir and band. The animated “sign of peace” ritual includes hand shakes, salutations, hugs, kisses, as many folks circulate from pew to pew engaging each other. The fellowship resumes after Mass ends.

As a parish priest, Fangman is more than a spiritual figurehead. He’s a flesh-and-blood confessor, advisor, counselor, confidante, friend, leader, fundraiser and CEO. He serves his flock in macro and micro ways. He’s there at the most public and private, joyous and sad occasions. Hundreds of photographs of people in his life adorn every smooth surface in his kitchen, a reflection of how many he impacts and how many touch him.

“Being a parish priest lets you be involved in lots of peoples lives, from womb to tomb,” he said. “People say to me, ‘How can you be around so much sadness and death?’ I don’t know how to answer that but one thing I do know is that holiness is there in the midst of it, because that’s where love is.”

He fills multiple roles in the course of any given week: saying several Masses; hearing confessions; presiding, on average, over at least one wedding or funeral; visiting the sick; preparing couples for marriage; attending board meetings; calling on donors; and crafting his homilies.

He feels good about a lot of things that go on at Sacred Heart.

“I feel like we have a really great thing to sell, and I’m sold, I believe in what we’re doing and I’ll talk to anybody about that,” he said.

A shining example he never tires of touting is Sacred Heart Elementary School, a K-8 institution serving a predominantly African-American, non-Catholic student population. The school’s financial sustainability and operations are supported by the nonprofit CUES or Christian Urban Education Service, comprised of an “established board” of Omaha movers and shakers. Fangman is its executive director.

He said students at the small private school consistently test above average and that faculty and staff rigorously prepare students to succeed, adding that 98 percent graduate high school within four years. Mentors are assigned every student, all of whom receive work and life skills training.

Whether it’s the school, the church, or the center, he said, Sacred Heart is concerned with “addressing the whole person — body, mind and spirit.” Nothing satisfies him more than seeing the results come-full-circle in an each one, teach one way: “I get to see the goodness of people who want to make a difference, and then I get to see who receives from that goodness, and then what they do with that. Ultimately our goal is to give people opportunities. Sacred Heart is about opportunities.”

He said, “This young lady came up to me to say she grew up down the street from Sacred Heart, attended school here nine years, went to Duchesne Academy, then St. Louis University. She worked at First National Bank and she wanted to be a mentor here. To me that spoke pretty loudly about what we’re able to do, which is giving kids the opportunity to make it in life, to grow and discover what they have to offer. I want to see that continue on. I want to see those opportunities always given.”

The parish responds to social service/ human needs through Heart Ministry Center, home to the area’s only self-select pantry. Thousands receive free food, clothing, health care and other services from HMC each year. In 2002 Fangman consolidated its services on campus, raising $650,000 to build a new building.

Sacred Heart’s mission requires big money. The center operates on a $360,000 budget. The school budget is $1.3 million. Running the church/parish costs $500,000.

“That’s $2 million you have to somehow come up with,” said Fangman, adding that to secure that kind of commitment requires reaching into all areas of Omaha.

Three major fundraisers are held yearly. Holy Smokes is a pre-Labor Day bash benefiting HMC. It features barbecue, refreshments and live music. The Gathering is a sit-down dinner in support of the school. The Sacred Heart Open is a croquet tournament, battle-of-the-bands and barbecue to assist the church/parish. Two of the events began under Fangman’s watch and all three, he said, are well supported.

Thirteen years into his post, Fangman’s overdue for a transfer, but he doesn’t sense his work at Sacred Heart is finished yet.

“If I felt like we had done everything we were supposed to do, then I would feel like it’s probably time to try something new and different, but I feel like we’re on the verge of some really vital things happening.”

Whatever happens, he said, “I want to feel like I know I tried to make this a better place. I want to continue trying to get the right people in the right spots.”

To do the right thing.

Tender Mercies Minister to Omaha’s Poverty Stricken

May 31, 2010 1 comment

Omaha, Neb. is a still rather nebulous place to most Americans.  Say the name of this Midwestern city and most folks draw a blank or else associate it with the Great Plains and agriculture, and therefore as some featureless, white bread, flyover zone with little to recommend it.  Or, if they do know Omaha, it’s likely for its high rankings among the best places to live and raise a family, its strong schools, its thriving arts and cultural scene, its relatively booming economy.  Some may know it as the home and base of billionaire Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway, a total of four Fortune 500 companies, the College World Series, and a popular zoo that attracts nearly two million visitors.  Unless you live here or keep close tabs on the city, what you don’t think of with Omaha is a predominantly African American inner city with endemic problems of poverty, unemployment, and youth violence that, per capita, are among the worst in the nation.

