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Omaha St. Peter Catholic Church revival based on restoring the sacred

May 12, 2011 8 comments

If a potential client of mine had not referred me to a revival going on at a once proud Catholic church in Omaha that had fallen on hard times but is now undergoing a revitalization, I wouldn’t have known about it.  This despite the fact I often drove past this church. The story I wrote about the transformation going on at St. Peter Catholic Church in Omaha originally appeared in El Perico. I applaud what the pastor there, Rev. Damien Cook, and his staff and parishioners are doing to infuse new life into the church by going back to the future in a sense and restoring the sacred to celebrations that had been stripped of solemnity and pageantry in the post-Vatican II world.  On this same blog you can find my story titled, “Devotees Hold Fast to the Latin Rite,” and other Catholic-themed stories, particularly two dealing with the recently closed St, Peter Claver Cristo Rey High School and several dealing with Sacred Heart Catholic Church, including one focusing on the church’s inclusive spirt and another on its Heart Ministry Center.

 

 

 

 

Omaha St. Peter Catholic Church revival based on restoring the sacred

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

 

Just east above a stretch of I-480 stands St. Peter Catholic Church at 27th and Leavenworth. Its classical Greco-Roman facade is unlike anything in that sketchy near downtown Omaha district. Amid ramshackle urban surroundings the stone edifice is a solid, substantial front door for a poor, working class area made up of transients, bars, liquor stores and social service agencies as well as light industrial businesses, eateries, artist studios, apartments and homes.

When St. Peter’s pastor Rev. Damien Cook arrived in 2004 the church teetered on its last legs.

“It was a dying parish,” he says flatly.

He says before the Interstate came in the parish thrived but when homes were razed for the road-overpass construction, parishioners scattered to the far winds, leaving a psychological scar and physical barrier that isolated the parish.

From the pulpit Fr. Cook saw few pews filled in a sanctuary seating 800. The membership rolls counted only a small if dedicated cadre. With the school long closed and most old-line parishioners long gone, things looked bleak.

Seven years later, however, St Peter is enjoying a revival– “the numbers have vastly gone up” — that has its roots in demographics and faith. As the parish celebrates its 125th anniversary this spring and makes plans for an extensive interior church restoration there’s a resurgence afoot that belies the forlorn neighborhood.

“It’s a big year for us,” Cook says.

Always a mixed ethnic district, the Hispanic population was growing when Cook came, but has spiked since then. Many more began attending after St. Anne‘s closed. Now the church is predominantly Hispanic, though there’s a sizable non-Hispanic base as well.

Several Spanish Masses are offered each week. Quinceanera ceremonies occur there. A Spanish school of evangelization holds retreats in the old school building.

Where the congregation was decidedly aged before, it now over-brims with families, many with young children. Catechism classes serve more than 300 youths.

Perhaps most impressive, Cook says, is that the majority coming to St. Peter today don’t live within the parish boundaries but drive-in from all across the metro, making it a true “commuter parish.”

 

Rev. Damien Cook

Fr. Damien Cook

 

 

Why are folks flocking there?

It seems Cook has struck a chord in the effort to, he says, “restore the sacred at the church.” It trends with a national movement aimed at returning to a more traditional liturgy that expresses the awe, majesty, splendor and reverence of communal worship. He says many people tell him they were missing what St. Peter provides.

At St. Peter restoring the sacred means:

• integrating Latin into elements of every Mass, both English and Spanish

• performing traditional sacred music and chant

• using incense

• worshipers receiving communion at the altar rail

• multiple clergy and altar boys participating

Additionally, St. Peter offers daily confession and chanted vespers. Each spring it conducts a festive Corpus Christi procession that follows a 1.4 mile route. As a canopy covered vessel containing the Eucharist is carried, children strew the path with flower petals, music plays and prayers are recited aloud. It all culminates in fireworks, song, food and thanksgiving outside the church.

Cook says parishioners embrace these rites and share their enthusiasm with others, which in turn helps St. Peter grow attendance and membership.

“I just feel really blessed,” he says. “There’s always been faith here, and I inherited that from the priests who went before me. Even if the congregation was smaller the people here were really receptive to the whole evangelization process — of going out and telling their friends, ‘You should come down to St. Peter’s for Mass. Just try it once.’ And once people do they get kind of hooked.

“So the people themselves are the greatest gift to me. They really want to know more about the faith, they really do want the sacred and are excited about restoring the sacred.”

 

 

St-Peter-platform-with-Tannoy-speakers

 

 

 

 

He says his congregation’s thirst for solemnity and spiritual nourishment is part of a universal yearning.

“If you look at every culture and religion in the world there’s a desire for the transcendent, for the sacred,” he says.

Challenges remain. Cook wants St. Peter to better link its English and Spanish-speaking parishioners.

“I don’t sense any hostility between the two different cultures. We come together on various parish projects, but it’s still been very difficult. I’m still trying to learn the magic, the grace, the appropriate way to unite the two, because I don’t want there to be two different parishes. We’re one family of God. But the language difference is a reality. It’s just natural people feel more accustomed among their own.

“I sense unity here. but if we could only find the bridge for the Spanish and English-speaking segments to create that one parish.”

He also wants St. Peter to minister more to its distressed neighbors.

“We have everything from prostitutes at night on the corner to really inebriated people to aggressive panhandlers to shootings near us. We’re proud to be here as an anchor to the community. We’re privileged to serve the poor. We really do need to be out doing more evangelization because we have a whole neighborhood of people, Catholic and non-Catholic, to be invited.”

He hopes redevelopment happens for “the sake of more security, safety and opportunity” for residents. He firmly believes the area’s rich with potential, saying,

“It just needs people to realize that.”

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Two graduating seniors fired by dreams and memories, also saddened by closing of  school, St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey High


Here I revisit the story of two young people who left their comfort zone to attend a different kind of school, St. Peter ClaverCristo Rey High School in Omaha, Neb., part of the national Cristo Rey Network that affords kids from low income families the chance at a private school, college prep education and requires students work a paid internship.  In 2008 I wrote about Daniel and Treasure near the end of the school’s first year and what kind of a transition the experience was for them. They and their fellow students in that first, all freshmen class were variously considered pioneers, or as the school nickname said it, Trailblazers.  They were also kidded that they were guinea pigs or lab rats in this works-study experiment.  You can find that earlier story, entitled, “St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey High, A School Where Dreams Matriculate,” on this blog.  The new story below catches up with Daniel and Treasure three years later, as these graduating seniors prepare for life beyond high school.  They were impressive, mature kids at 14, and now at 17 and with college in their plans and major life experiences in their wake they are remarkably poised and responsible young adults.  Their senior year took an unexpected turn when it was announced earlier this year the debt-ridden school would close in June, meaning that Daniel and Treasure will be part of its first and only graduating class.  The news, which weighs heavy on the students and the faculty and staff, adds a new level of poignancy to this story.

 

 

Two graduating seniors fired by dreams and memories, also saddened by closing of  school, St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey High

©by Leo Adam Biga

As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)Four years ago Daniel Mayorga-Alvarez and Treasure Anderson took the challenge of enrolling in a brand new high school with strict disciplinary codes, high academic standards and the requirement of working a paid internship.

 

The teens signed on to the inaugural, all-freshman class at St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey High School. The Cristo Rey Network affords youths from low income families a quality Catholic education and professional work experience.

The Class of 2011 filled this start-up’s blank slate with memories and traditions,. embodying the school nickname, Trailblazers.

The gregarious Daniel and shy Treasure thrived in the rigorous work-study environment even as classmates transferred or were expelled.

Entering this year, the pair were among about 50 seniors set to graduate May 26. Then came the February 11 Archdiocese of Omaha announcement the school would close in June due to its $7 million debt. The Cristo Rey model calls for employer partners to subsidize student tuition with paid internships. SPC’s struggle to find enough Hire4ED partners gravely impacted revenues.

School and archdiocese officials say the recession exacerbated the shortfall. With no endowment as a cushion, the hole was deemed too deep from which to recover.

Thus, the senior class, now 45, will go down as not just the first but the only in Claver’s abbreviated history. Since the shocking news, delivered at a school assembly that turned emotional, a countdown’s ensued to the end of this once promising experiment.

Former school president, now chaplain, Rev. Jim Keiter, admires what Daniel, Treasure and Co. did.

“The entire class will forever be etched in my mind,” he says. “They were pioneers. It took guts to come to a new school that never existed and that sent you to work one day a week. It took guts to be the only class, with no upper class to look up to. It took guts to come to a school without all the electives at most any other school. These were courageous kids. They still are. What I’ll remember most is their courage, their trust, their perseverance, their diligence.”

 

Fr. Jim Keiter

 

He says Daniel and Treasure exemplify what Claver accomplished.

“They learned incredible things about the importance of work, education, setting goals, being honest, seeking to be a good Christian, a good human being, a good citizen. They’ve demonstrated tremendous growth — spiritually, emotionally, mentally, academically. These are two kids that have done well. They’ve persevered and have overcome challenges.”

The Reader first profiled Daniel and Treasure in May 2008, near the end of that flush-with-excitement opening year. Today, these poster students describe mixed emotions as the reality sets in they won’t have a school to come back to anymore.

Much has happened in three years. Most dramatically, Treasure is now a mother and her chronically ill father, Christopher Anderson, received the kidney transplant he’d been waiting on. Meanwhile, Daniel’s been balancing school with working 30 hours a week to help support his Mexican immigrant family.

Each is bound for college on a scholarship.

Student transition director Joe Ogba says they “know how to deal with adversity and they know how to be leaders, because they had to be leaders from day one.”

Despite the school’s impending demise, Daniel and Treasure harbor no regrets for taking a leap of faith.

School administrators and staff stung by the collapse remain convinced of Cristo Rey’s work-study approach and see success ahead for Claver students.

Daniel, who will attend the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the fall, says, “If I had gone to a public school I don’t think I would be where I’m at, and I wouldn’t have learned lessons I learned here. The teachers are so supportive. I’ve made good friends. As for my education, it didn’t slack in challenging you.”

His mother, Maria Mayorga Alvarez, says she appreciates how her youngest of three boys “has become more independent” and assertive.

For the second consecutive year Daniel’s internship has been at Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Company, where he’s found a niche.

“The internships have really kind of opened my eyes to just what I have a passion for,” he says. “When I hit Woodmen I really liked it. I liked the whole corporate setting, everything I do over there. I fell in love with business these past few years.”