The following story, which appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com), profiles one of many social service agencies addressing the problem of poverty through a pantry program and resource/referral center.  It reflects the harsh realities and tender mercies that many urban communities experience every day.

 

Tender Mercies Minister to Omaha’s Poverty Stricken

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)

Tender mercies come in all forms. For those folks living on the margin, the difference between getting by and going hungry may be the kindness of strangers.

Sara Hohnstein and her small staff with the Heart Ministry Center at 22nd and Binney in north Omaha are part of a nameless, faceless army of professionals and volunteers in the human-social services arena working the frontlines of poverty. They represent the safety net that thousands in Omaha depend on to squeeze by.

The center is a nonprofit community outreach arm of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 2218 Binney St., which has been a neighborhood presence since 1902.

Where the church is an old stone Gothic Revival monolith, complete with a 124-foot spire, the center is a low-slung, nondescript building of brick, glass and steel erected in 2005. No matter, each targets the neighborhood’s needs with the same compassionate mission, one that also guides the parish’s Sacred Heart Grade School. Just as the students the school serves are predominantly African American and non-Catholic, so are the bulk of the center’s clients.

The Heart Ministry is a calling for executive director Hohnstein.

“I think ultimately what inspires me to do this is I have a real strong belief that everyone deserves to have their basic needs met,” she said. “They deserve to have food on the table, a roof over their head. It’s really the concepts of mercy and justice. I really feel like I was almost born to help relieve suffering in this world. I have a strong faith in that. I have a passion for it. I really enjoy it.”

The chronically poor most rely on helping agencies like hers for subsistence. Caught in a cycle of public welfare dependence, they are the first to seek help and the first to feel cutbacks in service.

Hohnstein said some center clients fall into a “very low income” category that finds them earning as little as $200 to $300 a month. Some are homeless.

But in this economic tailspin of downsizings, slowdowns, shortages and vanishing 401Ks even individuals and families who seemingly have it made are feeling the pinch. Desperate straits can be as near as a lost job or a missed mortgage payment. Those living paycheck-to-paycheck can ill afford any bumps. A few weeks of lost income here or a major medical crisis there, and savings can be wiped out.

More and more clients don’t fit the classic down-and-out profile. Hohnstein said her center’s “seeing a lot of new faces,” including middle class folks struggling to make it. Count Tamara and Preston King among them. Despite their dual incomes  — she’s a nursing assistant and he’s a phlebotomist — the Omaha couple just can’t provide everything their 10 children need without some outside aid.

“It’s very helpful for me and my family,” Tamara said one spring morning as she waited for center volunteers to bag her family’s allotment o groceries. Clients qualify for different amounts of food items based on income and family size. Food pantries are available by referral from school counselors, social workers, case managers. Walk-in pantries are available select days. Proper ID is required.

Hohnstein said the center is seeing the same sharp spike in demand for services reported by food banks, pantries and shelters across America. In October she said the center had 2,991 services go out — encompassing everything from food to household items to toiletries to clothing to financial assistance — compared to 1,421 service outputs the previous October.

“It has been a significant increase. The need is greater. We’re trying to do more.”

healthcenterAnother indicator of how tight things are for more people is the number of holiday food care packages the center’s providing. “We delivered 380 baskets this Thanksgiving. Last year we delivered 190,” she said. “The 380 baskets will feed 1,718 people.” The demand was so high this fall, she added, the center was unable to satisfy all the requests. She expects the adopt-a-family Christmas program will deliver baskets to about as many clients, 130 families, as last year. “However, this year we’re also a Toys-for-Tots distribution site, and that will add hundreds more children to the number we are serving.”

Thus far, she said, the economic downturn hasn’t slowed donations.

“At this point we haven’t seen our cash donations go down but they haven’t gone up either. As the need increases we need to increase our budget,” which she said is presently $250,000. “We have seen people being more generous with material donations of clothing and food as compared to last year.”