He credits Claver with expanding his horizons.

“It’s shown me the sky’s the limit. You can really go anywhere you want to just as long as you try and put in the effort,” says Daniel, whose parents work blue collar jobs. “It definitely boosted my confidence and made me more determined. It gives me more inspiration for the future. I’m eager to go ahead to put myself out there and see what I can accomplish.”

Ogba recalls the irrepressible Daniel making an immediate impression when as a 14-year-old he volunteered to address a thank you luncheon for employers providing internships.

“We kind of put him on the spot…but he went up there and did it, and he did a phenomenal job,” says Ogba. “That there let me know this kid is destined for success. He’s not scared of anything, he’s definitely a go-getter.

“That’s what it’s all about — giving kids an opportunity and watching them make the most of it.”

Ogba says Daniel also benefits from a “strong, loving family” that supports his educational aspirations.

Treasure’s father is glad she went to a school that demanded so much.

“It’s a blessing for her to go to that school. I believe it helped her tremendously — the structure of the school, the academics. Numerous colleges wanted her. I’m happy to see she’s grown up the way she has,” says Christopher Anderson. “She’s very independent thinking. She’s not a follower, thats for sure. The maturity, it’s always been there, but she’s voicing it more.

“She has a lot of determination. Her potential is unlimited.”

Treasure says she feels like an old soul, particularly after giving birth to her daughter Kera in October. She and the infant’s father, Derrick Jackson, whom she met at Claver, are preparing to live on their own. He works two jobs. She describes him as” my best friend,” adding, “he’s really involved” in caring for Kera.

“We’re teenagers, we’re in love, we have a child, we’re happy,” she says.

The goal-oriented young woman credits much of her resiliency to her father and how he’s handled his health crises, including a serious setback last year.

“It was really hard — that really tested him, but he got through it,” she says. “It’s the struggles that get us through life. That’s how we build ourselves. They make us who we are. He has made me who I am today and I am thankful for him in every way possible. He’s a strong man, he’s been through a lot. I love him to death for it, I do.”

Getting pregnant her junior year, then getting sick enough to be hospitalized, then giving birth resulted in her missing much school. She fell behind but she got back on track.

“The struggles, the obstacles, being thrown a curve ball every now and then have impacted on my life, they have made me who I am,” she says. “I’m stronger. I’m not afraid to say, ‘This is hard’ or ‘I need help,’ because there’s always another day, there’s always another chance to get back up and keep going.”

Ogba’s struck by how she’s weathered it all. For example, he says, “she never brought it to school with her when her dad was sick,” adding, “She held it together real well.” He’s seen the same grit in her since she became a mother. He says her “strong, caring family” at home and second family at school pulled her through.

“Teachers made sure she was able to get work made up, they kept encouraging her not to give up, it’s not the end of the world. That persistence from the home and the school sides,” Ogba says, “is the reason why she kept on pace to graduate, kept applying to colleges, and will be starting at Bellevue University in the fall.”

She attributes her endurance to “being an Anderson.” The prospect of her not finishing school, Christopher Anderson says, “never was a concern to me — I knew she had the support. School was her first and main and only (priority). My mom watched Kera and now Derrick’s mom watches her. She had every option available to her. She had a sister that offered to adopt if she couldn’t handle the baby.”

The baby never became an excuse for sloughing off or feeling sorry for herself.

“She was never ever shamed about being pregnant,” Anderson says.

Says Treasure, “There was no doubt in my mind I would complete high school because I knew I had the capability to.” Likewise, she never considered giving up her baby or her dreams, saying, “I do have strong expectations of myself.” She feels ready for raising a child as a young single mom and new college student.

“I have no doubt it will be hard. That struggle doesn’t scare me. I think it will work out.”

She plans getting a full-time summer job, confident her impressive work history, which includes stints at Immanuel Hospital, Creighton University, the Open Door Mission and the Henry Doorly Zoo, will get her hired.

“With my resume I feel I do deserve a good job and I will excel.”

Daniel says his internships helped him land his call center job at Oriental Trading.

Treasure says she gained valuable office and people skills at her internships, although some positions were eliminated when the economy tanked. The same thing happened to dozens of Claver students. “A lot of us were let go,” she says. She and classmates ended up working at the school with little to do, in effect biding time in study hall.

Daniel was among the lucky few with internships not impacted by the downturn. His supervisor at Woodmen, advertising manager Tonya Kalb, says she feels fortunate to have had Daniel work there two years.

“He’s been an asset to the team,” Kalb says. “He’s so open to ideas and learning things. He catches on so quickly. I’ve been able to teach him more and more about the company and advertising as time goes on, and everybody enjoys working with him. He’s just so approachable and so energized. He’s kind of a breath of fresh air.”

She sees a bright future ahead for him.

“With his personality I can see him getting into sales, he’s just so good with people.

He’s really easy to talk to and he’s so positive.”

Ogba sees Treasure’s nurturing personality meshing well with her interest in human services work.

Just as Treasure’s academics suffered during her pregnancy, Daniel lost focus working long hours outside school before, Ogba says, “he toed the line and got back on track, which shows his maturity and his ability to see the big picture.”

Kalb hired Daniel last summer. She’s already lined him up for this summer and hopes to employ him again when he starts college . She says Woodmen was a major employer of Claver student interns and looked forward to hiring more.

“We’ve been involved from the beginning,” she says. “It’s too bad about the closing because we see nothing but positive outcomes from the whole model.”

In the end, there weren’t enough employers who embraced the program like Woodmen. Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the Omaha archdiocese, says, “The job program was the weak link at the school.” Fr. Keiter says fundraising lagged as well. The failure of Claver and the struggles of other start-up Cristo Rey schools explain why the network now requires new schools have $2 million secured before opening, says McNeil.

While Daniel and Treasure get to finish what they started at Claver, the school’s underclassmen must find new schools.

“That’s probably the saddest part,” says Daniel. “I really do feel for them.”

Treasure says she regrets her younger siblings “won’t be able to come here and have the opportunities I had.” She says it will be weird not having a school to visit.

“I can’t bring my daughter here down the road and introduce her to teachers and tell her, ‘These are the hallways I walked,’ because it won’t be here. The building itself might be, but the love in it, the passion, the people will be gone, and it’s really kind of sad.”

With the seniors’ last day the 20th, there’s no time for tears. Plenty were shed when the school’s closure broke. Everyone expects the graduation at the Kroc Center on the 26th to be a big cry-fest. Claver staffer Joe Ogba says, “I’m bringing my own box of tissues.”

Even without an alumni office, Daniel and Treasure anticipate their class will stay connected through social media because of how tight their small numbers grew over four years. Annual retreats helped build bonds.

For now though Treasure says she’s focused on “my family, my friends, my career, my love, my passion, my desire.” She intends studying behavioral sciences toward a hoped-for career in social work. Daniel just wants to be successful for his family.

Christopher Anderson’s gotten to know the Class of 2011 at open houses and other events and he says “they are just as mature and goal oriented and futuristic and determined” as his daughter. “I believe they’re going to succeed.” He says the school’s closing is just one more thing that’s made them stronger.

Fr. Keiter agrees, saying, “They’re going to do very well. They’ll have their ups and downs, but I think they have the skills and the gifts and the talents to be resilient.”

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

January 9, 2011 2 comments

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.

Ex-Prizefighter and Con Turned-Preacher Man Morris Jackson Spreads the Good News


Barbed tape at a prison

Image via Wikipedia

I knew the name Morris Jackson growing up because my older brother Dan was a boxing fan and I think he saw one of the grudge bouts between Jackson, the slick boxer, and Ron Stander, the Great White Hope slugger.  Jackson was undeniably the superior boxer but it was Stander not Jackson who got a title shot against Joe Frazier.  As the years went by I lost track of Jackson, only to read one day in the local daily about how he had gotten in trouble with the law and done time behind bars. There, he had a born again experience of such magnitude that after serving his time he went on to become a minister. His chosen ministry is poetic justice, too,  as he pastors to incarcerated men.  I finally got to meet and profile Jackson a few years ago. The story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Jackson and his transformation follows. My stories about Morris’ then-nemesis, Ron Stander, can also be found in this blog site, along with other stories about Omaha boxers, boxing coaches and gyms.  Like most writers, I am always down for a good boxing story. There are several yet in me that I wish to tell and I am sure that others will reveal themselves when I least expect it.

 

 

 

 

Ex-Prizefighter and Con Turned-Preacher Man Morris Jackson Spreads the Good News

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

In his best three-piece, GQ-style suit, Morris Jackson looks like just another slick do-gooder to prisoners seeing him for the first time at the Douglas County Correctional Facility, where he’s chaplain with Good News Jail and Prison Ministry. But the large man soon separates himself from the pack when he tells them he used to be a prizefighter. Rattling off the famous names he met inside the ring — Ron Stander, Ernie Shavers, Ron Lyle, Larry Holmes — usually gets their attention. If not, what he says next, does. “My number is 30398.” That’s right, this preacher man did time. The former convict now stands on the other side of the cell as a born-again Christian and International Assemblies of God-ordained minister.

His 1975 armed robbery conviction sent him to the Nebraska Men’s Reformatory for a term of three to nine years. He served 22 months, plus seven more on work release. But being locked away wasn’t enough to reform Morris. His rebirth only happened years later, after squandering his freedom in a fast life leading to perdition. Referring to that transformation, one of several makeovers in his life, is enough to make even hardcore recidivists listen to his message of redemption.

“Then they hang on every word you’ve got to say, because they see a change. They really can’t believe you were there once yourself. Having Christ in your life really makes a big difference. Actually, it’s almost a visible presence — in your eyes, in your demeanor, in your voice, in your conversation — that people can notice,” said Jackson, whose prison ministry work dates back to 1992.

He first returned to the correctional system doing mission work for northwest Omaha’s Glad Tidings Church, where he still worships today. Reliving his incarceration experience behind the secured walls made him anxious.

“The first time I went, it was with fear and trembling because the last place I wanted to be in was anybody’s jail, hearing the doors close behind me,” he said.

To his relief, though, he sensed he had found a calling as an evangelist to cons.

“It was just as if I was right where I was supposed to be. The words were there. The life. The testimony. The word of God. My studies. The first time I did a service in the county jail there were 66 men present and 44 of those professed faith in Jesus Christ when given the opportunity. I said, ‘Man, I like this. I could do this all the time.’ Like I tell people, ‘Be careful what you say, because God is listening.’ I’m exactly where God wants me to be and I’m doing exactly what he wants me to do.”