Service requests typically peak the end of any month, she said, as people get paid early and then scramble to make ends meet. “The end of the month they run out of food stamps and they just need something to kind of fill in the gap,” she said. Single moms comprise “our biggest users,” she said. “We also have a smaller but still significant elderly population. And then disabled folks that aren’t able to work for whatever reason.”

There’s a core of “regulars” who access the center’s services, which clients are restricted to using once every 90 days or four times a year.

The summer finds an uptick in pantry requests, she said, because kids don’t receive the free and reduced meals they get at school, putting more of a strain on poor households already stretched thin. The center won a grant from the Ronald McDonald House to hold a Back to School event in August that provided students free physicals and school supplies.

Food is the main service the center provides. In the last fiscal year she said 9,865 people were supplied with a week’s worth of groceries. Hohnstein said “a family of four usually walks out of here with between $70 and $90 worth of food” per visit.

With so many mouths to feed, the Kings went home with two bags full of assorted edibles. But not necessarily the groceries of their choice. Not that Tamara King’s complaining. She makes do with every last product.

“Everything we get, we eat,” she said. “You have to come up with creative meals sometimes, but it’s fun putting together the meals.”

Until recently the center, like most pantries, operated a bag system whereby clients received presorted groceries volunteers filled from the pantry’s shelves. Brand differences aside, every prepared bag contained the same mix of canned and packaged goods, including staples like macaroni, rice, cereal and peanut butter. The benefit to this approach was consistency and fairness. The drawback was some clients ended up with items they couldn’t or wouldn’t eat due to dietary restraints or personal preferences. The potential for unused food seemed a waste.

Hohnstein sought a self-select process to give people a voice in what they receive. She calls it “a more empowering way of getting food.” That’s why the center recently transitioned to a list system that allows clients to check off what groceries they want. USDA guidelines still put a cap on the amount but within limits pantry volunteers now fill customized orders. Tracking what people select may result in better inventory control. A next step may be a shelf system that enables clients to go back into the pantry with a volunteer to “shop” and fill their own bag.

As before, clients get a choice of frozen meats and as much frozen vegetables as they desire. Fresh dairy products are offered until supplies run out. Special items, like prepared tortilla and ravioli entrees, are available in limited quantities.

The list system wasn’t in use yet when the Kings got their groceries that late spring day. Told of the coming change, Tamara said, “That’ll be even nicer.”

Hohnstein said reception to the list system, which went in effect in June, has been “awesome. In addition to the tough economy I believe it is another reason that our pantry is being utilized more by clients. They love being able to pick their own food, and we have seen that they actually only take about 70 percent of what is offered to them because they don’t want to take food that their family is not going to eat. They prefer to let people who are going to eat it have it.”

As much as the help’s appreciated, King said, it’s disconcerting to her and her husband they must seek assistance at all. “Two grown parents working full-time jobs and it’s still not enough,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “Our oldest daughter’s going to college, so you know that’s more money for things we have to spend on.” Without the free groceries, she’s not sure how they’d make it. “It really helps us out a lot. It’s a blessing.”

Where the Kings are working homeowners living the American Dream and yet barely scraping by, Udale L. Barnes has more of a typical skid row story. The unemployed resident of a local homeless shelter is trying to pick up the pieces from a run of hard luck that’s left him high and dry. The center is one way-stop in his recovery.

“I’m down at the (Siena) Francis House, so I’m just looking for some help right now,” he said waiting for his food allotment. “I’m trying to get me an apartment and get back on my feet. I lost my home. So I’m trying to do the right thing now instead of being out in these streets. I’m trying to get back on that right track.”

America’s social compact with the needy is an imperfect one. For the better part of a century the nation’s turned to a hodgepodge of local, state, federal governmental programs as well as churches and social service agencies to meet people’s emergency needs for food, clothing, housing, rent, utility payments, employment and other essentials.

Omaha’s landscape for helping the at-risk population mirrors that of any community its size. A network of pantries, shelters, thrift stores and other basic human service providers operate year-round as stop-gaps people can access during tough times.