Jackson’s had many occasions to reinvent himself, stemming back to his Texas childhood. As a youth, he lived with his family in an upper middle class part of Dallas. Then, he found out the man he thought was his father was actually his step-father. His real father was killed when Jackson was a year-old. Soon after this revelation, his mother and step-father split up and his world unraveled again. His mother got custody of him and his sister, but she could only afford a place in the projects. Already distraught over the divorce and the discovery he’d been lied to, he expressed his rage on the streets, where fighting was a rite of passage and survival mechanism in an area ruled by gangs.

“In Dallas, in the projects, you either had to be a good fighter or a fast runner, and I never could run too fast. I went from being a person who would see a fight coming and move away from it, to initiating fights. If you’d so much as look at me wrong, I’d haul off and hit you. I was getting into three-four fights a week. It was crazy. I guess I was an angry young man. Yet, I considered myself a meek person. I describe a meek person as a steel fist in a velvet glove. I would do everything I could to get out of a fight, but when I got cornered and I had to fight, I never lost one. Sometimes, I lost my temper and did something stupid.”

During this time, he lived a kind of double life. He was a star high school football and basketball player and a regular churchgoer, but also a notorious gangsta. His mother had grown up in the church before drifting away. When she found religion again, she made Morris and his sister attend services. He chafed at the fire-and-brimstone admonitions hollered down from the pulpit.

“The church I was raised in, you never heard a lot about grace. It was a lot of dos and donts and laws. You don’t smoke…don’t chew…don’t drink…don’t mess with girls. Of course, when I came of age where I could make my own decisions, there was no way I could live that kind of life when everybody else was having fun and I wasn’t doing anything.”

When his rebellion got to be too much, his mother kicked him out of the house. He went to live with his sister, stealing food to help support themselves.

His mother relocated to Omaha, where she had family, and she sent for her unrepentant son, hoping he’d find himself here. For a time, he did. He even prayed to lose his hair’s-edge temper, and it did leave him. When a neighbor training for the Golden Gloves prodded the strapping Jackson to join him at the old Swedish Auditorium, the newcomer did and soon found a home in the sport. Recognizing his talent, veteran handlers Harley Cooper, Leonard Hawkins, Ronnie Sutton, Don Slaughter and Yano DiGiacomo variously worked with him at the Foxhole Gym.

In his first amateur bout, he laid out cold his hulking opponent in a Lincoln smoker. His very next fight pitted him against the man who proved to be his main nemesis — Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander. From the late 1960s through the early 1970s, they met six times — four as amateurs and twice as pros — in highly competitive, well-attended bouts. “People came out to see us fight,” said Jackson. Their matches drew crowds of 6,000-7,000. Each took the measure of the other, although Stander, Omaha’s then-Great White Hope, usually came out on top. Stander took four of the contests, including one by KO, Morris won a decision and a sixth encounter ended in a controversial draw most felt should have been a Morris win.

“Every time I turned around, there was Morris. He was my biggest, toughest opponent,” Stander said.” “Yeah, we went at it quite a bit. We just happened to come along at the same time,” Jackson said.

The intense rivalry was tailor-made for fans as the fighters embodied the classic adage that styles make fights. Jackson was the boxer, Stander the puncher. Jackson relied on his feet. Stander, on his brawn. One was black, the other white. In the era of militant Muhammad Ali, Jackson was the closest thing Omaha had to a righteous Brother bringing down The Man. Stander, meanwhile, was a real-life Rocky who got his shot at the title in a 1972 bout with champ Joe Frazier.

 

 

Morris Jackson in his fighting days

 

 

“I don’t know if I patterned myself after Ali, but I was somewhat like him because I would stick, move, think, box. I was light on my feet. But I wasn’t the type of person who talked a lot. I didn’t have any gimmicks or shuffles. I just got in and took care of business,” Jackson said.

The two long retired fighters reside in Omaha, but rarely mix. While their rivalry was too close for them to ever be friends outside the ring during their fighting days, they’ve always maintained the mutual respect warriors have for each other.

Stander is well aware of the transformation Jackson has undergone and admires his old foe for it. “He turned himself around. Yeah, he went from bad to good in a big way. God blessed him. God grabbed Morris by the neck and said, ‘Come over to me.’ Yeah, he’s a beautiful man now, I’ll tell ya.”

 

Ron Stander, known as the Butcher, went face to fist with Joe Frazier in Omaha in 1972. CreditUnited Press International

 

 

 

By most measures, Stander’s career surpassed Jackson’s, whose early promise ended in missed chances, bad matches, poor management, and too small takes. The familiar litany of a club fighter who never got his shot the way Stander did. Former Omaha matchmaker Tom Lovgren feels Jackson could have gone farther. Still, the fighter was once in line to join promoter Don King’s stable. He was a main eventer in Omaha’s last Golden Era of boxing. A two-time Midwest Golden Gloves champion, he compiled a 28-5-1 career pro record, including a KO of then-British Commonwealth champion Dan McALinden, a win Lovgren rates as the top by any Omaha boxer in the ‘70s. Jackson was also a sparring partner for ring legends Ron Lyle, Ernie Shavers, Joe Bugner and future champ Larry Holmes.

But then the good times ended. His run-in with the law came during a dry spell when the journeyman “couldn’t get any fights.” As he tells it, “I started running with some old friends who’d been in the joint and I was influenced by them to make some quick money in the hold up a Shaver’s food mart.” Once nabbed, he was almost grateful, he said, “because eventually somebody was going to get hurt.”

His crime spree was brief but telling and foreshadowed a later descent that threatened to land him back in jail or kill him.

While serving his stretch, Jackson studied Islam and became a Black Muslim. His dalliance with spirituality was short-lived, however. After getting out, he tried resurrecting his career but after three fights called it quits. Like many an ex-pug, he had few prospects beyond the ring and, so, he grabbed the first thing offered — bouncing at strip clubs.

“I got caught up in this lifestyle. I got to smoking marijuana and doing all the things that go with that lifestyle. My wife was working days and I was bouncing nights. We hardly ever saw each other. I was just kind of in limbo and that led to the brawls and the drinking and the drugs,” he said.

 

Morris Jackson today

 

He never imagined being saved. “No. If someone would have told me, I would have said, ‘Yeah, right, you’re crazy man. Give me some of what you’re smoking.’”  It was his mother who finally pulled him from the brink and back into the fold of the church. In March 1983 she staged a one-woman intervention with her wayward son. “My mother came over to my house to talk to me about what my life was like and how Christ was calling me. She shared the gospel with me in such a way as I’d never heard it before. She spoke of God’s grace. How He loves you. How He has a purpose and a plan for your life. And how it’s up to you to accept and follow the path God has for you.” What came next can only be called salvation.

“I had this sense and I heard this voice that said. ‘The line is drawn in the sand and if you don’t make the decision now, you’ll never get another chance.’ I know just as sure as I’m sitting here today that if I wouldn’t have accepted Jesus Christ in my life, I’d be gone. I’d be dead. My mother prayed. We prayed. And the next day I went to church with her.”

Church bible classes led to college religious studies and, ultimately, his ordination. His first ministry was on the streets of north Omaha. Then came the prison gig. In the mid-’90s, then-Nebraska Governor Ben Nelson granted him a full pardon.

Now, he can’t imagine going back to that old life, although he keeps memories of it nearby as a reminder of where he came from. “There’s a peace in my life. Serenity. Stability. Certainty. It makes a difference when you come from darkness to light,” he said. “I know what my life used to be like. The turmoil, the uncertainty. Spinning my wheels. Living for the weekends. No purpose.”

Living his faith, which he loudly proclaims from the inscription above his home’s front door to the message on his answering machine, is his way of telling the good news. As he tells prisoners: “You’ve got to believe in something.” He’s seen enough cons turn their lives around to know his story is not an aberration.

The proud old fighter sees his ministry as his new battleground, only instead of knocking heads, he’s about saving souls and staying straight. “Most of my teaching is biblical principles applied to our lives. I’m still a warrior. Only now when I put on my armor and go to war every day, I don’t feel turmoil. My wars are fought in my prayer closet. I pray before I do anything,” he said.

But once a fighter, always a fighter. He repeated something Ron Stander said: “If they told us to lace ‘em up again, we’d go at it.” The Preacher versus the Butcher. Now wouldn’t that be a card?

 

Gimme Shelter: Sacred Heart Catholic Church Offers a Haven for Searchers

May 31, 2010 5 comments

Sacred Heart Catholic Church

Image by bluekdesign via Flickr

I had long been aware of the rousing 10:30 a.m. Sunday service at a certain North Omaha Catholic church, where gospel music is a main attraction owing to a congregation that includes a significant African American presence and a neighborhood that is predominantly black.  The sign of peace greeting there is also famous for how it brings people out of their pews for open displays of welcome and affection — a marked departure from the usual repressed Catholic ritual. The dichotomy of Sacred Heart Catholic Church is that most of its members and visitors are white, almost all of whom live far from the church’s inner city locale, which has some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the nation.  When I finally got around to attending the dynamic service there, I was not disappointed.  The gospel choir and band make a powerful sound and parishioners go out of their way to welcome newcomers.  The story I wrote about this place and its people originally appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com).

Gimme Shelter: Sacred Heart Catholic Church Offers a Haven for Searchers

©by Leo Adam Biga

A shorter version of this story appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)

Something’s happening in Omaha’s African American inner city. Most any day on the Sacred Heart Catholic Church campus at 22nd and Binney a diverse mix of folks gets together for Mass, community service projects, school activities, Rite of Christian Initiation classes, Bible study sessions, et cetera.

Black or white, straight or gay, most Sacred Heart members live far outside this old working class area beset by poverty, unemployment and crime. They gather from all over — the suburbs, mid-town, out-of-town. Some are disaffected Catholics. Others are of different faiths. All come in search of something. The unconditional  embrace and dynamic liturgy they find lead many to make it their spiritual home.

The blended crowds qualify it as Omaha’s most integrated Catholic church. Sacred Heart’s 800 members include about 150 blacks, the majority of whom attend Saturday night service. Sunday mornings at 10:30 the 117-year-old Gothic Revival church fills for a justly famous, popular, rollicking rite that’s livelier and longer than the typical stodgy, albeit sublime, Mass. Mostly whites attend. Some blacks, too.