Pockets of need exist across the metro but widespread poverty among African Americans in northeast Omaha presents special challenges. Sacred Heart’s charity has always extended to the poor in its midst. As the neighborhood’s demographics changed in the post-Civil Rights era from a racially mixed working class core to a poor black majority the church has responded with new social ministry efforts. For example, its Human Needs Door Ministry opened in ‘82 to provide food and other items to families facing shortfalls or just hard times. Sr. Mary Ann Murphy headed up what was the precursor to the Heart Ministry.

In 1997 Murphy and parishioner Pattie Fidone launched the original Heart Ministry Center, located two miles northwest of the church. The center increasingly focused on families in crisis and began the holiday food basket tradition.

Sacred Heart pastor Rev. Tom Fangman led the move to relocate the center to the parish campus. By the time the new, larger facility opened just west of the church in ‘05 its expanded and formalized services included a full pantry and a large surplus clothes operation that’s since been named Iva’s Closet for its manager, Iva Williams.

Since Hohnstein came to the center in ‘07, the Heart Ministry’s continued growing to address the ever more acute poverty problem and the health issues facing the poor. She serves on a North 24th Street Providers board that focuses on better serving the area’s impoverished. The center partners with Creighton University, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and area physicians to offer on-site blood pressure and diabetes screenings and health workshops focusing on nutrition and pregnancy. The center also offers occasional life skills and employability classes.

A Grand Rapids, Mich. native, the thirtysomething Hohnstein is a social worker with a wealth of experience serving the poor. She credits much of her passion for the field to another Sr. Murphy — Sr. Mary Alice Murphy — she worked with in Fort Collins, Colo., where Hohnstein earned her master’s at Colorado State.

Hohnstein described Murphy as “a phenomenon,” adding, “She’s done some amazing work. She started several homeless shelters in northern Colorado and she started Care Housing, a 700-unit complex of affordable housing. She’s fabulous. She was my mentor and I was her protege for two years, and that really got me interested in more broad-based community work.”

The two remain connected.

“We still e-mail and talk on the phone at least once a month,” Hohnstein said. “Whenever I’ve got kind of a complicated issue here I’ll call up Sister and see what she has to say. She’s been there, done that, through and through.”

Hohnstein said the example of Sr. Murphy doing social work through the church became the model for how she, as a lay woman, could apply her professional expertise in “a faith-based” framework. When Hohnstein and her husband moved to Omaha in 2007 so he could continue medical school studies at UNMC, she took a temporary job as a hospice social worker. She liked the work but when the Heart Ministry post came up she leapt at it.

“When this job opened it was really like a perfect fit for the experience I had had in Fort Collins, and the type of work I wanted to do.”

The Heart Ministry can’t do it all though. It has finite resources to meet select needs. It doesn’t pretend to be a one-stop service center. She said “the parish community really supports us with volunteers and finances. It’s a wonderful community and it’s a great fit.”

Sometimes people show up or call seeking aid the center doesn’t have to give. Referrals are made to other helping agencies, but being turned away or redirected can be interpreted as rebuff, rejection, run-around. Yes, there’s satisfaction that comes with being a good Samaritan, but not being able to help everyone hurts.

“I think the toughest days here are the days when the phone is ringing off the hook with people that need things,” she said, “like financial assistance. Or they got evicted, and so they don’t have a roof over their head right now. Or they have kids in their home and their water and heat got shut off in the dead of winter. That kind of stuff — and we don’t have any resources to help them.

“You get one or two phone calls like that a day and you can kind of push them aside and do your job, but when you get 15-20-25 calls, and that happens very regularly in the winter, especially at the end of the month, than those types of things get a little bit emotionally wearing.”

Then there’s the reality of doing a largely thankless job that pays less than a teacher makes and that involves long hours.

“There’s just some days where everybody’s grateful, everybody’s happy and it’s fun to be working out in the pantry, and there’s other days where everybody collectively just seems to be in a bad mood,” she said. “Those are hard days to be here, especially when you sacrifice a little bit to work in a job like this and you don’t feel appreciated.”

Fortunately, she said, most “of the days here are good days.”

She also likes the fact her work entails engaging the community in many ways. She does everything from tend the pantry produce garden she began last summer to help unload and stock truckloads of food or clothes. She makes presentations before CEOs and civic groups, she attends board meetings, she leads strategic planning sessions, she fields phone calls asking for help.

All these duties are expressions of those tender mercies she feels called to give.

“We think of addressing poverty as acts of mercy and acts of justice.”

 
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