The SRO Sunday celebration features some nontraditional, by Catholic standards, elements, headlined by the gospel music-inspired Freedom Choir and band. We’re talking raise-the-rafters vocals and instrumentals by stand-up-and-shout, get-justified-with-the-Lord performers who hold their own with any Baptist ensemble. They’ve got it all, minus the robes — big voices, pleasing harmonies, scorching solos, hot bass lines, slamming percussive riffs and rousing piano jags.

The mostly white choir defies expectations. They know how to get down though.

“I grew up as a Baptist. I’ve been around some very spiritual choirs and I would say this one would pretty much give them a run for their money,” said Shedrick Triplett.

Frank Allen describes it as “the most stepped-up Catholic service you’ll see. It’s not this solemn, stagnant, boring service.” Fellow parishioner Johnnie Shaw said, “This is a one of a kind place, not just for Omaha. There’s nothing like Sacred Heart. It’s truly off the beaten path. Its not the traditional Simon-Says Catholic church. It’s a whole lot more than that.” “I think it’s a breath of fresh air. They do things a little differently there,” Triplett said.

Jim Chambers knew he’d found something different the first time he stepped foot in Sacred Heart and heard those sounds. “It wasn’t all that Ave Maria-type stuff. The music was more upbeat.”

Gospel’s a Protestant, not a Catholic thing. The only Catholic churches with a gospel tradition are those with significant black membership. As Omaha’s historic home to black Catholics, St. Benedict has gospel music-rich liturgies.

Music makes Sacred Heart a destination. The congregation’s hospitality, including official greeters, keeps folks coming back. The pews fill a half hour before the service, so get there early. Unlike the silence before most Masses, there’s a din at Sacred Heart. Performers jam as worshipers file in. The crowd interacts. It all feeds what Allen calls “a concert-style atmosphere.”

It becomes one live-wire church, buzzing with a crazy energy from all the praying, clapping, dancing, singing and music making. Call it the Holy Spirit.

“You feel that electricity in the air. You feel that this isn’t just a ho-hum service,” Allen said. “It’s less formal or stuffy, it’s more fun, it’s more lively. You feel you can be a more active participant and not just an observer,” said Anne Chambers.

The hymns offer a call to surrender and action — to walk humbly with God and to serve the least among us. The Our Father’s sung in a hand-holding, communal style that ends with interlinked arms raised overhead. The sign of peace is an over-the-top love-fest with folks spilling out of the pews to exchange handshakes, hugs, kisses, well-wishes. It lasts 10 minutes.

Pastor Tom Fangman admits “it’s not for everybody. Some think it’s too much, too loud, too expressive.” Omaha’s archbishop is reportedly displeased with some of what goes on there, but Fangman insists it’s all orthodox. So does Liz Hruska, who said “it isn’t a fringe Catholic church. It’s just our worship style is a little more emotional and expressive…” She comes all the way from Lincoln to do it. One member drives in from South Dakota.

They’ve been flocking there to worship this way since the 1980s. Then pastor Jim Scholz 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, but not like it does today.

“It was a very conservative, quiet little neighborhood parish,” Scholz said. “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.”

Scholz got the idea for spirited, gospel music-based “uplifting liturgies” from an inner city parishes conference in Detroit. He was 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,” he said.

He 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,” Scholz said. “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.”

Sacred Heart’s black members appreciated the gospel emphasis. “As African Americans what sets us apart as Catholics is we were always exposed to gospel music. At home Mahalia Jackson was required listening on Sundays,” Lynette McCowen said. She added that while gospel “was already a great part of Sacred Heart, it just came to a different level (under Burleigh).”

When Burleigh was hired away by a mega-Baptist church in Houston Scholz tapped his assistant, William Tate, to take over. Tate still leads the gospel choir on Saturdays. 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 wasn’t interested in “people doing somersaults down the front aisle,” he said. 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.

Post-Vatican II liturgies tended to be, well, dull. “When I started there Catholic churches were playing it really safe. Non-denominational churches were full of people who left as a result. A lot of the heart had gone out of the liturgy,” Mueller said. “It was more cerebral than emotional…more head than heart. Father Jim and I were in full agreement that we wanted a joyful celebration.”

By its very nature, she said, gospel taps deep stirrings. “The goal is never to sing it the same way twice because you are never the same person…When you bring your heart and soul to a song it’s fresh and new every time.”

“I think that music cuts right to the heart of things. It’s immediate, it’s arresting, it’s accessible, it’s gut wrenching. I’m trying to move the choir more into being both quiet and big and brassy and loud, but still in a very soulful way,” said Jim Boggess, who succeeded Mueller in ‘99.

The metamorphosis that begat the 10:30 phenomenon happened gradually. A conga drum, a saxophone, a tambourine were incorporated. “No Catholic churches in this area were using percussion then,” Mueller said. “We had to take some risks.”

Among the risks was Scholz extending an open invitation for anyone to worship there. The service evolved into what one member calls “a free-for-all,” or as Scholz likes to say, “a razz-ma-tazz sort of thing.” This vivaciousness includes the marathon, effusive peace greeting — what Shaw calls “a great social celebration.” The fellowship continues after Mass. Substance is behind the razz-ma-tazz.

“I think what grabbed me when I first started going there is that everybody that walks in the door is made to feel important and welcome,” Judy Haney said, “no matter where they’re from, what stage of life they’re at, what they look like, what kind of lifestyle they lead. Gays and straights, poor and rich, black and white, it doesn’t make any difference, you’re just welcome.”

“The church is very open to whatever problems you may be going through or    whatever your situation may be,” Jim Chambers said. “Some people there have had their struggles in the church. Some come in with broken spirits. It doesn’t matter,” said Shaw. Haney was among those to find healing. “I was going through a real rough period in my life,” she said, “so I came here, and that was it. It’s just like a second family.” “You’ll never meet a congregation that’s more loving toward each other,” Boggess said.

Irene Kilstrom was drifting from her faith when she found Sacred Heart.

“A friend of mine said, ‘Before you decide not to go to church anymore come to Sacred Heart.’ I did and have never looked back. I really do feel it is a community. Wherever this church was I would go to it. I was in San Diego for a year and looked everywhere in that big city for anything even close to this, and didn’t find it.”

Mary Lynn Focht said she came after “some unfortunate experiences” at “very conservative, narrow-minded” churches, “and what I found here was open-mindedness and tolerance for all.”

Boggess, who’s gay, said at one time he didn’t have a home in the Catholic Church. “I felt unwanted. I’m gay, I’m a big mouth, I’m a lot of things they don’t seem to particularly care for, and I don’t feel that way anymore.” Sacred Heart, he said, “is so unlike anything I had experienced — the joy, the acceptance, the wonderful mix of people…” It all starts at the top. “The message that Father Fangman puts in his sermons — is all about acceptance, it’s all about inclusion,” Boggess said.

Biracial couple Ann and Frank Allen didn’t feel welcome at other churches. “We definitely got the cold shoulder at a couple places — one was flat out rude,” Ann said. “Sacred Heart is not like that. People are hugging you there the first day you’re there. Just a very loving, warm environment.” Frank likes how at Sacred Heart their kids “are judged by their character and not for the color of their skin.”

The Allens come all the way from Papillion. “The drive’s worth it,” Anne said.

Convert Jennifer Di Ruocco feels “welcomed,” not “shunned” as she did elsewhere. Profoundly deaf worshiper Sheldon Bernard appreciates the interpretive signing Julie Delkamiller does for the deaf and hard of hearing.

“People find what they’re looking for here — a Catholic church that nurtures them, makes them feel like they belong and they can feel a connection to,” Fangman said.

In a segregated district saddled by negative perceptions that keep many outsiders, read: whites, away, these pilgrims venture there anyway. So what’s it all about? Are they urban adventurers out ‘slumming’? Liberals assuaging a sense of guilt or satisfying a call to service? Perhaps their presence is an act of faith or a call for action in a community many write-off as hopeless.

“I guess in my case it’s an act of defiance to show people who think like that they’re wrong,” Haney said. “North Omaha gets a bad rap. If you’re prone to believe everything you see in the news, you’d think north Omaha is full of thugs and criminals. We owe it to this community” to overturn those ideas. “This area’s got its problems, but I know so many people in this neighborhood that are just outstanding, wonderful citizens. They want the best for their kids. The school provides kids a great education. Ninety-nine percent of the students are not Catholic,” said Haney, former Sacred Heart school board president.

Toni Holiday said those from outside the neighborhood who support Sacred Heart “have that sensitivity that these are my brothers and sisters.” Anne Chambers said, “I think it means they have a vested interest in that community. I think it says a lot that a church in north Omaha can bring white people in. I like that participation.”

“Many parishioners would never have stepped foot in north Omaha if not for Sacred Heart,” said Pastoral Associate Joyce Glenn. “There’s fear at first but all the scary stories we hear about north Omaha are dissipated when you’re part of the community.” “It really helps people understand to not be afraid to drive down 24th Street,” Michelle Jackson-Triplett said. “The whole north Omaha thing — we need to break through that,” Mueller noted.

Deb Burkholder admits she and husband Kent “worried” when they first went there. “Our perception has changed hugely,” she said. “I’m not going to say it doesn’t have its issues — it does. But there are issues downtown.” The couple believe so strongly in North O, the people and the parish that these empty-nesters moved from an Old Market condo to a house across the street from the church.

“We finally came to the realization that things aren’t going to change in our city unless we become part of the change,” she said.

Appreciating differences within a multicultural setting can breech barriers. Music and other ministries at Sacred Heart attempt to do just that.

“My big thing is diversity,” Haney said. “I want to be around people that aren’t like me. I want to learn from them. They have so many things to give. I’ve been to a lot of Catholic churches in Omaha and they don’t reflect the world. Sacred Heart looks like the world should. It’s made my life a lot richer.”

Glenn said interracial friendships result from the integrated church’s fellowship. “The more we can become friends,” she said, “the more color blind we are.”

Sacred Heart has an impact on the neighborhood. The school, which serves 130 students, offers employability and life skills classes to help kids out of poverty. Fangman said 98 percent of its grads go onto complete high school. Many earn college scholarships. He said the Heart Ministry Center provides food, clothing, utility assistance and nutrition-health ed classes to thousands each month.

“We’re an anchor,” he said. “I know we’re making a difference.”

The work Sacred Heart does draws much support — both in dollars and volunteers.
Then there are the throngs that gather for services and special events.

“To get that many people together every Sunday has got to be a stabilizing influence,” Jim Chambers said. “I think it’s healthy.”

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